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INSIDE DISH: Reviving an iconic east-side diner

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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 Indy's Historic Steer-In, the latest in a line of drive-in diners situated at 5130 E. 10th St., dating back to 1929. (For a detailed history, see "Notes from the Back of the Napkin" below.) Harold's Steer-In, owned by Harold Phillips, occupied the spot from 1964 to 2008. The iconic eatery had struggled since 2001, when Phillips stepped back from the business and leased it to former employees.


Longtime east-side resident Casey Kehrer, 42, saw an opportunity and convinced his parents, Charlie and Barbara Kehrer, to help revive the landmark eatery. They entered into a lease in 2007 and invested $125,000 in improvements to the property and interior. Business began to pick up after a slow start, and they decided to buy the restaurant from Phillips in 2008 at a purchase price of $325,000. They redubbed it "Indy's Historic Steer-In."

"It's been phenomenal. We turned a profit of $2,000 last year, and I was just tickled to death after two years to show a profit," said Barbara, 60, whose retirement has been hijacked by 45-hour weeks at the restaurant.

Sales leapt from $650,000 in 2008 to $825,000 in 2009, and are on track to pass $1 million this year. Much of that growth stems from a decision to restart dinner service after it fell by the wayside under previous operators, Barbara said.

"When we first opened, we were doing $300 or $400 a night in sales, and you've got two waitresses, two cooks, a dishwaser and a cashier," she said. "Now, Tuesday through Thursday is pretty consistent, $1,600 or $1,800 a night, and Fridays is $2,500 a night. And Saturday has really picked up. It was our slowest night to come around, but a lot of times Saturday will outdo Friday night."

In the video above, Barbara and Casey, now the general manager, discuss their strategy for rehabilitating the Steer-In while keeping its nostalgic flavor; how carry-out and delivery orders have contributed to sales; and how they struggle to find and keep good employees as business grows.

 

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Indy's Historic Steer-In
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5130 E. 10th St.
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(317) 356-0996
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www.steerin.net
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Concept: The east side's iconic drive-in diner, rehabilitated by new owners in 2008.
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Founded: The site housed a restaurant that opened in 1929 and eventually came to be called Northway Drive-In. In 1960, members of the Indianapolis-based Laughner family of restaurant operators opened a new restaurant in a remodeled version of the building: Laughner's Steer-In. Harold Phillips bought the business in 1964 and rechristened it Harold's Steer-In. Beginning in 2001, Phillips leased the restaurant to two successive groups of operators. In November 2007, he leased it to Charlie and Barbara Kehrer, who then bought the land and the business in October 2008 for $325,000.
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Owners: Charlie and Barbara Kehrer
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Start-up costs: $125,000 spent by the Kehrers in 2007 to improve the property, rehab the diner and open for business.
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Sales & profit/loss: $650,000 in sales with a $50,000 loss (2008); $825,000 in sales with a $2,000 profit (2009). Sales/profit for the first six months of 2010: $500,000/$14,000.
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Employees: 36
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Seating: 116
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Goals: To attract more 30-something patrons with children; to increase catering business; to reach $1 million in sales for 2010; and to extend evening hours this fall after Scecina Memorial High School football games to serve fans and players.
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Good to know: Carry-out and delivery orders account for about one-fourth of the Steer-In's sales.
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  • Steer In for GOOD!
    Part of Steer Ins draw is memories, for me. Though, I do miss the carhops....The Kehrer Family is doing a marvelous job, with this venerable old Eastside establishment. Not the cleanest/neatest/modern of facilities but, the cooking is A-#1!
  • Please Try Again
    I'm really sad to read the comments by "Non-Plussed in Community Heights." As a fellow CH resident, I can personally attest both to the quality and the friendliness of the Steer-In. I've called for carry-out many times, although never at lunch time. While I think they're not very well set up for phone orders (just logistically--the phone is also handled by the cashier who can get swamped), they have been pleasant and have always gotten the food right. Please be patient, particularly during lunch rushes.

    I can also attest to the fact that many of our CH neighbors (not to mention Emerson Heights, Little Flower, and Irvington residents) are regular fixtures at the Steer-In. The owners have been great, active neighbors in the organization. I probably eat here twice a week. You're really missing out on a great neighborhood asset if you won't try them again. I sincerely hope you'll get over yourself a little and give them another shot.
  • Answer The Phone!
    I purchased a home around the corner and moved in a couple of months ago. Community Heights Welcome Committee provided me with a Steer-In menu and told me how very much the owners of the eatery would appreciate my support. Oh, really? The menu clearly stated that ordering over the phone carry out lunch orders were a feature of the business. Quite recently I called the joint dialing the phone number listed on the menu two different times on two different week days, one time around 11:30a and a second time shortly after 2p, to place an order for several lunch carry-out orders for myself and my work crew. Steer-In's phone rang and rang and rang unanswered both days. I can guarantee you that I will not be calling a third time. I have absolutely no desire to experience in person the type of non-service I experienced with unsuccessful attempts with carry-out orders. I guess you can say I've been steered to restaurants providing proved customer service.

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