INSIDE DISH: Carmel Cajun eatery Mudbugs turns corner

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

Our subject this week is Mudbugs Cajun Cafe, which after four shaky years in Carmel’s Arts & Design District has begun turning a profit. The eatery began as a bit of an afterthought by novice restaurateurs who were mainly interested in starting a food concessions trailer and keeping their day jobs. Today, they’re out of the concessions business and beginning to contemplate expanding the restaurant to new locations.

“We couldn’t be happier, really,” said Belinda LeBlanc, who owns the restaurant with her husband, Roy LeBlanc, and their daughter Kelly LeBlanc. “Everyone warned us that it takes three to five years, and I think for a Cajun restaurant that’s even more true.”

The roots of the restaurant are in Roy’s love of homestyle Cajun cooking from his native Louisiana. Friends pushed him for years to start his own culinary business; he finally was convinced by Monica and Jerry Urick, who own Urick Concessions LLC and could help bankroll the operation.

The original plan was for the Uricks to buy a custom-made concessions trailer in which the LeBlancs could sell jambalaya, po' boy sandwiches and other southern vittles. Because mobile food vendors are required to do the lion’s share of their food preparation in an inspected stationary kitchen (aka "commissary"), they decided to open a small restaurant that would act both as a food-prep area and additional outlet for the cuisine.

“When we started looking into it, it was actually cheaper to open the restaurant to try to help pay for the specialized cooking equipment and the kitchen commissary piece than it was to try to just build a commissary space,” Belinda said.

The Uricks footed the bill for the trailer (about $80,000-$90,000) and the restaurant’s startup costs (about $150,000-$175,000, according to Monica Urick). The LeBlancs brought the recipes and elbow grease. Daughter Kelly became manager of the restaurant, which opened in April 2007.

Both incarnations of Mudbugs struggled. Selling their wares at the Indiana State Fair and area racing venues, the LeBlancs found that their trailer food was a bit too esoteric for some Hoosiers’ tastes.

“They were looking at the stuff sideways. Like, ‘Cajun food? That’s just going to be hot,’” Roy said.

Meanwhile, the restaurant experienced the same problem, while also dealing with limited parking and weak foot traffic due to persistent construction projects along Carmel’s Main Street.

By 2009, Urick Concessions was growing at a fast pace with vending business and drawing Monica away from back-office duties at the restaurant. The solution was for the partners to sack the Mudbugs concessions trailer, and for the Uricks to sell their shares in the restaurant to the LeBlancs for $30,000.

“It was either close the restaurant completely or make a deal and walk away,” Monica said. “I didn’t want to close it down. We knew it had potential. It was just going to take time. I knew they would be fine.”

Yet to see a dollar in profit from the business, the LeBlancs invested another $30,000 (provided by a relative, who wished to be a silent investor) into the restaurant in early 2010, covering losses and some interior redecorating needed to brighten the space. Local construction projects finally began to wind down, and the city of Carmel also removed a tree that was obscuring the Mudbugs façade and extended the sidewalk in front of the restaurant for patio seating.

“After three years, people were coming in and saying, ‘We didn’t even know you were here,’” Belinda said.

In 2010, Mudbugs’ gross sales increased by 18 percent to about $224,000, and losses were cut in half to $9,707. For the first seven months of 2011, gross sales have hit $170,000, and the restaurant has operated in the black with $15,574 in net income.

Belinda, who works as a business analyst for the Marion County Public Health Department, and Roy, a salesman for Irvin Kahn & Son Inc. flooring wholesaler, now anticipate being able to move Roy to the restaurant fulltime next week. That will allow him to get more face-time with customers and help build the restaurant’s catering business.

“He’ll be able to make those sales calls, to go out and talk to people interested in catering. Right now, he can’t do that,” Belinda said.

In the video at top, the LeBlancs recount the origins of Mudbugs and take a quick sidetrip to a recent crawfish boil, which has become something of a monthly tradition during warm-weather months. In the video below, they discuss how they prepare their cuisine, the potential for raising prices due to escalating food costs, and when it's appropriate for an independent eatery to take a cue from chain restaurateurs.

