Welcome back to IBJ’s video feature “Inside Dish: The Business of Running Restaurants.”
Our subject this week is Ralph’s Great Divide, which in its way is just as much a mainstay of downtown’s Lockerbie neighborhood as the pristinely restored mid-19th century homes in the historic district. The structure has roots in pre-Civil War Indianapolis, and the Great Divide carved out a niche for itself as a neighborhood watering hole in the 1980s while the area around it transformed from blighted to beautiful.
“The liquor license has been here since prohibition was repealed, and my family are the third owners since approximately 1930,” said David Brooks, 55, who shares a majority stake in the business with siblings Lee Anne Brooks, 55, and Roger Brooks, 59.
Ralph’s consists of two attached buildings with differing histories. The easternmost half with the gabled roof is believed to have been constructed around 1860, using lumber milled on site. It likely was a carriage service shop, and later became an auto repair station. The west end of the building was attached about the turn of the 1900s, and following prohibition became a neighborhood pub called Shifferdecker & Shifferdecker, after the two brothers who owned and operated it. It later was purchased by Bob Condon, who ran the watering hole as Condon’s Corner.
In the early 1980s, former pharmaceutical salesman Ralph Brooks found himself looking for work near retirement age after a corporate merger scuttled his latest job in the restaurant-supply industry. So, he gathered his family and started looking for a suitable restaurant property to buy.
After scoping some 30 spaces, they decided on Condon’s Corner. The family paid about $70,000 for the business and real estate, which included the mostly unused auto-repair section of the combined building. The Great Divide opened in 1983 as a tavern of sorts, incorporating both structures.
“We did a little bit of food business, but it by and large was still bar-driven,” said David Brooks, who started working full time there in 1986. “We had an oven and a crock pot when my father was alive.”
Ralph Brooks died at the age of 69 after a massive heart attack in late 1994. With full-time managerial duties passing to David, he took the opportunity to renovate the space and beef up the menu offerings to include steak, chops, chicken, fish and an array of appetizers. Creating and outfitting a larger kitchen ran about $15,000.
The family also took on a handful of minority shareholders who essentially supplied sweat equity and needed expertise.
“David had many visions for the business and what it could do, but it was going to take inertia and energy,” said Lee Anne Brooks, who runs her own contract sales business and handles payroll for the Great Divide. “We added a nice complement of folks who helped move the restaurant into a whole new generation.”
Annual sales jumped from $140,000 in 1994 to a range of $450,000 to $500,000 in the early 2000s, according to the family. The owners saw the recession coming in the mid-2000s, as regular customers dropped by less frequently. Gross sales in 2009 totaled $278,000, and grew to $300,000 in 2010.
The restaurant remains profitable, thanks in part to extreme penny-pinching, discounted specials and the owners’ do-it-yourself attitude. But the black ink is regularly threatened by the cost of maintenance to equipment and the historic structure.
For example, reshingling the flat roof of the building’s western section earlier this year ran about $5,000, and replacing the water-damaged ceiling of the interior (work the family essentially did itself) cost $1,000.
Making matters more complicated, any exterior work to the Great Divide must be weighed and approved by the Indianapolis Historic Preservation Commission to make sure changes harmonize with the historic character of the neighborhood and are appropriate for the structure. The owners are bracing for the approval process next spring, when they’re planning a renovation project to shore up the northern face of the building, which is noticeably bowing out.
In the video at top, Lee Anne and David Brooks recount the history of the Great Divide and its conversion from bar to a restaurant with an identity crisis. In the video below, they discuss the decision to take on minority shareholders and why they have chosen to remain closed on weekends when other eateries in the area have embraced downtown's burgeoning nightlife.