Welcome back to IBJ’s video feature “Inside Dish: The Business of Running Restaurants.”
Our subject for this installment is Zydeco's, an unlikely oasis of Cajun cuisine in downtown Mooresville. Few seem more surprised by its success than husband-and-wife owners Carter and Debora Hutchinson, who opened the eatery on just slightly more than a whim in 1998—and without any previous experience in the food or service sides of the food-service industry.
"We didn't known nothin' about no restaurantin'," Debora said, assuming a mock-backwoods accent for effect. "We were in business probably a month when one of our customers told us that there were big trucks that would bring food to you. We were like, 'Where do we sign up?'"
Debora, 52, and Carter, 51, met on Bourbon Street in New Orleans during Mardi Gras of 1996. He was a computer-graphic and fine artist in New Orleans who also taught computer-related course at Tulane University; she was in auto sales for a Toyota dealership in Indianapolis. They struck up a quick long-distance romance that led to Carter moving to central Indiana just a few months later. They soon bought a home in Mooresville; they married in 1998.
Carter's Cajun cooking was a hit with Debora's friends and co-workers. When a friend with a restaurant space to rent in Monrovia suggested that they consider opening an eatery, they jumped in with little forethought, using credit cards to finance a $12,000 startup. The period between the idea stage and the opening was less than a month—Aug. 14 to Sept. 11, 1998.
Their steep learning curve in the restaurant business was eased by door-busting patronage. "There wasn't anything like us around," Debora said. "And there were a lot of people from Louisiana who lived out here. We had no idea until we opened, and they all came out."
One lesson the Hutchinsons learned in the first few years was that it's often better to own your property than rent. In 2002, they purchased their current locale in downtown Mooresville, just a block or so from their home, and soon closed the Monrovia location. "We couldn't be both places at once," Debora said.
The Hutchinsons are quick to admit that they could save money by cutting some corners, such as sourcing many of their ingredients from local distributors instead of having them shipped from Louisiana. "Even the mustard that Carter uses—I can't get it here," Debora said. "I have to get it from Louisiana. How stupid is that? But we don't want to use any other mustard."
Beyond the occasional lean period, the restaurant typically provides a modest income for the Hutchinsons. Its gross sales have been remarkably consistent through the recession—between $390,000 and $410,000 annually from 2007 to 2009 (see "Notes from the Back of the Napkin," below).
"We'll never be rich, but we'll have what we want," Debora said. "It's not a making-money thing as much as it is our life."
In the video at top, Debora and Carter recount the creation of the restaurant and their early mistakes, and then take a stab at explaining how their working relationship exploits their individual strengths. In the video below, they provide a glimpse into the day-to-day give-and take between spouses who work together, as they debate the merits of altering the eatery's menu.