INSIDE DISH: Cajun couple plays to strengths

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Inside Dish

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

Our subject for this installment is Zydeco's, an unlikely oasis of Cajun cuisine in downtown Mooresville. Few seem more surprised by its success than husband-and-wife owners Carter and Debora Hutchinson, who opened the eatery on just slightly more than a whim in 1998—and without any previous experience in the food or service sides of the food-service industry.

"We didn't known nothin' about no restaurantin'," Debora said, assuming a mock-backwoods accent for effect. "We were in business probably a month when one of our customers told us that there were big trucks that would bring food to you. We were like, 'Where do we sign up?'"

Debora, 52, and Carter, 51, met on Bourbon Street in New Orleans during Mardi Gras of 1996. He was a computer-graphic and fine artist in New Orleans who also taught computer-related course at Tulane University; she was in auto sales for a Toyota dealership in Indianapolis. They struck up a quick long-distance romance that led to Carter moving to central Indiana just a few months later. They soon bought a home in Mooresville; they married in 1998.

Carter's Cajun cooking was a hit with Debora's friends and co-workers. When a friend with a restaurant space to rent in Monrovia suggested that they consider opening an eatery, they jumped in with little forethought, using credit cards to finance a $12,000 startup. The period between the idea stage and the opening was less than a month—Aug. 14 to Sept. 11, 1998.

Their steep learning curve in the restaurant business was eased by door-busting patronage. "There wasn't anything like us around," Debora said. "And there were a lot of people from Louisiana who lived out here. We had no idea until we opened, and they all came out."

One lesson the Hutchinsons learned in the first few years was that it's often better to own your property than rent. In 2002, they purchased their current locale in downtown Mooresville, just a block or so from their home, and soon closed the Monrovia location. "We couldn't be both places at once," Debora said.

The Hutchinsons are quick to admit that they could save money by cutting some corners, such as sourcing many of their ingredients from local distributors instead of having them shipped from Louisiana. "Even the mustard that Carter uses—I can't get it here," Debora said. "I have to get it from Louisiana. How stupid is that? But we don't want to use any other mustard."

Beyond the occasional lean period, the restaurant typically provides a modest income for the Hutchinsons. Its gross sales have been remarkably consistent through the recession—between $390,000 and $410,000 annually from 2007 to 2009 (see "Notes from the Back of the Napkin," below).

"We'll never be rich, but we'll have what we want," Debora said. "It's not a making-money thing as much as it is our life."

In the video at top, Debora and Carter recount the creation of the restaurant and their early mistakes, and then take a stab at explaining how their working relationship exploits their individual strengths. In the video below, they provide a glimpse into the day-to-day give-and take between spouses who work together, as they debate the merits of altering the eatery's menu.

11 E. Main St., Mooresville
(317) 834-3900
Concept: Specializing in the cuisine of southern Louisiana, with suitably vibrant decor reminiscent of New Orleans and its environs.
Founded: September 1998
Owners: Carter and Debora Hutchinson
Start-up costs: $12,000 in the original location in Monrovia, mostly financed through credit cards; $200,000 to open the current location, including a $90,000 SBA loan, $70,000 in savings and about $40,000 through credit cards.
Gross sales/net income: $395,290 / $10,962 (2009); $409,071 / $25,272 (2008); $389,843 / $24,000 loss (2007).
Employees: 12
Seating: 48
Goals: To open for dinner on Tuesdays in 2011, and earmark 10 percent of gross sales each Tuesday to a not-for-profit group; to beef up their savings, buy a condo in Louisiana, and establish a nine-month work cycle in which Carter can spend November, December and January down South.

  • I'm Kinda A Big Fan
    Best Cajun food in Indiana. Deb is a true delight, lucky to call her a friend. Get a Hurricane and have Garlic Soup, Half and Half half gumbo & half jambalaya, and finish it with their Bread Pudding. You'll think you've died and gone to New Orleans Heaven.
  • Great food and music!
    The best Cajun/Creole food anywhere - better than some restaurants in New Orleans! Great live music, too. I like going during brunch for those shrimp and cheese grits, and to hear the Dan Holmes Group. Lots of fun, everyone there is wonderful.
  • One of a kind!
    Zydecos is an food experience not to be missed! The atmosphere is fun and festive . . . any day! And . . . Deb and Carter? Well you watched the video didn't you? Check it out! They make Mooresville proud!
  • Great Place
    This has got to be one of the best restaraunts I have been to. The atmosphere is great the people and staff are awesome and the food is to die for. If you've never been, it's an experience you must have and I promise you will go back again and again.
    See ya there!
  • It's the Best!
    Zydeco's is such a fun place! I've been there several times and always see something new in the restaurant because of its unique decorating. Fantastic food at a friendly and unique place. You won't be sorry you went there!
  • Zydeco's
    Love-Love-Love this restaurant and Debbie is such a blast! If you are smart, you'll get there on their 1st Sunday Brunch day. Awesome - expecially when they have shrimp and cheesy grits. Just a great place and a very quick, short drive from Indy. Going down 67 - if you take the "old 67" exit and stay on that road - you will drive right to Zydeco's. Be ready for a great time and take the beads with you! (Keep a look out for Debbie in her Saints Jersey though - she's a huge fan)

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  1. PJ - Mall operators like Simon, and most developers/ land owners, establish individual legal entities for each property to avoid having a problem location sink the ship, or simply structure the note to exclude anything but the property acting as collateral. Usually both. The big banks that lend are big boys that know the risks and aren't mad at Simon for forking over the deed and walking away.

  2. Do any of the East side residence think that Macy, JC Penny's and the other national tenants would have letft the mall if they were making money?? I have read several post about how Simon neglected the property but it sounds like the Eastsiders stopped shopping at the mall even when it was full with all of the national retailers that you want to come back to the mall. I used to work at the Dick's at Washington Square and I know for a fact it's the worst performing Dick's in the Indianapolis market. You better start shopping there before it closes also.

  3. How can any company that has the cash and other assets be allowed to simply foreclose and not pay the debt? Simon, pay the debt and sell the property yourself. Don't just stiff the bank with the loan and require them to find a buyer.

  4. If you only knew....

  5. The proposal is structured in such a way that a private company (who has competitors in the marketplace) has struck a deal to get "financing" through utility ratepayers via IPL. Competitors to BlueIndy are at disadvantage now. The story isn't "how green can we be" but how creative "financing" through captive ratepayers benefits a company whose proposal should sink or float in the competitive marketplace without customer funding. If it was a great idea there would be financing available. IBJ needs to be doing a story on the utility ratemaking piece of this (which is pretty complicated) but instead it suggests that folks are whining about paying for being green.