INSIDE DISH: Sales slacking, Smee's owner seeks solutions

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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 Smee's Place, a bar and grill in the "Cheers" mode opened by north-side native Tim Smeehuyzen in 1993 after years working in the food-service industry and the kitchens of several local eateries. Smeehuyzen aimed for a place with an everybody-knows-your-name familiarity, which helped drive its success in the neighborhood-haunt niche. Ironically, that same sense of familiarity may be contributing to a major sales slump that now has the restaurant running in the red.

"My challenge is to find out why, not that people try new places, but why they don't come back," Smeehuyzen said. "One may be simply because we've been here for 17 years and they feel like they need a change."

Several elements appear to have conspired to depress the eatery's gross sales by a third since 2006—from $1.4 million to $950,000 in 2009 (see "Napkin" below). Located in the commercial mecca at the intersection of 86th Street and Ditch Road, Smee's Place must contend with about two dozen other restaurants and food sellers in the immediate area. The economic downturn also sapped consumers' funds for discretionary spending, even for casual dining at middle-of-the-road prices.

"I thought I'd be much better positioned to hold onto customers than the high-end places," he said. "But with the recession, people are still going out to dinner, but they might go out once a week instead of three times a week. And then the challenge is to make sure that they go to Smee's that one time a week."

Near the beginning of 2010, Smee's began operating at a deficit. So far this year, Smeehuyzen has taken some $55,000 from his own pocket to cover losses. He now is racking his brain to find the combination of fixes that will help revive business.

There is some precedent for major changes that have increased sales without disrupting the restaurant's familiar vibe. In 2001, Smeehuyzen doubled the size of the eatery by leasing an adjacent space and investing $75,000 to make it a mirror image of the first. In 2005, he began leasing more space to the west and spent $85,000 to convert it into a party room for special events. That move also paid dividends, at least for a couple years.

"It is being used, but not as much as I'd like it to be or it needs to be," Smeehuyzen said, citing the slumping economy for lack of demand. "In retrospect, if I knew then what I know now, I probably wouldn't have done it."

In the video above, Smeehuyzen discusses fixes he considering to help freshen Smee's in the minds of patrons, including new menu offerings and cosmetic changes to the restaurant's interior. He also sheds light on a sign recently posted in the front window, reading "Friends don't let friends eat at chain restaurants."


Smee's Place
1454 W. 86th St.
(317) 876-0202
Concept: Neighborhood bar and grill in the "Cheers" mode, with a wide selection of American appetizers and entrees below $20.
Founded: 1993
Owner: Tim Smeehuyzen
Start-up costs: $50,000; expansions in 2001 and 2005 required another $75,000 and $85,000, respectively; in all three instances, Smeehuyzen took out a second mortgage on his home. The loans have since been paid off.
Gross sales: $1.4 million in 2006; $1.25 million in 2007; $1.05 million in 2008; and $950,000 in 2009. In 2010, Smee's Place began operating at a loss, which Smeehuyzen has covered with about $55,000 from reserves.
Employees: 33
Seating: 150
Goals: To introduce a revamped menu within the next month with some new items and repriced dishes; to make some cosmetic changes to the interior in order to freshen the feel of the restaurant; and to renegotiate the space's lease.

  • smees redux
    I felt compelled to visit smees again after reading all the comments...quite a few comments and passionate ones at that ! This place certainly has some rabid supporters which is an enviable base to bring your restaurant back.

    However...I was not terribly impressed with the service...could have been a bit friendlier and quicker...water glasses could have be re-filled quicker...but over all...quite good. The food was served at the correct temperature....and was o.k.....I just think more interesting stuff could be done with local and regional products. However that is my taste..which may not be terribly typical of central indiana. I only eat at local restaurants...and try to do most of my shopping at local retailers as well.

    One thing I notice...is that while regulars are passionate poster...I don't see a single post from the owner or any of the employees. Perhaps I missed it...but if I were the owner...I would be checking in regularly on this free forum...and thanking people for their support...or input. I would apologize to those that had bad experiences and ask them to come in a speak with me directly so that I might have a chance to earn their business.

    I just think this forum...and those on yelp and urbanspoon...are free opportunities for business owners that they consistently blow...compare Scotties efforts with Smees.

    I do hope they make it..as I used to go there often due to the smoke free environment...however...location is no longer convenient.... and the food and beer choices arn't sufficiently compelling.

