The Bijou Café, a downtown Sarasota landmark for 35 years, has been sold to the Realm Restaurant Group, to be finalized April 30. Chef Jean-Pierre “J.P.” Knaggs, who founded the Bijou with his wife, Shay, in 1986, initiated the sale and personally approved the new owners. The Knaggs plan to retire once the transfer of ownership is completed.
The Realm Group, represented by Sharon Carole, owns and operates nearby Sage Restaurant on First Street. Carole plans to continue normal operations at the Bijou, with some future renovations to maintain the location’s iconic class and appeal.
“I was so happy to sell to Sharon because I know she will continue it,” said Knaggs. “It’s like having a wonderful antique car and someone buys it who loves it. You know it will be well taken care of.”
Located at the corner of First Street and Pineapple Avenue, across from the Sarasota Opera House, the Bijou Café building was built in the 1920s as a gas station. The 4,900-square-foot space and adjoining courtyard seats 134 diners.
“It means so much to me to be able to preserve another beautiful historic location, and to continue Chef Knaggs’ tremendous culinary legacy,” said Carole, who co-founded Sage Restaurant and led the restoration of its historic Sarasota Times building. “The Bijou is a cherished part of this community, and we intend to keep it as such.”
Knaggs and former partner Freddy Matson created the Bijou Café in a then-neglected part of downtown in June 1986, when Sarasota’s summer season was exceptionally slow. Knaggs became active in downtown Sarasota business development and established a close relationship with the neighboring Sarasota Opera.
Knaggs courted opera audiences, sometimes creating special menus inspired by the current opera being performed. Opera crowds helped put the Bijou “on the map,” said Knaggs.
Knaggs, whose early career included time as a cook for the Manasota Beach Club, the Hyatt, Café L’Europe and Euphemia Haye, developed a culinary repertoire that was heavily influenced by his French and South African roots. Longtime Bijou favorites include his Moroccan salad, shrimp and crab bisque, rack of lamb, roasted duck, crab cakes and shrimp piri-piri. The recipe for Knaggs’ famed Pommes Gratin Dauphinois, a classic French potato dish, has remained unchanged for 35 years.
“We have sold a lot of potatoes,” Knaggs laughed.
Carole plans to retain the Bijou’s current staff, including Knaggs’ son Jeffrey. Some of the Bijou’s employees have been with the restaurant for more than 20 years.
“This appreciation of our staff is what I value even more than the building itself,” said Knaggs. “The Bijou is only as good as its staff.”
Carole also hopes to expand the Bijou’s courtyard dining area and to oversee some aesthetic rejuvenation of the interior space. Sage chef Chris Covelli will oversee kitchen operations.
“It’s both an honor and a huge responsibility to inherit Chef Knaggs’ menu,” said Covelli. “He’s meant so much to Sarasota for so long. His inspiration will continue to be a part of Bijou as we begin this new chapter.”
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