Welcome back to IBJ’s video feature “Inside Dish: The Business of Running Restaurants.”
Our subject this week is The Sinking Ship, which has an odd-couple origin story that sounds like the setup for a joke heard during the neighborhood joint’s regular Sunday night stand-up comedy series. It goes something like this: “OK, so an accountant and a tattoo artist decide to start a bar …”
Andy Hamaker, 43, and Damon Lyden, 31, met through a mutual friend in 2008. Lyden, a former U.S. Army infantryman who recently had returned from a 13-month stint in Iraq, was inking in Indianapolis for Artistic Skin Designs. Hamaker held down a much more traditional, tie-required job as a CPA. They bonded over music; Lyden played bass, and Hamaker was a percussionist.
They would regularly grab drinks together and shoot the breeze after work. And one day, Lyden texted Hamaker: “We should start a bar.”
Lyden already had a solid base of experience in food service, and Hamaker was intrigued by the entrepreneurship angle. “I liked the idea of having my own business and having the ability to help a lot of people, who otherwise might not get help, in terms of employment,” Hamaker said.
Hoping to eliminate the second-guessing and turf-defending that doom many partnerships, Hamaker and Lyden decided to establish very distinct roles. Hamaker would be the financial mind, and Lyden would be the operations guy.
“If it’s an operating issue, he will just come and ask me, and not just try to change something without telling anyone,” Lyden said of Hamaker. “And if it’s finances, I just ask him. I don’t assume we have money to take out of the bank.”
Hamaker (who is not related to the family that ran the eponymous pharmacy at 49th and Pennsylvania streets) played a pivotal role in obtaining the startup funds. Most restaurateurs are all but laughed out of bank offices when they come seeking commercial loans, but Hamaker was able to offer personal collateral to cover a whopping $610,000 in financing for The Sinking Ship.
The partners then ponied up another $160,000 of their own money to finish an extensive interior revamp of the former home of Steck Plumbing at 4923 N. College Ave. Major expenses included $150,000 in kitchen equipment, $40,000 for a rooftop HVAC unit, and $40,000 for a three-way liquor license. They hired a general contractor for some of the work in the leased space, but tackled other tasks themselves.
The project went way over their original $500,000 budget, and took longer than expected. Needing to bring in revenue right away, they opened The Sinking Ship on Feb. 17, 2011, just hours after installing its point-of-sale computer system.
“I didn’t have time to train my staff,” Lyden said. “When you’re trying to get at least some money in the door, you’re sacrificing service and quality.”
They righted the Ship over a six-month shakeout period, establishing core personnel and best practices. With a staff made up primarily of local musicians—and some with busy touring schedules—they realized that word of mouth from those gigs was bringing in significant numbers of customers, beyond the neighborhood regulars they had been courting. Bolstered by Facebook, the Ship’s marketing required no budget.
“We’ve never really paid for any advertising,” Lyden said. “And being a neighborhood bar, I’m not trying to grab people from the other side of town. We have who we need. We can’t afford advertising anyway.”
The venue benefitted from some free advertising in summer 2011 when several area residents objected to the renewal of its liquor license, and the local media took notice. Patrons and other supporters showed up in force at hearings, and opposition to the renewal eased. Members of the Marion County Alcohol Beverage Board voted unanimously to renew the license on Aug. 15, 2011.
In the meantime, new patrons checked out the Ship to see what the fuss was about. “That was the best thing that could have happened,” Lyden said. “We had so many people who I wouldn’t imagine would come in normally. … We got an older crowd out of it too. And they would be like, ‘I don’t know why they’re trying to shut you down. You guys are awesome.’”
They saw another bump in business this summer with the institution on June 1 of a citywide smoking ban that expanded existing restrictions to include most bars. While beer and liquor sales at the Ship remained steady, food sales shot up from $19,500 in May to $22,700 in June.
“It was instantaneous,” Lyden said. “It was the day after the ban. All these new people who are like, 'They’re nonsmoking now. Let’s try it.’”
Over the past 12 months, the Ship has posted gross sales of $880,000 and net income of $30,300, according to Hamaker. For now, the two owners are drawing small salaries and reinvesting the profits into the business. Hamaker remains a CPA, and Lyden picks up shifts as a bartender to help make ends meet.
One of their key goals is to improve the financial position of their loyal employees. The Sinking Ship offers a 401(k) plan after six months, and health-insurance benefits after a year. And the owners plan to make long-term employees partners down the road.
“Hopefully we can get things set to one day where we can be employee-owned and people can make their livings off this,” Lyden said.
In the video at top, the owners detail how they met and first hatched the idea for start a bar. They also discuss the sometimes turbulent startup and the milestones that allowed them to breathe easier.
The Sinking Ship is named after a song written by Lyden’s friend Jacob Blaylock, a fellow Iraq War veteran who committed suicide in 2007. He tells the story in the video below, which includes a section of the song performed by the late Blaylock.