    However..I will go back more often.

  • Smee's Place
    Have been a long time patron of Smee's and personally enjoy every visit! I dine with my family, with my clients, and co-workers, all of whom enjoy not only the great food but also the wonderful Smee's team. Tim and his restuarant have not only supported and encouraged others to support local businesses, but several years ago was one of the first eating establishments to go "Smoke Free" protecting both his employees and patrons. Smee's Place has been a neighborhood favorite, a great community partner, and place that welcomes all! Smee Up!!
  • Its the best!!!
    I have been eating at Smeeâ??s for at least ten years and love it!!!!I am shocked at some of the responses to this article. We should support local businesses and their workers. I have never had a â??bad experienceâ?? at Smeeâ??s place. The service has always been consistently pleasant and helpful no matter who waits on me. The food is not meant to be gourmet but down home good bar food, (which it is) hence â??Smeeâ??s Bar and Grillâ?? which Bar eludes to Bar = no kids unless they are well trained, so I am not offended at the (no kids menu or high chairs). I have been in plenty of times where if parents want to come in and have dinner with their kids they can. I actually enjoy going to a restaurant which I can sit down and relax, have a great meal with out being harassed by the wait-staff ten times a minute nor subjected to screaming kids. So if you have never been I highly recommend itâ?¦Become a regular in the neighborhood and stop in and enjoy!!!!
  • Smee's
    I have been in the Indy area for the past 5 years, and I am a little upset that I wasn't introduced to Smee's sooner. I have been a loyal customer for the past two years! The food, drinks, and service is excellent. The belief that Smee's is over priced and under served is just rediculous to me! If you ever need anything, I am sure that Tim himself would make sure that your wishes were granted! Tim is a great guy that puts a lot of man hours into his establishment, which can't be said about a lot of restaurant owners! My recommendation is to head down or up to 86th and Ditch to have dinner at Smee's!!!
  • Smee's Is Always Great!
    My wife and I have been patrons of Smee's since the day he first opened the restaurant. We continue to go there because the food quality is very good and the staff is friendly and efficient. If you want a good meal in a friendly atmosphere Smee's is the place to go.
  • A great place to eat
    I am completely shocked at some of the posts I've seen here. Pretty easy to hide behind a computer screen I guess. I do not live within 15 miles of Smee's yet I purposely make the trip over to eat there because of food and service that I recieve. I have yet to have anything but a pleasureable experience. If you have not tried Smee's before I highly recommend it. I moved to the area several years ago, and to date of all the places my wife and I have been to, we've yet to find a place that we feel as comfortable going out to eat at anywere else. Smee's is a great place, and clearly open to hearing opinions to continue to make it a great place for the next decade.
  • Smee's & Smee = Amazing
    I've been going to Smee's for 4 years now and I must say that it is the best restaurant that I've been to in Indianapolis. Tim and his staff do a phenomenal job and their food is amazing. I'm a high school football coach and we have weekly film sessions and Q & A with the parents there and Tim has done an unbelievable job accomodating our group. While his sons all went to a rival high school he has welcomed us with open arms at his restaurant and has even attended several of our games. My wife and I had a dinner there for all of our friends the weekend before our wedding and he made loaded potato skins, which aren't on the menu and are something that he had never made before, and I must say that they were easily the best potato skins I have ever had. I recently went to a dinner there for a friend of mine and it was phenomenal as well. Tim was kind enough to special order a beer that he didn't normally have for me and always keeps them around. Their hot wings, Cuban sandwich, macaroni and cheese, onion rings, and beef stroganof are all amazing and easily the best in town. If you live in the area you have to go. Love you, Smee!!!
  • Opportunity/ Responsibility
    Mr. Smee and his staff have more than enough experience to assure a pleasant dining outing. Have a question or need a recommendation? Ask. Have a comment or concern? Speak up! They're listening. Smee's Place is fully invested in their customers, as is obvious by the cozy relationship it shares with the "regulars." As valuable as that relationship may be, it is nothing compared to opportunity and responsibility to add even more happy customers. This is a fact that is NOT lost on Tim Smee.
  • So not accurate
    I cant believe these negative comments,Smees is a great neighborhood bar and grill! I have always had great food and service! Do you naysayers want the place to close? Then 33 people can go on Obama unemployment for TWO YEARS!!
  • never a problem!
    I have eaten at Smee's since it's opening and have never had to send food back to the kitchen. The Cuban sandwich is awesome as is every one of the salads. His nightly specials are delicious, too. I don't understand why some humans are simply nasty and hateful so I do not tend to believe any opinions that are so childishly written.
  • Will Return
    I was a first timer the past week and thoroughly enjoyed myself..I told the server that I was a newby and she was more than eager to make some suggestions as to what she liked and what was popular..she made suggestions in every category..I ended up chosing the spinach melt and carrot curls, my friend ordered the Santa Fe salad, both were very good. Our server went as far to ask both our names and said she hoped to see us soon. She then introduced us to the owner, Tim, and he was very pleasant. If anyone would like to have a place to go and feel like they have been coming for years then this is definetly a place to try. You as the customer also have to make this possible its not just the servers being warm with you, you need to be open yourself. So sorry for those of you who do not make an effort, you are the ones who are missing out.
  • Honestly People
    I almost hesitate to do this based solely on the fact that the majority of the people who have commented here seem like they want nothing more than to see Smee's Place burn, but I have to say something.

