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INSIDE DISH: Great Divide bridges Lockerbie past, present

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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 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“The liquor license has been here since prohibition was repealed, and my family are the third owners since approximately 1930,” said David Brooks, 55, who shares a majority stake in the business with siblings Lee Anne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. 

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Ralph's Great Divide
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743 E. New York St.
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(317) 637-2192
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www.ralphsgreatdivide.com
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Concept: Lockerbie neighborhood bar and grill in a building with one section constructed before the Civil War, and the other around 1900.
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Founded: 1983
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Owners: Siblings Lee Anne Brooks, David Brooks and Roger Brooks, plus several minority owners.
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Purchase price: About $70,000 in 1983 for the business and real estate.
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Gross sales: $278,000 (2009); $300,000 (2010).
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Employees: 10
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Seating: 50 at tables; 12 at bar; and 12 in outside beergarden.
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Goals: To renovate the northern face of the building, which is bowing out slightly; to market the restaurant's homemade salad dressings, ham products and desserts.
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Good to know: The restaurant is only open to the public Monday through Friday, although it is available for special events on weekends and temporarily opens during Colts games. It also has integrated music into its offerings with live piano karaoke on Monday and Friday evenings.
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  • Divide
    Ok Mayor Ballard, You are just bitter because they wouldn't comp your lunch!
  • GREAT PLACE
    This is one of my favorite restaurants in town. You have to try the pea salad and the coconut cream pie!!!
  • It's Not JUST The Economy...
    I am no longer a customer at Ralph's Great Divide and the reason is not at all [solely] due to a poor economy and this consumer's reduced disposable income. I venture to guess that my sentiments would be echoed by many of the non-returning diners. The truth is that consistently offered high value for the price charged will bring returning business every time. My last several visits to Ralph's were distressing in that the place was clearly trading on a reputation that was no longer deserved. From my uncomfortable seat, I would wait for my food order and peer around the place. It needs a complete, thorough cleaning from the ceiling to the floor. Light fixtures included. Wash your front door window glass- it is always dirty every time I have visited and even now when I drive on by. The menu additions often do not taste "fresh" [if they have taste] and some of the food features a mysterious "frozen" flavor. During my final few visits even the food servers seemed highly disinterested in the entire event. I don't say this to be mean or nasty but when I read that the owners blame their serious business downturn on the economy I must speak up. It's just not "the economy"; too many past-their-prime enterprises too often employ that tired and easy excuse instead of being honest about their own part in a value decline. Owners and/or managers are often the culprits as to why their enterprises are past-their-prime. I am no longer there because an aged, unkept, dirty, smelly restaurant offers me and my dining dollars little reason to return. Maybe "Kitchen Nightmares" and Chef Ramsey should be called upon to help save the place...it could again be a great jewel for Lockerbie and the Near East End.
  • Create an Identity
    I could identify with a bowl of Hot Pot Aug and a bourbon ham sandwich right now! Love the Great Divide!

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  1. I am not by any means judging whether this is a good or bad project. It's pretty simple, the developers are not showing a hardship or need for this economic incentive. It is a vacant field, the easiest for development, and the developer already has the money to invest $26 million for construction. If they can afford that, they can afford to pay property taxes just like the rest of the residents do. As well, an average of $15/hour is an absolute joke in terms of economic development. Get in high paying jobs and maybe there's a different story. But that's the problem with this ask, it is speculative and users are just not known.

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