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INSIDE DISH: Bonge's Tavern survives, thrives in the boonies

May 31, 2010
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Welcome back to IBJ’s video feature “Inside Dish: the Business of Running Restaurants.”

Our subject this week is Bonge's Tavern, which has managed to become a destination eatery and bastion of upscale dining despite its out-in-the-boonies locale and laissez-faire atmosphere. Ensconced in the rural Madison County town of Perkinsville, Bonge's attracted some 28,000 diners in 2009 and likely generated more than $1 million in gross sales. Not bad for a 68-seat eatery in a 173-year-old former hardware store.

Chef Tony Huelster, a veteran of several Indianapolis-area fine-dining establishments, purchased the business and property in 1999 after helping develop the free-wheeling eatery with its former owner, Don Kroger. Thanks to some high-profile press, business boomed in the first year. "It was almost too much, too soon," said Huelster, who didn't have adequate arrangements for parking and thus miffed the bucolic town's residents. More challenges followed, including a devastating lightning strike in 2000 that closed the restaurant for four agonizing months and resulted in an insurance claim close to $500,000. In the early 2000s, Huelster was forced to find a new solution for the disposal of wastewater from the restaurant, an unexpected $200,000 expense.

In the video below, Huelster discusses the origins of the restaurant and how he handled some of these setbacks.



The restaurant's casual atmosphere, middle-of-nowhere location, and no-reservations policy (for groups fewer than 10) have conspired to create a tradition of tailgating in the parking lot. It has become such an integral part of the Bonge's experience that many parties know to arrive before 4:30 p.m. to secure a spot in the dining room for later in the evening, and then ask to delay their seating when their number is called. In the video below, IBJ wades into the sea of revelers on a recent Saturday night, and Huelster recalls some of the strangest sights.



 

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Bonge's Tavern
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9830 West 280 North, Perkinsville
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(765) 734-1625
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www.bongestavern.com
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Concept: Hearty American cuisine similar to that found in an upscale steak-and-seafood house, located in a renovated 173-year-old building in rural Madison County. Casual atmosphere.
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Founded: The establishment began operation as a restaurant in 1934, and took its name from longtime owner Chuck Bonge; the current incarnation took root in 1997.
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Owners: Tony and Andrea Huelster (purchased in 1999)
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Purchase price: $450,000 paid on an amortized schedule
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2009 sales: Owners would not provide specific figure, but gave broad range for 2009 gross sales (not accounting for any expenses, charges or taxes) based on 28,000 customers and $40-$45 average check ($1.12 million-$1.26 million).
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Employees: 15-17
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Seating: 68
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Goals: Increasing sales during traditionally slower months in late fall, winter and early spring.
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Good to know: No reservations taken for groups smaller than 10, so early arrival and friendly tailgating prior to dinner become part of the experience.
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