    In no means am I a regular at the restaurant (so don't think I'm getting some special treatment), but there has never been anything inconsistent about the quality of the food served. It's delicious. Everyone needs to calm down and realize that for some reason a few select people have their minds set to use this opportunity to bash a great local restaurant.

    Out of the 34 comments so far, a good 90% have said they will never be back, terrible food, terrible service, etc. This restaurant has 4 stars on Yelp and out of 58 people who have rated it on Urbanspoon, more than 80% like it. Something seems a little out of whack.
  • horrible
    Smee's food quality is a disaster, no wonder he is losing business. Mix that with the bad service you get and there is your answer to why you are failing. Doesn't take a genius to realize that, but then again, no one ever claimed Tim was anything close to a genius.
  • service not so great
    I would agree that service is an issue. Tim is a great guy, but some of the servers have been there so long that I don't think they care anymore. Its a monetary commitment on my part to go there since they have no kids menu, and I'm willing to do that...if the service improves.
  • Smee's
    I have eaten at Smee's many times & have always thought the food was very good/consistent & the service was just fine.
  • Good Lunch, never again for dinner
    My wife enjoys lunch there as she works close by. I've joined her for lunch a couple times and it's been...fine. We tried twice to go to dinner (once with kids and once without) and both times were service pratfalls. We were both waiters back in our younger days and have a good sense of when it is a kitchen issue and when it is a server issue. There is just too much competition for the restaurant dollar to afford bad service, especially up on the NW side of Indy!!
  • Love the place
    I just had dinner at Smee,s tonight and as usual it was great. I ordered my favorite, crab cakes and they were better than most the finer seafood places in town. Great bar crowd tonight and the service was good, so friendly. Smee was there visiting his customers as he often does. Great wine and drink specials. Think you should give it a try, you would enjoy it!
  • Top five favorite restaurants in Indy
    I have just recently moved to the Indy area and have visited Smee's Place on multiple occasions. I have never had a bad experience and the food is always great. The service is phenomenal and the servers and staff always make me feel welcome and excited to be there.

    Every time I am in Smee's place, the owner Tim, always goes out of his way to meet or visit every table. It is really hard to find a restaurant these days that the owner is there every night.

    Best spinach artichoke dip and tenderloin sandwich I have ever had!!
  • Smee's
    If the servers donâ??t know you my name or you are not a regular customer you do not receive the same service.
    It is very obvious when you are sitting in the restaurant that unless you are a regular and the servers/bartender knows you, you receive slow, bad service. If the servers spent half the time taking care of ALL the customers the same way regulars are taken care, you might have more customers.
    I also use to like to order carry out. Quit doing that when the quality was so bad I threw away my last carry out dinner.
    I hope Tim can change things and really takes to heart all these comments.
  • Service
    The service is terrible. I have taken business clients there a few times, and not impressed. I live close enough to walk, but choose other options!
  • Sundays
    I went by Smee's a couple Sundays ago and was surprised to find they were closed on Sundays. I would think they'd do great business during pro football season with a couple extra big-screen TVs, some comfort-food specials, etc. Maybe open up the West Wing for the Colts game.
  • Too expensive
    We returned to eat at Smee's Place, one of our favorite Indy restaurants, after returning to Indianapolis after moving away for 8 years. The food was great and just the same, but we felt like it's was way overpriced compared to similar type restaurants. Salad still rocks though :)
  • Fully Agree
    lorand's comments are spot-on.
  • No High Chairs
    Never had a problem with food or service, but no high chairs means we go to Rusty Bucket down the street. More kid friendly.
  • Love it
    Smee's is my absolute favorite - started going there because it was in the neighborhood, went more often when he went smoke-free, and then we were hooked. The salads and sandwiches are great and the desserts are excellent. Prices are very low too. If you want a different menu every night, then go to a bistro!

