Restaurant focuses on keeping connections and staying in business

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Bluebeard co-owner Ed Battista said it has been inspiring to see customers keep showing up to eat outside, even in the cold. (IBJ photo/Eric Learned)

Yes, Bluebeard is one of the city’s most acclaimed restaurants—but that’s not really what the business is about, says its co-owner and president, Ed Battista.

“We’re in the people business,” Battista said. “The food is secondary.”

The Fletcher Place restaurant and its adjacent bakery, Amelia’s, have gone through some radical changes in the past year—all aimed at both keeping the businesses going and maintaining the human relationships at their core.

“Right now, it’s about continuing those connections,” Battista said.

None of it has been easy. “It’s been a really hard year. It’s been a year of spinning our wheels, and stress and sorrow,” he said.

Out of concern for his staff’s safety, Battista has decided not to resume indoor dining until all his employees are vaccinated. “I couldn’t live with myself if one of my staff got [COVID-19] and wasn’t OK, or if they took it back to their family and lost a parent.”

So the restaurant has shifted to takeout, though it still maintains a 25-seat patio for outdoor dining—offering about a 10th of Bluebeard’s normal indoor and outdoor capacity combined.

Even during February’s deep freeze, Battista said, at least a few customers each day braved the cold to eat on the patio, fortified by heaters, blankets and a fire pit. “It’s incredibly inspiring to see people still showing up.”

The restaurant has also stepped up its social media game, dedicating nearly two full-time staff positions to creating a steady stream of online content. “With the world the way it is right now, our connections through social media are really important.”

That includes videos: Bluebeard occasionally sells take-home meal kits or cocktail kits, which include a link to an instructional video featuring a Bluebeard staffer. Videos are shot in a room at the restaurant that’s been converted into a makeshift production studio.

Amelia’s also launched a grocery service through which customers can order everything from bottles of wine to take-home meals to baked goods and grocery staples, then stop by the bakery for curbside pickup.

Pre-pandemic, Battista said, the business generated about 75% of its revenue from Bluebeard and 25% from Amelia’s. Now, it’s just the opposite, with grocery sales making up the bulk of revenue.

Overall, business is down about 40% from pre-pandemic levels. Between Bluebeard and Amelia’s, Battista now has 57 full- and part-time employees, down from 86 pre-pandemic. Those who remain have learned new skills by necessity.

“We’ve got bartenders who are now making gelato,” he said.

On top of all the business uncertainty, Battista said the hardest thing about the pandemic was not being able to hug his parents. (His parents are now vaccinated and hugging has resumed.)

Looking ahead, he’s optimistic. The flu pandemic of 1918-1920, he noted, was followed by the Roaring ’20s.

“We can’t wait to see our customers again. It’s going to be a wonderful summer.”•

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14 thoughts on “Restaurant focuses on keeping connections and staying in business

  1. While I appreciate Ed’s commitment to his staff’s safety, I certainly miss my regular meals there from the good old days. And unless his staff consists primarily of 80-year-olds, he’s exercising an extreme level of precaution. And even his scenario, of taking it “back to their family and losing a parent” is farfetched, given that 80-year-olds (the presumed parents of his staffers) still have an over 95% chance of recovery. Sure, that’s a fifth as good as the 99.7% survival for people of normal employable age, but restaurants that exert this level of caution could be their own worst enemies. They’re tying their hands behind their back for a situation only slightly more likely than getting struck by lightning.

    It’s bizarre hearing analogies to the Spanish Flu pandemic. Up to 6-7% of people afflicted died, and it disproportionately affected young people with violent auto-immune responses. It wasn’t really similar to this virus in any significant way.

    Is he going to make his staff get vaccinated? What if they refuse? Many find these rushed vaccines riskier than actually getting the virus, given the survival rate. And since the virus keeps mutating, are his staff going to have to get a vaccine for every mutation? It could be years before such things are available, and we may never catch up. The virus is becoming endemic, which is in the long-haul a good thing.

