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TeePee could rise again: Local man hopes to revive restaurant that was city fixture from 1930s to '70s

May 21, 2007

Dick Turner is looking for an entrepreneur who shares his taste for nostalgia and Big Chief cheeseburgers.

For 20 years, he has dreamed of opening an updated version of the classic TeePee restaurants that served as hangouts for generations from the 1930s to 1970s. At its peak, the chain had three Indianapolis locations, each with dining rooms and curb service, on Madison Avenue and Fall Creek Boulevard and in Nora.

Turner can show you the frayed legal documents that outline his ownership of the TeePee trademark, which he bought from the estate of the original owners. He says the restaurants fell into decline after the original owner died.

He's got worn recipes stained by the restaurant's famous salad dressing, along with copies of the menu from 1979, when a Big Chief was $1.30 and a Double-Thick Chocolate Malt was 75 cents.

He'll tell you he's too old and not wealthy enough to take on the project alone. But Turner, who at 68 has had seven heart surgeries, will promise to do his part: sit at the counter, sip coffee and make sure customers are satisfied. He even has blueprints of his proposed restaurant and a vacant site picked out along U.S. 31 South near Shelby Street. Turner just needs a partner with lots of cash. He says the land and building will cost $2.85 million. He also has a smaller prototype that would cost less.

"My passion is seeing it back up before I die," he said.

The odds are against him, said Steve Delaney, a local real estate broker who specializes in restaurants. The fact Turner now has a site plan and a potential location are signs of progress, but he still has a long way to go.

"TeePee had a really good operation, but to translate that into the new millennium will take more than having the name and the rights to the sauce," Delaney said. "It's a long and difficult translation from idea to reality."

Turner also will have to lower his price if he wants to see the restaurant take off. He said he wants $4 million for the trademark and recipes, a laughably high price to those in the business, although Turner says he will take a lot less as part of a partnership agreement.

If he gets serious about negotiations, prominent south-side residents such as Jeff Cardwell think it could work.

"I think if TeePee came back, it would be an absolute hit," said Cardwell, a community leader who runs a local hardware store, Cardwell Do-It-Best Home Center. "It would be a home run, a destination."

Turner is known as a dreamer, but he insists his plans to bring back TeePee are more than wild fantasy. He's been working on the plan for a while.

When workers tore down the old TeePee in 1984, Turner grabbed a rusted collection of metal pipes that sat on the restaurant's roof: the TeePee top. It's now tucked away in a corner of his garage. He plans to put it in the lobby of his new restaurant, along with an educational display on American Indians. He also vows to track down the original sign.

Turner first visited a TeePee in 1942, when he was 4 years old. His parents took him to the location along Fall Creek at the State Fairgrounds, and told him how the restaurant was named for American Indians. The story fascinated him.

As a teenager, Turner hung out at the TeePee, soaking up everything he could about the restaurant business. The proprietor, Albert McCombs, asked him why he wasn't spending more time flirting with girls. He promised there was enough time for both interests.

Turner might tell you about his stint in the Army, the Burger Chef locations he opened in Alabama, or his friendship with Alabama Gov. George Wallace, but he'll always come back to the TeePee.

He got a brief taste of his dream in 1979, when he reopened the Fall Creek restaurant after acquiring the rights. He said he gave out free ice cream to children who cleaned their plates. He made his way around the dining room checking on customers, several of whom admitted they "had conceived their children" in his parking lot. Waitresses told him their tips reached record highs.

But his run lasted only a few months before dissolving into a dispute with the State Fair board and eventually bankruptcy. Turner later opened a restaurant on the south side that served some TeePee recipes, then tried a "mini" TeePee at City Market. Neither lasted long, although Turner is still infamous on the south side for his Southpole restaurant. He had a woman live in a hut on top of a pole for more than 500 days. She broke a world record, but the publicity stunt wasn't enough to keep Turner's restaurant open.

Cardwell would like to see TeePee's return as part of a revitalization of the Miracle Mile, the Madison Avenue gateway to the south side. The once-thriving stretch just south of downtown was hit hard by the construction of interstate highways and sprawl. Turner's smaller prototype would fit nicely along the strip, across the street from a McDonald's where a TeePee once stood.

Cardwell is president of Gateway Business Alliance, a group that plans to bring back the Miracle Mile Parade in September. The last Miracle Mile Parade was in 1957, when the TeePee was thriving.

Cardwell figures a new TeePee could be a staple of the area's revival.

"His best thing is to do a franchise license," Cardwell said of Turner. "He's got to come up with a formula and I'm not sure at this point what it is, and I'm not sure he does, either."

It won't be easy, but reopening the TeePee is doable, Delaney said. Just look at the local entrepreneurs behind 96th Street Steakburgers, a successful restaurant that now has two locations, he said. They started with an ambitious idea built on nostalgia and pulled it off.

Turner would have name recognition with TeePee-at least among the baby boomers who used to "buzz" the restaurant in high school and the youngsters who visited with their families, said Jerry Cosby, retired editor of The Spotlight, a south-side newspaper now run by Virginia-based Gannett Co.

"It wasn't a Hilton, but on the other hand the décor was nice, and you could get a good square meal and value for your money," he said.

If Turner wants to capitalize on the TeePee name, though, he had better act fast.

"People who remember the TeePee are getting old," Cosby said.
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