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INSIDE DISH: Recess owner keeps it simple, plans expansion

January 7, 2011
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Welcome back to IBJ’s video feature “Inside Dish: The Business of Running Restaurants.”

Our subject this week is Recess, the sprightly brainchild of local luminary Greg Hardesty, who arguably is the closest thing Indianapolis has to a so-called “celebrity chef.” With former business partner Mike Sylvia, Hardesty opened Broad Ripple favorite H2O Sushi in 2000 and the critically acclaimed Elements in the Mass Ave area in 2003. Building on the success of the fledgling Recess, Hardesty plans to open his fourth eatery by early April.



After selling Elements in 2008, Hardesty went on an extended sabbatical to spend more time with his wife and two children, and to recharge his batteries. With a mind still moored in the kitchen, he began cooking large quantities of soup and alerting friends via e-mail when he had extra.

“I just got an e-mail list going, and I would put on there, ‘I’ve got 14 quarts of bean-and-bacon soup,’ and I would sell that from my front door,” Hardesty said. “It was just regular customers. It started out at about 50 or 60 people, and it grew to about 250. ... This was about the time that social media was becoming popular. I realized this was a great way to market yourself. It became kind of a game for everyone.”

Hardesty, 42, decided to capitalize on the chef-centric concept with a new eatery, in which he would prepare a limited prix fixe menu that changed daily. He landed on the name Recess, denoting his “food should be fun” philosophy and evoking a loose atmosphere where diners could take a break and let the chef make the tough decisions.

“The hardest part now is explaining that there are some choices,” Hardesty said. “At first it was like, ‘You have to eat what he’s making.’ But there are dietary restrictions and vegetarians. We cater to whatever your needs are. … And there is some flexibility to it. Oftentimes, two of the four courses have a choice between items.”

In the following video, Hardesty explains how he plans each day's menu, which typically is written less than 24 hours before food hits the plate. He also roughs out his process for pricing each meal, which is decidedly less exact than that of corporate eateries.



Wanting to stick close to his north-side home, he began leasing a 2,000-square-foot space at 4907 N. College Ave. in July 2009. With former Elements employee Gabe Jordan enlisted to invest sweat equity and slated to become general manager, the two began plotting the 42-seat restaurant and reshaping the space.

“At the time I didn’t have a job, so why would I pay somebody to do something while I’m sitting here at home with all kinds of angst built up?” Hardesty said. “I might as well go and wreck a wall and haul it out.”

In the video at top, Hardesty details the $230,000 startup and how he dealt with losing Jordan to a life-altering spinal injury before Recess opened in January 2010. He also recalls his initial trepidation over the single-meal concept and the eatery’s less-than-upscale location.

Sales have been strong in the first 12 months—$850,000, generating profit of about $20,000. Emboldened, Hardesty is planning to open a 450-square-foot eatery next door to Recess named Rm. 4. Playing off the back-to-school theme of Recess, it will feature options on the short-order side of the spectrum, such as hamburgers, tacos, noodles and soups.

“What I think will happen is that I won’t take any customers from here, but the people who eat at Recess on a once-a-week basis might come here once-a-week still and then go over there one or two times,” Hardesty said of flagship restaurant's empty-nester and busy-professional clientele.

He expects to invest at least $100,000 in the buildout, for which he already has secured a $70,000 bank loan. The rest would be covered by promissory notes from friends and family, as well as his own savings. Rm. 4 is expected to open by early April.

Hardesty believes he has found the perfect scale for Recess, which succeeds with a relatively modest dining room.

“I don’t think it would work with 160 seats,” he said. “It’s hard to get into, but that’s good. I love that it’s hard to get into on a Wednesday night. It means it’s a restaurant that’s full. There is nothing worse than going to a restaurant and two-thirds of it are empty. I’d rather go to a small full restaurant than a half-full big one.”
 

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Recess
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4907 N. College Ave.
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(317) 925-7529
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www.recessindy.com
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Concept: A prix fixe menu typically ranging from $45 to $55 that changes daily, featuring locally produced meats, produce and other fresh ingredients.
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Founded: Jan. 8, 2010
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Owner: Greg Hardesty
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Startup costs: $230,000 ($190,000 in commercial bank financing and $40,000 in promissory notes from friends and family, paying 7 percent in interest annually for five years).
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2010 gross sales/net income: $850,000 / $20,000
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Seating: 42
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Employees: 15
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Goals: To open a 22-seat, 450-square-foot eatery next door to Recess, named Rm. 4. It will feature more comfort-food and short-order-style options, such as hamburgers, tacos and soups.
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