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

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Inside Dish

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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  • Hostess
    We call her the "DOOR NAZI"!!! Stopped going because of her. Hope she is now GONE!!!
  • What?
    Stuck up perkinsville hick....Indy rocks and you wouldnt have an economy without us. Boo hoo...no one cares about you.
  • Chef Tony
    Chef Tony has recently had rotator cup surgery so is mainly only working during the day... he will be back up and running as soon as he completes physical therapy.
  • We Love the Hostess!!
    My wife and I have gone to Bonge's for several years. The hostess they have today is a sweetheart with a smile that is bigger than the town of Perkinsville.
  • Bonge's History
    Tonight at dinner Bonge's was topic of discussion. It seems that the Men's Room door has a history.
  • We shall return!
    I have been coming to Bonge's prior to present management because it was quaint & where the college kids came on Thanksgiving Eve. More frequent visits enjoyed by my family with or without me due to the good food, fun in the parking lot & general feeling of "good times" inside. We have tried to replicate the sugar cream cake & have come close but not a perfect match.
    • I miss the old Bonge's
      I live in Perkinsville, have my whole life. Back when Don Kroger owned it, I would go to Bonge's Tavern with my little sister and brother, and we would enjoy the bikers that would roll in. They were fun and I loved hanging out with them. Then it all changed and we were seeing limos and Hummers, drunks walking across the road and into my neighbor's yards like they owned the place. I hate what Bonge's has become, successful or not, I wanted my first beer to be there when I turned 21 almost four years ago, but instead I went to Lapel because Bonge's went to crap with Indianapolis people.
    • patron
      Couldn't agree more with the comments on the hostess. Last time we were there we left after dealing with her. I love the food, ambiance, etc., but I doubt I'll go back unless word gets out that she is gone.
    • Time to fire the hostess...
      Based on the comments above looks like the hostess has reached her expiration date!
      • Hostess needs to go...
        The hostess is very rude, it seems like she's going out of her way to be unfriendly. Not sure if it is supposed to be a part of the ambience or just that the owner isn't paying attention, but I'd go more often if she wasn't so awful. I think they need to fix that if they want people to come during slower times when tailgating isn't as much fun.
      • Hostess needs to go...
        The hostess is very rude, it seems like she's going out of her way to be unfriendly. Not sure if it is supposed to be a part of the ambience or just that the owner isn't paying attention, but I'd go more often if she wasn't so awful. I think they need to fix that if they want people to come during slower times when tailgating isn't as much fun.
      • Magic gone
        I agree with the hostess comment. What was a good overall experience is now tainted by the attitude at the door. Chef Tony used to come out a few times to engage the diners, now he's barely even there. Also, the prices have gone up 50% the past few years: Perkinsville Pork was $14, now $22!
        • Need a better hostess
          I, my family and neighbors have enjoyed patronizing Bonge's for years, and Bonge's always went out of their way to take care of the locals that supported them in the beginning and got the word out. However,the hostess they have now is pretty unaccommodating on simple requests and has been rude on several occasions. I won't likely be back for a while and won't be as quick to recommend Bonger's in the future

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