    I ask these questions because I want this place to hang in there!

    1. One person lost is too many for me as an employer. As the person asking my staff to risk their lives to keep my business running through a global pandemic that has killed more than half a million Americans, it’s all worth it. If my business brought forth the loss of just one person that I could have saved I would be devastated. I’m not willing to ask that of my work family.

      My employees still have bills to pay and it’s not right to make them choose between their livelihoods and risking the safety of their family. It was an easy decision. It was the right decision.

      We will get back to normal soon and what we did during all of this will be a distant memory. I don’t want to look back with any regrets. This is a short time in the grand scheme of life so the sacrifices are tolerable. The goodwill in the community and dedication from a staff that knows they are not disposable will more than make up for the hardship.

      The mention of 1918 had nothing to do with the virus then or now, just that after everyone spent a year or more of worry, they will be ready to go out and celebrate life.

      And yes. As soon as our staff can get vaccinated we all will. Any speculation about mutations isn’t really relevant rat this point. Right now we need to focus on keeping Americans safe and healthy. Caring about each other and our community. We have a solution to a devastating disaster and are moving in the right direction. I’m happy to be a part of the solution and do my part for my community.

      The future is bright.

    2. And we can’t wait for you to come back and dine again! Patio is open for the time being and we will be back to normal in just a few months. The outlook is very promising.

  2. Your website did not mention no indoor dining three weeks ago. So the six of us went to Mesh and had a great meal. Won’t be back. While I appreciate your abundance of caution for your employees, it’s well past time to open up.

    1. I’m sorry that you won’t be back and that our business decisions have upset you. That wasn’t our intention. Navigating this global pandemic has been rough for all of us in the restaurant industry and we couldn’t make it through without the strong support of our faithful customers. I really wish that none of this had ever happened. That’s for sure.

      If you change your mind you know where to find us.

  3. Ed, keep doing what you know best as the owner. You have a unique place in the Indy experience, and I have had meaningful long meals with close friends at Bluebeard and very much enjoy Amelia’s offerings. It will all come back to rather normal soon.

  4. I think you are a wise, visionary, and compassionate leader and I cannot wait to support you even more when you and your team are ready. I wish more leaders were willing to make tough decisions to protect us all

    1. This an approach that one expects from collectivistic ideologues. Keeping people “safe” while crime levels in the city (and most big cities) are at their highest recorded since the crack epidemic (or possibly ever), while millions of small businesses have collapsed (including tens of thousands of restaurants)…all while the deep-pocketed corporations that contribute to politicians’ campaigns get to remain open. It’s the most “trickle up” approach of making the rich wealthier–at the expense of the middle class–that anyone living today has ever experienced. Nobody outside of federal/state/city executives have anything to do with the latter of these two conditions, and neither is certainly our fault…but if we continue to enable it to the point that we are driven out of business because of it, we certainly cannot blame the “reckless” business owners who prioritized economic activity, while recognizing that conducting a good and successful business often does require the incursion of some risk.

      This is fundamentally irrational and will make it harder for me to sympathize if these restaurants are forced to close, which will have far more to do with clinging to ideology than the modest impacts of the virus itself. But in my world, everyone has a right to their opinion, no matter how misguided it may seem. And if the food is good, I can usually look past the defective ideology.

  5. Proud to have you as a friend and neighbor businesses. Bluebeard and Amelia’s have been exemplary and have made the pandemic easier on many people.

  6. While you may have lost one customer because you weren’t 100% clear on your website, you have gained a new one here and I can’t wait to visit when you open back up fully. Thank you for your committement and compassion to your staff and the community. I’m looking forward to visiting soon!

  7. I appreciate Mr. Battista for using compassionate reasoning to make his decision. The main thing to keep in mind is that he has the right to decide how to run his business, and his customers have the freedom to choose to dine there or not. Those are the rights we have as American citizens.

    I have heard that Bluebeard is a fantastic restaurant and I hope to dine there in the future.