INSIDE DISH: Irvington cafe knows its audience

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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 The Legend Classic Irvington Café. Since opening in 2003, it has become something of a culinary institution in the resurgent east-side neighborhood of Irvington, in part by hemming closely to the historic and middle-class vibe of the area.

“It’s important to this neighborhood to feel like something belongs here,” said co-owner John Robertson, who moved with his family from New Jersey to Irvington in 1990. “We wanted to make sure that the character of the restaurant dovetailed with the character of the neighborhood.”

Taking a space in a 1920s Arts and Crafts-style building on Irvington’s main commercial drag on Washington Street, Robertson scoured antique stores and auctions for period-appropriate furnishings that would feel simpatico with the high ceilings and hardwood floors. The fact that not all the dining-room chairs would match, for example, only added to the homey synergy.

“If you went to a family gathering for a big dinner, chairs are pulled from every part of the room. They don’t match, and everybody sits around and has a great time,” Robertson said.

He and his wife, Kim, spent about $150,000 on startup expenses, financed in great part by a $50,000 loan from Kim’s father and $55,000 from a second mortgage on their home. The menu focused on comfort food, with classic dinner entrees like meatloaf and breaded chicken at prices that barely broke double-digits.

Although light alcoholic beverages would be a key offering in such a relaxed atmosphere, the Robertsons waited several months before applying for a beer and wine permit, bowing to the neighborhood’s sensitivity to potent potables. The founders of the original town of Irvington were prohibitionists, and early businesses were restricted from selling alcohol.

“We knew there were still some people in the neighborhood who had some objection to alcohol being served in their neighborhood, because they didn’t want it to become like, say, Broad Ripple, as most people would say, with a lot of bars,” Robertson said.

“We took our time and built alliances,” he said. “We wanted people to get to know us, that we’re Irvington people just like you are. We raised our family here. … In early 2004, we started a petition. I knocked on every door within two blocks and talked to every person in their home and wanted to know if it was something they were content with.”

The restaurant received its state permit in June 2004. Beer and wine accounted for about 15 percent of the restaurant’s gross sales in the first year; now it’s closer to 25 percent, Robinson said.

“When people go out to dinner, they want to have a glass of wine with their dinner,” he said. “And that is important to your business. If people are not coming in because they can’t do that, it’s hurting me.”

In part via a 1,000-square-foot expansion in 2007 that included a modest bar area, gross sales at The Legend have ballooned over the years to $477,000 in 2010. Net income, however has lagged. The restaurant first started producing a profit in 2008 after essentially breaking even since 2003; in 2010, it finished the year with $15,000 in profit.

“You’d like to think that, ‘Jeez, I’ve got some net income, I should be able to do a few more things than what I do.’ But it’s expensive to run this business,” Robertson said. “Every time you turn around, a piece of equipment goes down. I had to replace a part in my dishwasher last week, and that’s a thousand dollars, and just like that, it’s gone.”

In the video at top, Robertson discusses his initial trepidation over starting the restaurant, born from years in the restaurant service industry. He also weighs in on designing the space, startup costs, and his decision to limit his hours in the kitchen and begin to pay himself a regular wage.

Neighborhood patrons account for about 40 percent of the eatery’s customers. One of Robertson’s principal concerns is attracting new diners, but he has some reservations about using social media and online coupon offers that have been embraced by other restaurants. He discusses his concerns in the video below.

The Legend Classic Irvington Cafe
5614 E. Washington St.
(317) 536-2028
Concept: A classy but comfortable neighborhood restaurant with decor, food and prices that hem to the historic and modest characteristics of the Irvington neighborhood.
Founded: May 3, 2003
Owners: John and Kim Robertson
Startup costs: $150,000, financed in part with $55,000 from taking a second mortgage on the family home, a $50,000 loan from Kim's father, and credit cards. An expansion in 2007 cost $50,000, $45,000 of which was covered by a commercial bank loan.
Gross sales/net income: $427,000 / $5,500 (2009); $477,000 / $15,000 (2010).
Employees: 13
Seating: 100, with another 20 on its patio.
Goals: For the owners to ease their workloads and spend less time at the restaurant.
Good to know: In the early years, as the restaurant was getting on its feet and struggling to hit profitability, Kim Robertson helped support the family with her outside career as a buyer for a furniture store. John Robertson didn't start compensating himself in the form of a weekly wage until 2005. Today, John and Kim, who now also works full-time at the restaurant, each take $600 per week .

