Belfast’s Bell the Cat moves, expands

Debra O'Leary, owner of Bell the Cat, a Belfast sandwich and coffee shop, poses in the business's new location on Starrett Drive in Belfast.
Debra O'Leary, owner of Bell the Cat, a Belfast sandwich and coffee shop, poses in the business's new location on Starrett Drive in Belfast. Buy Photo
Posted July 24, 2012, at 7:38 p.m.
Last modified July 24, 2012, at 7:55 p.m.
Debra O'Leary (far right) talks to some customers at Bell the Cat's new location in Belfast.
Debra O'Leary (far right) talks to some customers at Bell the Cat's new location in Belfast. Buy Photo

BELFAST, Maine — Pick an unusual name for a business and you’re likely to confuse customers. But for owner Debra O’Leary, Bell the Cat is the appropriate name for her coffee shop and lunch restaurant, even if it means getting mistaken for a pet store from time to time.

The phrase “Bell the Cat” comes from one of Aesop’s Fables, she said, in which mice being terrorized by a cat decide to put a bell around the animal’s neck to warn them of its presence. The act of “belling the cat” is one of daring or risk, O’Leary said, and so is moving her business to a larger space.

Bell the Cat opened earlier this month in the former Movie Gallery location on Starrett Drive, which intersects Main Street near the city’s fire department. The move from Renys Plaza on Route 3 was precipitated by the demise of the Mr. Paperback bookstore chain earlier this year; the two businesses shared a large storefront in that shopping center.

O’Leary said there were discussions with other businesses, including a book store chain, about partnering in that location, but none came to fruition.

So the decision came down to returning to a smaller, downtown location, where the business began in 1994, or moving to a bigger place. True to the risky, daring nature of the fabled mice, O’Leary, 47, took the plunge and signed the lease for the 4,350-square-foot space.

And along with the restaurant’s niche, which O’Leary describes as tasty, high-quality, unpretentious sandwiches and pastries, Bell the Cat now is able to serve beer and wine and has created a cozy but minimally decorated bar area in the rear third of the space.

A 136-inch projection screen in that part of the restaurant will allow the business to show football games and other sporting events and movies. O’Leary is imagining showing children’s movies to keep kids entertained while Mom and Dad enjoy coffee and use the free Wifi, or perhaps “chick flicks” for a girls’ night out.

Dance events also may be scheduled, she said.

She doesn’t want to attract a hard-core drinking crowd, she stressed, but hopes to satisfy customers who want to enjoy a beer or glass of wine with a sandwich or while watching a football game.

At the previous locations, Bell the Cat sometimes featured live entertainment.

“I used to do the jazz jams and poetry slams,” she said, and the larger space could be used for such events. O’Leary also hopes to feature the work of local artists on the walls.

But the core of the business remains its food. “Creative” is the word, she agreed, that describes the 40 sandwiches served on Borealis bread, croissants and bagels featured on the menu. Several choices of soups, salads and appetizers also are available, as is a kids’ menu. The food is of good quality and portions are generous, she said.

In addition to various versions of coffee, other drinks such as shakes are served, as are cookies, pastries and ice cream. A new cold stone, on which ice cream is mixed with toppings, has been popular, O’Leary said.

There are no waitresses, and customers are able to linger at tables or booths long after they’ve eaten. On Tuesday, one man was writing in a notebook at one table while another was working on a tablet.

“I’ve never seen anything quite like this,” O’Leary said of the atmosphere she aims to achieve.

Bell the Cat is open 7:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Wednesday, and 7:30 am.-10 p.m. Friday and Saturday, though O’Leary said if traffic warrants it, she will stay open as late as midnight on the weekends.

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