Mudbugs Cajun Cafe
20 W. Main St., Carmel
(317) 843-8380
Concept: Modestly priced Cajun cuisine -- including gumbo, jambalaya, crawfish casserole and po' boy sandwiches --  made from recipes by a Louisiana native.
Founded: April 2007 by Monica, Jerry and Bill Urick, and Roy and Belinda LeBlanc. The Uricks sold their shares in the restaurant to the LeBlancs in November 2009 for $30,000.
Owners: Husband-and-wife Roy and Belinda LeBlanc, and their daughter Kelly LeBlanc.
Start-up costs: Approx. $150,000
Gross sales/net income: 2009: $189,000 / $20,862 (loss); 2010: $224,000 / $9,707 (loss); Jan.-July 2011: $170,000 / $15,574 (gain).
Seating: 44 in restaurant, 20 on front patio.
Employees: 7
Goals: To develop more catering business and to start looking at locations for future growth. x

  • And how!
    My husband is Cajun, too...born in Breaux Bridge and raised in Lafayette. You have no idea how excited he was when we stumbled upon Mudbugs on a business trip to Indy. As any Cajun would do, the first thing he asked was, "Where's the chef from?" He got the answer he wanted, and we stayed for some beignets. Our 13th anniversary was yesterday, and we're planning a weekend getaway to Indy specifically so we can have an actual MEAL at Mudbugs! See you all next weekend!
  • Dee-lish!
    So good!
  • YATS?! you're kidding, right?
    Ditto to the above. We've never been more excited than when we accidentally discovered Mudbugs in Carmel. We live on the south side, so it's quite a hike, but one I will happily make when I have an irresistible craving for real Lousisiana food. I don't know about YATS serving pre-made and re-heated food, but except for the gumbo, there's nothing remotely authentic about their so-called Cajun food. Who ever heard of cumin in red beans and rice? Please! Mudbugs is the real thing, and with a name like LeBlanc, you know it's got to be Cajun. Geaux Saints! Superbowl XLVII in the Superdome! Who Dat? Drew Dat!
  • Miss Ann's Crawfish Casserole
    No where but in New Orleans, have I had crawfish any better than this. It's hard for me to get here, being I live in Greencastle, but if I am anywhere near here, I always stop. Will be back this Friday on my way to football game. Keep up the great food.
  • A piece of NOLA at home
    I have gone to New Orleans quite a few times and nothing compares to the cajun cooking down there quite like Mudbugs. For those of you who don't have any taste buds, there is a difference between Cajun and Creole food. Mudbugs is a little piece of NOLA that I can drive to whenever I want to Laissez Bon Temp Roulez! BTW-I have heard that Yats is pre-made and reheated? I have never had anything good at any of their locations.
  • Fantastic!!
    Mudbugs is awesome. I love their food and could eat the Black Eyed Pea Jambalaya and their Dirty Rice every day of the week. The decor is comfortable and cute too. Nice people to boot. I highly recommend!
  • So-so
    On three separate visits we have found the food to be good but unremarkable. It doesn't seem to have the all of the expressive taste of excellent southern cooking, but they very well may need to keep it that way for their clientele. Goodness knows I've heard, "is it spicy? - I don't want it if it is spicy." about a million times in restaurants around here.

    One time we did have to wait well over twenty minutes for our food, 2 plates, while the kitchen prepared a take out order, that wasn't too slick.
  • Congratulations!
    Glad to see a great write up on a successful local business. My wife and I enjoy being greeted by Roy every time we visit for dinner. That is what keeps us coming back, and makes us choose Mud Bug's over anyone else. I hope they continue to flourish as the Carmel A and D District continues to prosper.

    Best of luck!
  • Authentic
    I am a cajun from Lousiana. When I want home cookin I go to Mudbugs. I try to pass the good word around on my own. I am glad to see they received recognition. Che'r, it brings me back to Breaux Bridge.
    • I want to like them
      They're less than a mile from my house, and I've been several times, but nothing has ever been great.

      I love Yats and just made it to Papa Roux for the first time a couple of weeks ago. I would love love love to see one of these replace Mudbugs.

      And growing up a Hoosier, nothing will ever replace my love of the old Red Lobster Hush Puppies. I miss them...
    • Po' Boy
      Nothing better than a Po'boy, hushpuppies and a cold one. The whole district has come alive. Love sitting outside this time of year and people watch
    • Mudbug's is too expensive for what you get
      If I want Cajun I can go out to Papa Roux's and get 1/2 a hoagie, a drink, and choice of all or any sides-so much very good food, for just $6. They came to Indy from New Orleans after Katrina. I do like that place-very small and very packed with people.
    • One word "Hushpuppies!"
      Love them Hushpuppies and pulled pork sandwiches!! Great staff, great food, of course it will succeed :-)
    • Good food!
      We found Mudbugs in 2010, and may be a good part of the growth! It is a fun, clean, place with outstanding food, and nice people. Great story, glad it is going well.
    • Amazin Cajun
      The food is here is delicious! The family atmosphere is great and there isn't enough room in this comment section to talk up this restaurant. Thoroughly impressed with the service and love the Po'Boy sandwhiches!!!

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