  • Great eating spot
    I love The Legend Restaurant and enjoy driving across town even with $4.00 per gallon gas prices. The food is always awesome and the service is intimate and sincere. These people care about you from the moment you hit the door and I always leave with a smile. Until I go fillup to head back north. Still well worth the trip.
  • Great eating spot
    I love The Legend Restaurant and enjoy driving across town even with $4.00 per gallon gas prices. The food is always awesome and the service is intimate and sincere. These people care about you from the moment you hit the door and I always leave with a smile. Until I go fillup to head back north. Still well worth the trip.
  • Legend via QArtistry - yum!
    Thanks for this article and the videos! It was fun to learn about how one of my new favorite restaurants got started.

    Last fall, I was invited to a party at Legend after the opening night of Q Artistry's "Cabaret Poe" show at the Historic Irvington Lodge across the street from the restaurant. That good experience prompted me to return to Legend for dinner on my own. I love both the food ("Dad's Chicken" - yum!) and the atmosphere of Legend.

    The last time I went to Legend was after the opening night of Q Artistry's "Bunny Spectacular" show for families. (This is the show's final weekend.) I loved overhearing the restaurant staff asking customers from the neighborhood, "How was the show?" and hearing the customers all say, "Oh, it was FUN!"

    I also love that even though Legend is very family-focused, I am always treated well - neither fussed over nor ignored - as a solo diner every time I've been to Legend. Man, if I had the time to blog about restaurants in addition to blogging about live theatre, I would focus on solo dining experiences. But I digress...

    There are some fun stores along that stretch of Washington, too. If you go to Legend for lunch, you can easily spend an hour or two shopping for quirky gifts.

    I asked a Legend server one time how the restaurant got its name. "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving," he said. "This is Irvington neighborhood, that's Washington Street..." I loved that, too!

    By the way, I agree with Legend's owner that using social media effectively is hugely time-consuming and GroupOn or whatever it's called is a scam from a small business's point of view.

    Hope Baugh
    Indy Theatre Habit
  • Great Place
    Not only have John and Kim Robertson provided a wonderful restaurant for the people of Irvington and beyond, but they have helped to contribute to revitalizing part of our commercial corridor. That 1920s-era Tudor strip has now become a hip corridor with other restaurants and shops. Thanks, John and Kim!
  • Well Done
    Legends is a great place to eat and meet. I have shared Legends with friends and all have loved it. John and Kim take the time to do it right.
  • People Place
    Great folks cooking and serving great food ... thrilled they had an alliance to Indy's best neighborhood.
  • legendary food
    The Legend is just a wonderful addition to Irvington. If i can't take the time for a sitdown meal, I get carryout. Sometimes I just pop in for dessert. Kudos to the Robertsons for all their hard work and investment in the neighborhood.
  • The Legend
    A great cafe' operated by great people. I worked with John in the late 90's as a punk kid selling restaurant equipment. 12 years later I am still in the business. John always treated my well and helped me learn my craft. I know he puts his all into everything he does. Check out his cafe' it is a work of art!
    JS, Stafford Smith, INC.
  • Fantastic restaurant
    I discovered this gem a couple years ago and have majority of my lunch and dinner meetings here. The owners, staff, food and ambiance are great! Even my grown children like it because it's so reasonably price. Wonderful The Legend is getting this attention!
  • The Legend is Legendary
    Great article and a great place to eat! The Legend is not only tasty but it's reasonably priced too. Irvingtonians are lucky to have a place (and it's owners) like this!
  • The Legend
    Great review. It was good to hear the owner's story, which I would never have known without this review. I was raised in Irvington and plan on visiting the Legend restaurant. Thanks

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