Bell the Cat reopens with new owner, new look

Menu stays much the same
By Ethan Andrews | Jan 06, 2016
Photo by: Ethan Andrews Bell the Cat new owner Jojo Oliphant, front left, with a crew of friends and family during renovations of the restaurant Jan. 4. From left, Everett Oliphant Sr., Tammie Carlisle, Nneka Oliphant, Allen Weaver Jr., Kimberley Riposta, Katie Riposta, Jojo Oliphant, Jed Salvatore and Nick Salvatore Sr.

Belfast — Jojo Oliphant bought Bell the Cat from longtime owner Debra O'Leary last month. Not long after, he got an unexpected phone call at the restaurant from his 7-year-old daughter. She was at school at the time, which made the call unusual. Oliphant, having just taken the plunge on a new business, was understandably distracted. When he got his bearings he realized that she was ordering a grilled cheese sandwich.

That was early in December. On New Year's Day, Oliphant and a crew of family and friends started a major renovation of the 4,000-square-foot space at the corner of Starrett Drive and Main Street with plans to reopen Jan. 5.

The night before, the pool table, bar and hodge-podge of oversized furniture were gone, replaced with custom-built booths and tavern stools at a counter that runs along the front windows. The new decor includes some booths and a high-backed bench running the width of the restaurant with small tables on either side.

In a bid for efficiency, the old cash register is gone. In its place are two touch screen registers at either end of the long counter that will help track inventory and allow separate lines for lunch orders and quick take-out items.

For all the outward changes, the menu will be almost the same but with fewer options, according to Katie Riposta, Oliphant's wife and part of the crew working late Jan. 4.

"There were 40 menu items, plus a make-your-own sandwich option; basically, any sandwich in the world," she said. The new menu will be shorter, but fans of the Thanksgiving panini or some other former menu item shouldn't hesitate to ask for it, she said.

Riposta, who works at her family's funeral business, recalled going to Bell the Cat at its original location on Church Street when she was 12 for sodas with Torani syrup. At the time there was nothing like it downtown, she said, which made it the cool place to go.

Two decades and two locations later — the restaurant shared space in Renys Plaza with Mr. Paperback and moved to its current location after the book chain went out of business in 2012 — Bell the Cat retains a loyal following.

"I hope that people are excited about the change and not …" Riposta said, finishing her sentence with an exaggerated frown.

Speaking later, Oliphant said he had wanted to open a restaurant since he was in high school. While at the University of Maine, he considered majoring in restaurants and hospitality but settled on a catch-all business degree.

"I figured business management was pretty much everything," he said.

He ran Riposta's crematory in Searsport, and for the past five years worked a side business selling popcorn at festivals and some retail stores under the banner of Jojo's Corn. Late last year, he was looking into opening a restaurant of his own when he got a call from O'Leary, whom he knew, asking if he wanted to buy her business.

An official grand reopening is in the works, he said, sometime in the next month.

Comments (4)
Posted by: Patricia Keyes | Jan 10, 2016 08:04

The new décor has dropped the noise level 1000%.  You don't feel like you're in a warehouse anymore, and it's very practical and attractive.  Now if we can convince Jojo to stay open an extra hour in the evenings!  (Closes now at 7 pm)  Bell the Cat is the place for Belfast night life.  :)



Posted by: Rita Doughty | Jan 06, 2016 20:36

Congrats !!! Love Bell The Cat....



Posted by: William Kulbe | Jan 06, 2016 19:22

I wish you all the best and can't wait to see the changes you made



Posted by: Harold Richardson | Jan 06, 2016 12:09

I have a black belt in kettle corn and there's a lot of it being sold in this area that's just not very good.  JoJo's is the best and we wish him and his crew good luck with this new venture.



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