They’re just one factor in the recent demise of top, locally-owned eateries It’s become conventional wisdom these days that anyone opening an independent restaurant requires not only a special set of skills, but also a measure of talent, considerable intestinal fortitude and perhaps a soupcon of folly. That it’s a highly competitive field with an alarming attrition rate hardly constitutes news, so why does the restaurant in-crowd heave a collective sigh of disbelief these days when yet another esteemed establishment bites the dust? Simply put, because so many of the local high-end restaurants to have gone out of business over the past 18 months are the last ones you would have expected: Peter’s, Bistro 936, Panache, Shaffers, Tavola di Tosa; the list goes on.

Ironically, but purely coincidentally, it was shortly after the establishment of the local chapter of the Council of Independent Restaurants of America, the Indianapolis Originals, that so many closings occurred.

Although it is tempting to blame the chains for the numerous recent failures in the independent sector, the truth, as always, is more complicated. There is no single factor that unites the demise of so many of our top eateries. Blame poor management, the landlord, the chains or lousy location, each has its own story to tell.

These days, the majority of one-off, family-owned operations can be found at the lower end of the price scale. For every McDonald’s or Wendy’s in town, there’s at least one tacqueria of above-average quality, in addition to the dozens of excellent independents of all ethnicities. It could reasonably be argued that independent restaurants hold their own most effectively against the chains in the under $10 price category. One could also assert quite credibly that this is the area in which some of the city’s best food is to be found, regardless of price.

Moving up the price scale a bit, it seems that the non-ethnic independents are unable to compete. (If you’re interested in excellent Vietnamese, Thai, Ethiopian or Moroccan, however, you’re in luck.)

There can be no doubt that the predictability of mid-priced chains engenders a sense of comfort. Walk into any O’Charley’s, and you know that the low-carb, bunless, three-cheese bacon steakburger in Carmel is going to taste exactly the same as the one you ate last week on the road trip to Dayton. Why risk running the gauntlet of uncertainty at some quaint little European bistro, when you know you can get the same old same old at any number of chains, and probably pay a lot more for it, besides?

Independent restaurants require a critical mass of interested and sufficiently well-heeled individuals to guarantee their livelihood. I’ve long believed that Indianapolis is a market possessed of too few such diners, and even fewer of the kind of expense accounts required to keep a place like Peter’s in business.

In addition to the absence of sufficiently motivated diners, many independent restaurants begin their life with a shortage of funds; over-optimistic about their chances of success, too few allow for the days, weeks even, when their revenues might fall short of projections. Corner-cutting, particularly in the area of record keeping, has been the downfall of many a family-owned business. With electronic point of sale, corporate accountants and rigid portion control, chain restaurants are able to avoid many of the more common pitfalls.

At the core of high-end dining there now resides the black hole of the corporate steak house, relentlessly sucking the dollars out of expense accounts and private wallets alike. With massive promotional budgets and friends in the right places, these establishments can simply wait out any downturn in the economy that might otherwise destroy an independent venture.

Outside of Chicago, I can’t recall having seen so many corporate steak houses in such a restricted area as downtown Indianapolis. Perhaps it’s true that the average religious conventioneer, sports enthusiast or racing fan really does prefer meat and two veggies over any other kind of dining.

One of the final acts in the dying days of so many independent restaurants is to put a steak on the dinner menu and offer chicken salad for lunch, in the faint hope that these items might attract a wider crowd. Sadly, such is seldom the case, as the “wider crowd” would rather eat their chicken salad at Friday’s, thank you very much.

Perhaps the time has come for a collective re-evaluation of the strengths and weaknesses of Indy’s independent restaurant scene. Maybe we need to face up to the fact that the corporations have all but appropriated the high end, with the notable exception of a very select band of independents, such as Dunaways and St. Elmo’s, who have skillfully played the giants at their own game. Similarly, The Oceanaire, part of a very small, quasi-chain, excels in every regard. In the middle, a few stalwarts like R-Bistro, Elements and Oakleys take the fight for quality and service to the enemy.

Again, at the lower end the family-owned eateries are not only holding their own, but establishing new standards of quality and value at the same time. They may not have the desire or wherewithal to join the Indianapolis Originals, but they are without doubt its unheralded standard-bearers. Former NUVO Cuisine editor Neil Charles is now based in Kansas City, Mo. He’s a wine broker whose territory stretches throughout the Midwest, including Indiana.


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