Welcome back to IBJ’s video feature “Inside Dish: The Business of Running Restaurants.”
Our subject this week is The Legend Classic Irvington Café. Since opening in 2003, it has become something of a culinary institution in the resurgent east-side neighborhood of Irvington, in part by hemming closely to the historic and middle-class vibe of the area.
“It’s important to this neighborhood to feel like something belongs here,” said co-owner John Robertson, who moved with his family from New Jersey to Irvington in 1990. “We wanted to make sure that the character of the restaurant dovetailed with the character of the neighborhood.”
Taking a space in a 1920s Arts and Crafts-style building on Irvington’s main commercial drag on Washington Street, Robertson scoured antique stores and auctions for period-appropriate furnishings that would feel simpatico with the high ceilings and hardwood floors. The fact that not all the dining-room chairs would match, for example, only added to the homey synergy.
“If you went to a family gathering for a big dinner, chairs are pulled from every part of the room. They don’t match, and everybody sits around and has a great time,” Robertson said.
He and his wife, Kim, spent about $150,000 on startup expenses, financed in great part by a $50,000 loan from Kim’s father and $55,000 from a second mortgage on their home. The menu focused on comfort food, with classic dinner entrees like meatloaf and breaded chicken at prices that barely broke double-digits.
Although light alcoholic beverages would be a key offering in such a relaxed atmosphere, the Robertsons waited several months before applying for a beer and wine permit, bowing to the neighborhood’s sensitivity to potent potables. The founders of the original town of Irvington were prohibitionists, and early businesses were restricted from selling alcohol.
“We knew there were still some people in the neighborhood who had some objection to alcohol being served in their neighborhood, because they didn’t want it to become like, say, Broad Ripple, as most people would say, with a lot of bars,” Robertson said.
“We took our time and built alliances,” he said. “We wanted people to get to know us, that we’re Irvington people just like you are. We raised our family here. … In early 2004, we started a petition. I knocked on every door within two blocks and talked to every person in their home and wanted to know if it was something they were content with.”
The restaurant received its state permit in June 2004. Beer and wine accounted for about 15 percent of the restaurant’s gross sales in the first year; now it’s closer to 25 percent, Robinson said.
“When people go out to dinner, they want to have a glass of wine with their dinner,” he said. “And that is important to your business. If people are not coming in because they can’t do that, it’s hurting me.”
In part via a 1,000-square-foot expansion in 2007 that included a modest bar area, gross sales at The Legend have ballooned over the years to $477,000 in 2010. Net income, however has lagged. The restaurant first started producing a profit in 2008 after essentially breaking even since 2003; in 2010, it finished the year with $15,000 in profit.
“You’d like to think that, ‘Jeez, I’ve got some net income, I should be able to do a few more things than what I do.’ But it’s expensive to run this business,” Robertson said. “Every time you turn around, a piece of equipment goes down. I had to replace a part in my dishwasher last week, and that’s a thousand dollars, and just like that, it’s gone.”
In the video at top, Robertson discusses his initial trepidation over starting the restaurant, born from years in the restaurant service industry. He also weighs in on designing the space, startup costs, and his decision to limit his hours in the kitchen and begin to pay himself a regular wage.
Neighborhood patrons account for about 40 percent of the eatery’s customers. One of Robertson’s principal concerns is attracting new diners, but he has some reservations about using social media and online coupon offers that have been embraced by other restaurants. He discusses his concerns in the video below.