    I'm surprised by any negative comments about service. I suppose if you want to be rushed in and out in no time, then you'd appreciate an average chain restaurant. I'd rather feel like the staff wants me to be there, and to enjoy my dinner and drinks. At Smee's, it's like eating at a friend's house - great company, no work, and I want to go back soon!
  • Bland and tired
    Used to like the place, but it lost its quality, and local flavor. Here is an idea, grill good meat, not some hockey puck frozen from a box. Use fresh lettuce, not bagged lettuce, the place used to have much better food, the last time I was there I said it would be a while before I came back.....haven't been back since. I hope he makes it, it is a great location, nice place inside, he needs to freshen it up, and make the quality the best.
  • I know I'm done
    Enjoyed eating at Smee's in the late 90's and early 00's. With the expansion in size came a inversely proportional downturn in service. Then the food quality turned to bland. The last time there during a lunch in 2009, service was nonexistent and food quality was unacceptable. How can you serve a cold hamburger and soggy fries after a 30 minute wait and expect return customers? I know I'm done. For those that say service was great, it was either off-hours or the ever pervasive, conflict-adverse, Hoosier mentality of never challenging poor service in a declining establishment. Tim needs to step back, re-evaluate, and make some hard decisions. Otherwise he should go broke funding that declining establishment.
  • Love the place
    I've been to Smee's quite a few times and always enjoy it. It's true that the menu isn't the most exotic on the planet, but he's got good recipes and it's always quality. The atmosphere is what really makes the place though. If I was still in Indy, I'd go much more.

    It's a shame that a business like this is being so heavily hit by the economy- and it's clear from the numbers that that's the case.
  • Smee's
    We used to go to Smee's a few times a month and generally always liked it. However, the last few times we went at least one person in our group would get something very subpar for quality and often the service was subpar as well. That being said, I would says it's been well over a year since I've been back. As lorand said, it seems like the food is straight off the Sysco truck. That's same type of food I used to get in High School. Another local place that my family frequents quite often always has a sign out front advertising their use of local sources for at least some products and they have special events every weeks during the summer. I don't buy the logic of the economy hurting Smee's, but the fact that it's basically a local version of the Applebee's that's across the parking lot.
  • Smee's is our favorite
    Smee's is our favorite. We've enjoyed dining there since it opened. We very much appreciate the friendly atmosphere and courteous service. In fact, the staff has bent over backwards - double checking on reservations and meeting our needs. Keep up the good work. P.S. My personal favorite is the BLT.
  • Always been great
    Every time I go to Smee's, it's been great. The food is always well prepared, the atmosphere is always lively, and the service is solid. It's definitely a family restaurant in every sense.

    As for why sales have decreased, the only thing I can think of that correlates with the dates expressed is the smoking ban. People have always said, smokers spend money (on drinks, primarily). This customer would hate to think that such a great place is really hurting because of the fact that it disallowed smoking (before the city's law went into place). I'd spend more to enjoy the place now without all the smoke.
  • Great Place
    Our family and friends have been going to Smee's on a regular basis since it opened. we have always experienced very good food and service from Smee's Team. I would highly recommend it as a "very friendly" environment with good food and service!
  • Re: lorand - boring food
    I agree with evrything you said and couldn't even add a thing to all the creative ideas you gave...except for maybe what 'Unknown' said about eating organic, which is what I do now myself, along with a total vegetarian diet, so a place like Smees'- even though he is a GREAT guy- is just not my kinda place unless he made some BIG changes! But I think you should do Smee a favor and e-mail him your comments, couldn't hurt?!
  • boring food
    He has quite a bit of competition from some interesting restaurants nearby...restaurants with much more interesting food choices...better ingredients..healthier...and better service.

