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Downtown dining changes flavors: New year brings eatery moves, winner in chocolate war

January 10, 2005

A victor has emerged from the Monument Circle chocolate war, and the spoils go to the Indiana-based warrior.

Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory closed its store at 28 Monument Circle Dec. 31, leaving South Bend Chocolate Co.'s Chocolate Café next door as the Circle's sole sweets source.

The franchise's closing is one of several changes afoot in the downtown restaurant scene. Coming attractions include an Oregonbased seafood chain and the return of local favorite Eh! Formaggio, which is shopping for a new downtown location while it cooks up a dual-restaurant concept in Carmel.

On the downside, El Sol de Tala's Union Station restaurant has filed to reorganize under Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection after a rough two-year start downtown, and storefront space in Circle Centre remains shuttered after Tarkington's abrupt closure in late March.

Rocky Mountain's closure appeared to happen suddenly, but changes in the Guaranty Building have actually been in the works for months, said Dave Buchanan of locally based Mansur Real Estate Services.

In this case, it appears the victor truly may receive the spoils. South Bend Chocolate Co. is rumored to be planning to fill the former Rocky Mountain for an expansion to serve sandwiches, soups and salads. South Bend leases 3,000 square feet in the building for its Chocolate Café, while Rocky Mountain's space was just under 1,000 square feet.

Buchanan wouldn't confirm South Bend's plans, but said an existing tenant would likely take over the space. Other retail tenants in the building include Hardwick's Pipe & Tobacco, Roly Poly Sandwiches, Windsor Jewelers and Nicky Blaine's martini and cigar bar, which occupies 9,100 square feet in the basement.

Rocky Mountain, which opened in 1989, was owned and operated by local franchisee Mark Berry. Berry did not return calls seeking comment. South Bend district manager Ray Peck said he was surprised by his neighbor's departure and isn't sure if his café will take over the space.

Berry's relations with building owner Guaranty Holdings Corp. became strained when South Bend opened in 2001, although Berry said Rocky Mountain's sales began to steadily increase again after he made improvements to the store.

Rocky Mountain had been on a monthto-month lease.

Portland, Ore.-based McCormick & Schmick's Seafood Restaurants recently signed a lease for 7,500 square feet on the first floor of the Hilton Indianapolis at Illinois and Market streets. The company, which owns 52 seafood restaurants in 22 states, plans to open the 275-seat restaurant, 50-seat bar and outdoor dining in mid-summer, said Gregg LeBlanc, director of marketing for the company.

McCormick & Schmick's focuses on fresh seafood and changes its menu daily according to what's available, LeBlanc said. The company aims to provide the same freshness and quality as restaurants such as Ruth's Chris or Oceanaire, albeit in a more casual atmosphere and at generally lower prices, he said.

Lunch entrées range from $6 to $9, while dinner entrées cost $13 to $19, he said.

"Indianapolis is one of the major metropolitan areas we haven't established ourselves in," LeBlanc said. "We saw an opportunity to complement what was already there."

The sudden closing of pizza-and-Italian-deli restaurant Eh! Formaggio at 30 E. Georgia St. last fall sent regulars into a tizzy over where to find lemon and chicken soup, thick slices of pizza pie, and homemade cannoli.

Owner Dan Frost knows because some of them have "literally chased after me" wanting to know what happened, he said.

Frost is still searching for another downtown location for Eh! Formaggio, which was open two years. He and the landlord at 30 E. Georgia, Bloomington-based First Capital Investment Group Inc., parted ways after an unspecified dispute. Frost said he's looking at several sites, which he declined to identify, but added he's working "every day" to reopen downtown.

In the meantime, Frost, a New York native and Culinary Institute of America graduate, has been working on a new concept in Carmel. In early March, he plans to open an Eh! Formaggio and a La Trattoria Regioni, an upscale Italian restaurant, side-by-side at Cool Creek Commons on 146th Street. The Eh! Formaggio menu and atmosphere will be nearly identical to the downtown location, but the 1,500-square-foot restaurant will be nearly twice the size of the former one and will serve beer and wine.

La Trattoria Regioni, at 3,500 square feet, will serve authentic Italian regional cuisine, Frost said. Frost also plans to offer cooking classes in a private dining area in the restaurant on weekends.

The dual-eatery concept is one Frost hopes to expand in 2005 to Avon and other parts of central Indiana. He said he'd like to open such a concept downtown, but may stick to an Eh! Formaggio if only a smaller space is available.

Local restaurateur Javier Amezcua's downtown El Sol de Tala Mexican restaurant filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection Dec. 21 after mounting tax bills forced it to reorganize.

The restaurant on the first floor of Union Station lost $184,000 in its first year open and nearly broke even last year, Amezcua said. The rough start left Tala Inc., the entity that owns the downtown location, unable to pay its bills.

The El Sol de Tala on East Washington Street and El Sol de Tala Express on West 10th Street aren't included in the bankruptcy filing.

"I thought since I'd been in business 25 years, it was going to be a piece of cake," Amezcua said of the downtown store.

Despite the bankruptcy filing, Amezcua said he remains optimistic about the downtown restaurant's future.

Among debts listed on Tala Inc.'s bankruptcy petition are $40,000 owed to locally based Mezzetta Construction Inc., the contractor on the Union Station buildout; $50,000 owed to the Indiana Department of Revenue for sales and withholding taxes; and $50,000 owed to the Internal Revenue Service.

Not listed is the city of Indianapolis, which owns Union Station. City spokesman Justin Ohlemiller said the restaurant owes nearly $39,000 in back rent. El Sol's lease calls for rent of $4,000 per month. The city and the restaurant are in discussions about payment options, Ohlemiller said.

Food posters and a fading "Springcleaning sale" sign still decorate the windows at Tarkington's, even though the Circle Centre market and café closed in late March.

The deli cases are empty, but bottles of wine from around the world age on the shelves while wine buckets and exotic teas and spices sit collecting dust on display cases.

Owners Ed and Bianca Chambers closed the doors of their market and café last spring. They planned to reopen, but are now fully retired, Bianca said.

She declined to go into specifics about why the café's inventory remains, only saying that Simon Property Group Inc., the mall's manager, now owns it. The couple's desire to retire played a large part in the decision to close for good, she said.

A replacement tenant has not been signed for the space on the first floor of the mall along Illinois Street, said Simon spokeswoman Billie Scott. She also said she doesn't know when the store's inventory and fixtures will be removed and declined to comment on whether the Chambers left owing rent.

Despite ups and downs in the market, local restaurant experts say they expect 2005 to bring more new restaurants-many of them chains-downtown.

"Interest in 2005 will remain as strong as it has been," said Steve Delaney, a restaurant specialist with Carmel-based Linder Co. "Overall, the market is doing very well and success tends to draw new restaurants."

Delaney and Brian Epstein, principal of locally based Urban Space Commercial Properties, both said spaces to accommodate new restaurants are getting harder to find downtown.

Even so, a trend of locally owned restaurants closing downtown and chains coming in is likely to continue, they said.

"The 'Ma and Pas' are having a hard time competing against chains," Epstein said. "Chains can afford to pay more rent, they have the marketing dollars and the infrastructure ... and the capacity to withstand a couple of bad months."
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