Welcome back to IBJ’s video feature “Inside Dish: The Business of Running Restaurants.”
Our subject this week is Mudbugs Cajun Cafe, which after four shaky years in Carmel’s Arts & Design District has begun turning a profit. The eatery began as a bit of an afterthought by novice restaurateurs who were mainly interested in starting a food concessions trailer and keeping their day jobs. Today, they’re out of the concessions business and beginning to contemplate expanding the restaurant to new locations.
“We couldn’t be happier, really,” said Belinda LeBlanc, who owns the restaurant with her husband, Roy LeBlanc, and their daughter Kelly LeBlanc. “Everyone warned us that it takes three to five years, and I think for a Cajun restaurant that’s even more true.”
The roots of the restaurant are in Roy’s love of homestyle Cajun cooking from his native Louisiana. Friends pushed him for years to start his own culinary business; he finally was convinced by Monica and Jerry Urick, who own Urick Concessions LLC and could help bankroll the operation.
The original plan was for the Uricks to buy a custom-made concessions trailer in which the LeBlancs could sell jambalaya, po' boy sandwiches and other southern vittles. Because mobile food vendors are required to do the lion’s share of their food preparation in an inspected stationary kitchen (aka "commissary"), they decided to open a small restaurant that would act both as a food-prep area and additional outlet for the cuisine.
“When we started looking into it, it was actually cheaper to open the restaurant to try to help pay for the specialized cooking equipment and the kitchen commissary piece than it was to try to just build a commissary space,” Belinda said.
The Uricks footed the bill for the trailer (about $80,000-$90,000) and the restaurant’s startup costs (about $150,000-$175,000, according to Monica Urick). The LeBlancs brought the recipes and elbow grease. Daughter Kelly became manager of the restaurant, which opened in April 2007.
Both incarnations of Mudbugs struggled. Selling their wares at the Indiana State Fair and area racing venues, the LeBlancs found that their trailer food was a bit too esoteric for some Hoosiers’ tastes.
“They were looking at the stuff sideways. Like, ‘Cajun food? That’s just going to be hot,’” Roy said.
Meanwhile, the restaurant experienced the same problem, while also dealing with limited parking and weak foot traffic due to persistent construction projects along Carmel’s Main Street.
By 2009, Urick Concessions was growing at a fast pace with vending business and drawing Monica away from back-office duties at the restaurant. The solution was for the partners to sack the Mudbugs concessions trailer, and for the Uricks to sell their shares in the restaurant to the LeBlancs for $30,000.
“It was either close the restaurant completely or make a deal and walk away,” Monica said. “I didn’t want to close it down. We knew it had potential. It was just going to take time. I knew they would be fine.”
Yet to see a dollar in profit from the business, the LeBlancs invested another $30,000 (provided by a relative, who wished to be a silent investor) into the restaurant in early 2010, covering losses and some interior redecorating needed to brighten the space. Local construction projects finally began to wind down, and the city of Carmel also removed a tree that was obscuring the Mudbugs façade and extended the sidewalk in front of the restaurant for patio seating.
“After three years, people were coming in and saying, ‘We didn’t even know you were here,’” Belinda said.
In 2010, Mudbugs’ gross sales increased by 18 percent to about $224,000, and losses were cut in half to $9,707. For the first seven months of 2011, gross sales have hit $170,000, and the restaurant has operated in the black with $15,574 in net income.
Belinda, who works as a business analyst for the Marion County Public Health Department, and Roy, a salesman for Irvin Kahn & Son Inc. flooring wholesaler, now anticipate being able to move Roy to the restaurant fulltime next week. That will allow him to get more face-time with customers and help build the restaurant’s catering business.
“He’ll be able to make those sales calls, to go out and talk to people interested in catering. Right now, he can’t do that,” Belinda said.
In the video at top, the LeBlancs recount the origins of Mudbugs and take a quick sidetrip to a recent crawfish boil, which has become something of a monthly tradition during warm-weather months. In the video below, they discuss how they prepare their cuisine, the potential for raising prices due to escalating food costs, and when it's appropriate for an independent eatery to take a cue from chain restaurateurs.