    Accurate or not...everything appears to be fresh off the Sysco truck. Shrink the menu...upgrade the ingredients...freshen the choices....and have exciting specials every night posted on a chalk board...not specials that are cheaper...but specials that take advantage of local and regional products...

    the kitchen should be shopping at farmers markets...not the slop from u.s. foods and sysco.

    Invite students from a local culinary school to develop and cook a special on slower nights

    see what they are doing at Pearl Bistro..orchid..tiger lilly..lulus..sawasdee...sesame..even rusty bucket (chain) has some interesting stuff...

    how about featuring local and regional craft beers and inviting the local craft beer folks in for a "tapping" ??? then build a meal around those beers ??

    all kinds of creative things...just have to take a few chances...reassure your current core customers they can still expect to have their favorites rotated...but also be excited about new and healtheir offerings.

    I agree with the above comments..most of the failing restaurans failed because of lousy service and horrible food...has little to do with the economy..it is always easier to blame others rather than to look inward...or to humbly ask the advice of others.
    • Never Been
      I've never been, and to tell you the truth, I've never heard of Smees, and I've lived on the NW of Indy for 10 years. Anyway, I've never had a bad experience at the Friendly in Zionsville. Only problem I have there is all the darn tourists coming in and taking up the seats.
    • Smee's
      I used to go to Smee's fairly often, especially for lunch when I worked nearby. The biggest problem I saw was the "sameness" - same menu, same service, same ambiance - and all of it pretty mediocre. I'd rather go some place more interesting.
    • Smees
      I agree with some of the above comments. Having a business in the neighborhood means that I like to support local business. The last few times I dined there, I had poor service and the food was just okay. And now I've completely changed my eating to more organic and I'm very careful when and where I eat. I tend to favor restaurants that use locally grown and primarily organic food.
    • Smees
      I've been a loyal customer of Smees for many years. Service is always top notch... yes, you sometimes have to wait a little longer than you would like for service, but that's usually a product of how busy they are. The real issue is that Tim needs to totally re-invent his menue. The food over the years has gotten a little bland not only in taste and selection but also in presentation. Good luck Tim!
    • I hope they turn it around
      I hope Smee's makes it. A great location and feel. We used to go every now and then, but haver not returned due to the declining food quality. Two bad experiences in a row and now we spend our $$ elsewhere. It is the food quality that has hurt this place. Several friends have stated the same. It used ot be great, but now below average. The fish was horrible.
    • Former customer
      I like the vibe at Smee's and we used to go there for dinner quite a bit, but in the last 2-3 years we noticed a definite downturn in the food quality. Hard to say exactly what was different but most dishes simply didn't taste as good. We noticed that foods that used to be crispy were soggier, and ingredients didn't seem as fresh. We stopped going--there are other Northside non-chain restaurants in the same price range that serve better food.
    • A fishy tale
      He should check his kitchen. We used to eat there but haven't been back since we were served fish that was obviously past its prime.
    • Smee's - Below Average
      I've visited Smee's twice (thinking the first experience was a fluke), and I'll never return. Both times, the service was very poor (as an example: it took 30 minutes for me to receive my bill after I had politely asked twice for it) and the food was bland and overpriced. For what I paid, I could have went to any other fast casual restaurant and had better service and food.

      There are too many other choices for my dining dollars that provide a better dining experience and make me feel welcome.

    • Advertising?
      I've eaten there a few times and generally had a positive experience. Don't get there often because it's not near where I live and work.

      But I don't think I've EVER seen an ad or an offer from Smee's...I know that costs money, but it takes money to make money.
    • Don't blame the economy
      I'll tell you why Smee's is having problems and it is NOT the economy. The last time I was there having dinner with my girlfreind. the service was absolutely the worst and the food was not much better....below average at best.

      I am getting so tired failing restaurants blaming their own failures on the economy or the tough times against big national chains. Look in the damn mirror! Look at Peter's Restaurant as another example. Terrible service and below average food.....that's why it failed.

    • Smee's is a winner
      I have never had anything but excellent food, great service and a truly fine dining experience at Smee's all with a very personal touch from Tim and his staff.
    • Smee's
      I think the big difference is that now most restaurants are 'smoke free'. Prior to that, we would travel to Smee's to take advantage of the smoke free - now we don't travel as often because we can stay closer to home to eat & drink. I think a new menu would help and might bring me back more often. Good luck - I hope you make it!!

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