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Business Spotlight: Feeding the Change

After 10 years, Aviary Cafe looks back on moving, remodeling, menu and ownership changes — and surviving a pandemic

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 Aviary Cafe and Creperie LLC just turned 10 years old, and co-owner Catherine Bersted says it’s still the eatery Springfieldians know, but with menu and design updates. 

“I want people to know that it’s the same classic Aviary that everyone has loved for a decade. She just kind of grew up a little bit and then expanded,” says Bersted.

The Aviary has undergone changes in ownership since its opening. Mark and Debbie Burgess first opened the cafe downtown, in 2011, added a south-side location at Farmers Park in 2014, and sold Aviary to Westward Alliance LLC in 2015. Westward is a private equity venture started in October of 2014 by Ryan O’Reilly and Reed Hopper.

In May 2020, after the hit of the COVID-19 pandemic, the restaurant rebranded as Aviary by Lavender Falls in a joint partnership with Westward and Lavender Holdings LLC. Lavender Falls Farm LLC, is a lavender farm in Clever, owned by Bersted and her husband, Thor. Catherine Bersted runs Aviary’s day-to-day operations. Calls to Westward’s office for  comment were not answered by press time.

A new dynamic 
In early 2020, prior to the partnership with Lavender Falls, Westward closed Aviary’s original location downtown at 400 E. Walnut St. The plan was to move into the previous site of BYOPizza, another Westward venture that also had closed, according to past Springfield Business Journal reporting. Bersted says both the Aviary downtown and  BYOPizza leases were up around the same time, and amid a pandemic, it seemed like an ideal time to just focus on the south side eatery in Farmers Park.

“We lost about 60% of our inside seating,” she says, citing the occupancy restrictions placed on restaurants during the pandemic. “We increased our patio seating to make up for the lost space inside.” 

However, between the open kitchen placed in the middle of the restaurant that makes everything from scratch, and the seating in the 3,400- square-foot space, Bersted says management realized they didn’t want to go back to the original seating.

“We don’t want to bring back the full capacity that we could fit inside,” she says. “We were kind of smashed in like sardines. Now, having that space, we can increase the quality of service.”

When Bersted came on, she wanted to focus on what they could do with what they had. She renegotiated linen and food supplier contracts and consolidated the financials, she says. 

“As opposed to pulling in debt during this time, it’s what we can do to maintain,” she says. “My goal was to pull the company into a really great profit margin again.”

Bersted says Aviary has seen a financial comeback since people are returning to restaurants post-pandemic. Aviary’s gross sales are up 114% year-over-year, she says, declining to disclose revenue or profit margins.

Bersted says the consolidation to save money included going from having multiple food suppliers to just one, Performance Food Group Inc. It also involved a switch to basic black linens.

Aviary purchases its linens through Aramark Uniform Services. Tiffany Holbrook, account executive with Aramark, says Aviary has been a client since the cafe opened. She says Aviary uses about 2,000 linens weekly, as well as 400 terry bar cleaning towels.

“They order everything from their towels, napkins, aprons and chef coats from us,” Holbrook says.

With budget savings, and aided by a Paycheck Protection Program loan for an undisclosed amount granted to Westward, Bersted says Aviary staff members received raises last year.

“The staff had been so loyal to me, and I wanted to be so loyal back,” she says.

Another cost concern for restaurants throughout the COVID-19 pandemic has been price increases for meat and protein products, Bersted says. However, she says Aviary has been putting off menu price changes.

Time for change
The Aviary recently closed down for about 10 days for a remodel, Bersted says. 

“All we did was paint and new lights, and it just blew everyone away,” she says. “We figured the people who loved Aviary a decade ago have all matured and done other things – and we’re having Aviary mature with it and kind of the market, demographic and change of times.”

The owners have added menu items to complement Aviary’s signature French-style crepes. Besides breakfast, brunch and lunch, the Aviary also offers a full dinner menu, with such items as Chilean sea bass, ribeye and a house burger. With the connection to Lavender Falls,  herb flavor is infused in hummus, honey and other items.

During the rebranding, Aviary also added a full bar and, for the summer, a happy hour menu 3-6 p.m. Bersted says catering and to-go orders have added new life to the brand.

But when it comes to dining in, Bersted says ownership wants guests to think about the experience – including live music planned later this summer.

“I want people to come in, give us a chance and see how we’ve expanded,” she says. “I love that we are in this niche market. I want us to still be this ‘outside of the box,’ little unique, eclectic place.”

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