For years after she sold her restaurant, my mother worked as a restaurant consultant for people trying to patch holes in their failing food businesses. Many people tried to hire her as a manager, offers she dodged like Neo dodging bullets. Her advice to all of them was the same: "If you feel like it's time for you to open a restaurant, go lay down until you feel better." There is a lot contained in that sentence (and a pretty good joke, too). What she meant was that opening a restaurant should never be taken on with any less penny-by-penny seriousness than you would open any other business. It's not a hobby. A profit is never guaranteed. Money escapes from faulty walk-ins as food waste, out the front door as air conditioning, the paid for but unused brownie trimmings or at times in the pocket of a less-than-scrupulous employee. There are a thousand unique ways to go broke when you own a restaurant.
Before she opened her restaurant — similar to R2GO or Goose — which featured prepared "California style" (not coated in mayo) cold deli salads, soups and daily pastries. Simple: get them in, ring them up, get them out. Her preparation was somewhere between scientific and maniacal, hosting testing dinner after testing dinner, hounding her friends on what imported wine they bought and things that people liked but couldn't easily find on Evansville shelves in the early '90s. The closest and most successful restaurant was a Grandy's, famous for their fried chicken buckets. Mom was going to try to sell pâté. The point is, it didn't look logically good from the outside.
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And yet, on the first day, there was a line almost all day. Because she was trying not to own a sit-down restaurant, her customers went outside and ate their lunches out of deli cups sitting on the strip mall sidewalk, feet in the fire lane. So she cleared off one set of shelves, pushed it into the back, went home and loaded all of our patio furniture into her Jeep and cobbled together the bare minimum of what her customers seemed to want: a place to sit down and eat in the A/C. The point of this anecdote is that you cannot always predict what people will like or not like. There were people ordering "PAYTE" once a week who didn't know what it was before Mom put it in the case, they just knew it tasted good on the fresh baguettes. That's the thing about Hoosiers: they always come back for what they like. Her most famous version of this truth is that the only difference between the corn chowder that often sold out and the corn chowder that didn't was that, one day, she wrote Kevin Costner's name next to the chowder on the specials board, lending the summer-only soup a bit of celebrity appeal.
Who really knows what didn't gel at Nourish, aside from the fact that nothing was named after Costner. I haven't been able to get any comment from the owners, but I know it was an ambitious start, with both a lunch and dinner service right off the bat. Most people, including myself, found the food to always be good and sometimes better than good. I could name three places with a lot more money in the till and a lot worse food on the menu. The interior was schizophrenic, not knowing whether or not it wanted to be a lounge or a kitschy throwback joint, with orange booths on one side and a gorgeous, blue-lit bar on the other side. The wall dividing the two spaces further divided the diner's expectations, and while I've had delicious original cocktails by bar manager Amy Sawyer, I didn't see any of them on the menu.
As for Nourish chef Eli Laidlaw, I think I'm extra disappointed because this seemed like the time that the young chef was about to come through with a breakthrough and find his "signature" style and/or dishes. To have the plug pulled so suddenly reflects badly on a kitchen crew that was turning out good food, and would have continued to make better and more creative food. Instead, it appears management may have misspent money by staying open too much and asking for too much business from a neighborhood that already featured, quite literally, some of the best new restaurants in the country.
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Between the geographic starvation of putting it just a stone's throw from a hot dining neighborhood but not actually in it, to stretching the staff (payroll) and hours (utilities) short by being open so much so soon, maybe this was meant to be the restaurant's destiny. I certainly can't blame it all on the food, which was certainly "survival-good" in Broad Ripple or even inside a downtown hotel. I believe the owners of Nourish were having their own Ray Kinsella-esque delusion, that if they built a restaurant and put a sexy looking bar in it, people would come, and money would come with them. It's not hobby restaurateurs that are the problem, but profiteering ones. You don't make more profits just by being open. You won't make money just because you sell an OK $10 cocktail and have plenty of seating. In the new era of Indianapolis dining, you have to have the total package, including a focused vision for how you want your diner's whole experience to be received.
Indianapolis, consider the bar officially raised.
In failing to meet that bar as a whole, they've left cooks, bartenders and servers without jobs, and put an undeserved black spot on the career of a young, talented chef.
For their part, a catastrophic and sudden closure almost guarantees that this management team will not be able to get backing for a long time. And by the time this hits most people's Facebook feeds, the Nourish cooks will have been provided with more work than they can even turn down. These job offers are coming from established businesses with good reputations — the fruits of ethical business. There will, of course, be more closures on the horizon, but the response from the community made it clear to me that they would make sure anyone churned in the fray would be able to land on their feet in the end.
Eventually, this will be a bad memory for the people who lost their jobs out of the blue today. For the Nourish owners, it should serve as a defeat that they won't repeat again. That doesn't mean I think they should be doomed to obscurity — there's still plent of demand for more farm-to-table options. The second time, if it ever happens, will find them with the 20/20 sight moving forward that they didn't have the first time, and the restaurant-owning community may well hear the loud and clear message that diners now expect something more than just, well, food not coated in mayonnaise and a place to sit down in the air conditioning.
I bet you're feeling optimistic about restaurant ownership right about now. Go lay down. You'll feel better soon.