Tinker Street owner says restaurant perseveres because of its people

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Rave reviews and a packed dining room have helped define the first nine years of business at Tinker Street, the cozy, 1,000-square-foot restaurant where owner Tom Main spends a lot of time thinking about the well-being of his employees.

The goal, Main says, is to create an atmosphere where staff members view themselves as volunteers and not draftees.

“You get people, and you want them to be better off for the experience—not just at the restaurant but as a person,” he said.

Meanwhile, workforce turmoil and pandemic challenges also are part of the Tinker Street story.

“This little restaurant has been through a lot,” Main said.

Before being selected as one of 47 “restaurants of the year” for 2024 by USA Today, Tinker Street opened in 2015 as the brainchild of Main, one of the co-founders of the Puccini’s Smiling Teeth pizza chain, and Peter George, founder of bygone Fountain Square restaurant Peter’s.

Tinker Street, 402 E. 16th St., made its mark by offering a seasonally inspired menu showcasing locally sourced produce.

Tom Main is the co-founder of Tinker Street, a cozy, 1,000-square-foot restaurant that he said “has been through a lot” since its opening in 2015.  (IBJ photo/Eric Learned)

Patrons flocked to the restaurant, but the success story was interrupted in 2018 by a staff walkout that temporarily closed Tinker Street. The firing of a server based on tardiness became the flashpoint for the walkout, and George was no longer a co-owner when the restaurant reopened two weeks later.

To regain its footing, Tinker Street shifted from being open seven days a week to five.

“Our business wasn’t as good, even though lots of people were super happy that we were open,” Main said, noting that it’s difficult to cover fixed costs such as salaries and rent when operating hours are reduced.

Tinker Street returned to a seven-day schedule in time for the pandemic lockdown, when Main kept his eatery closed longer than most restaurants. It was impractical, he said, to attempt social distancing in such close quarters.

Citing overall fatigue, he made Tinker Street available for purchase in late 2020. The idea yielded a pair of potential buyers, Main said. One wanted him to stay on as the restaurant’s manager, which wouldn’t have eased his fatigue. The other wanted to convert the building into a liquor store, which Main said he didn’t want as his legacy in the resurgent Herron-Morton Place neighborhood.

Tinker Street, a moniker selected in honor of 16th Street’s original name, stayed in Main’s hands.

The 66-year-old North Central High School alum said he stopped paying himself a salary when the restaurant fully reopened in April 2021 to make funds available to retain employees.

“I’m not saying that was a good idea, because I don’t have tons of money, and I reserve the right to change my mind,” Main said with a laugh.

Quoting a quip by former Tinker Street chef Braedon Kellner, Main said, “You know, cooking’s the easy part.”

Keith Carey

Keith Carey, whose Some Guys Pizza is celebrating its 35th anniversary this year, gave Main one of his first jobs in the restaurant business. Carey said the comment about cooking being the easy part rings true.

“If you have a recipe down and you have a good product, all you have to do is replicate it and make sure that continues,” Carey said. “The front of house and everything else—hiring, keeping employees, managing employees, growing and dealing with the public—that’s a moving target.”

Customer service

While Indianapolis is considered a dining city on the rise, Main mentioned a previous era when upscale French restaurants held a place in the market.

LaTour was a Regions Tower tenant where Wolfgang Puck once worked. Near the airport, Chanteclair and Mon Reve were two options for haute cuisine. Camby was home to Chez Jean, and the Glass Chimney was a Carmel fixture for more than three decades.

All of these restaurants closed by 2008. Main said their emphasis on service and professionalism is missed.

“That just disappeared,” he said. “I think it’s kind of sad none of that stuff exists.”

Conceding that high-end French restaurants are rare finds in most U.S. cities, Main said Tinker Street strives to extend a legacy of strong customer service.

“We wanted to blend some aspects from fine dining, but with a pace,” Main said of Tinker Street’s original business plan.

The role of sommelier, for instance, signals a restaurant’s fine-dining approach.

Ashlee Nemeth

At Tinker Street, sommelier Ashlee Nemeth is the lone staff member aside from Main who’s worked at the restaurant since it opened.

Nemeth, who initially was hired as a server, said she appreciates chances to offer blind wine tastings to guests.

“Your brain may tell you that you may not like something, but your palate is what decides if you like it or not,” Nemeth said.

Nemeth and Tyler Shortt, Tinker Street’s executive chef, are participating in the Culinary Crossroads spring dinner series this month at Highland Golf & Country Club, 1050 W. 52nd St.

Shortt will be featured with Bluebeard chef Alan Sternberg at the April 22 edition of the dinner series, and Nemeth is serving as sommelier for all four dinners that benefit the Greg Hardesty Culinary Scholarship at Ivy Tech Community College.

Nemeth said the Tinker Street staff of nearly 40 works together as a “well-oiled machine.”

“Tinker Street service is a big chunk of our identity,” she said.

Main said he emphasizes consistency when training employees.

“Your integrity is on that plate,” he said. “And, by the way, that plate is everybody’s integrity.”

Regarding his management style, Main said he looks for the positive.

“I want to find the things you’re doing well, amplify that initially, and then we can talk about these other things to gradually make improvement,” he said. “It’s not, ‘Here comes the stick’ or ‘This is wrong,’ which is what people focus on. If you spend time and discuss things with them, it’s more of a conversation.”

Special sauce

Main’s culinary journey began with a collaboration with Tony Hanslits, the former co-owner of Nicole-Taylor’s Pasta Market & Backroom Eatery who retired in 2023.

Main and Hanslits launched a gourmet sauce company known as America’s Heartland Foods, creating flavors such as onion marmalade and blueberry barbecue until challenges related to production and distribution stalled the venture.

Fletcher’s American Grill & Cafe, an upscale eatery at 107 S. Pennsylvania St. in the late 1980s, provided Main’s first restaurant job.

Following his stint at Some Guys, Main co-founded Puccini’s with his older brother, former rock musician Don Main, and Brooks Powers in 1991. Although Tom Main exited the Puccini’s ownership group after about 15 years, the company won top honors at the 2012 World Championship of Pizza in Parma, Italy, for a “Campfire” pizza featuring the onion marmalade sauce that originated with America’s Heartland Foods.

“I don’t see Tom all the time, but when our paths do cross, it’s like seeing my best friend,” said Carey, the Some Guys co-founder. “There’s always that smile and the genuineness of his company. He’s just a cool dude.”

Puccini’s is part of a “tree” of gourmet pizza restaurants in Indianapolis that began with Bazbeaux, founded by Jeff Berman in Broad Ripple in 1986. Carey, a former Bazbeaux employee, opened Some Guys with Nancy Carey, then his wife, in 1989. Mick McGrath worked at Bazbeaux before he co-founded Jockamo Upper Crust Pizza in 2007.

Main, who grew up near Glendale Mall, said he first appreciated food thanks to a neighbor.

“The way we grew up was very middle class,” he said. “We did not go out to eat. My mom was a lot of wonderful things, but she was not a spectacular cook. The first great food I ever had was across the street. … I went over there one time for leftovers: roast beef hash with these cute little potatoes. I thought, ‘These are leftovers? I’ve never had anything this good in my life.’”

Tinker Street was selected as one of 47 “restaurants of the year” for 2024 by USA Today. (IBJ photo/Eric Learned)

Beyond Tinker Street

These days, one of Main’s favorite tastes is coffee sourced from Kogi and Arhuaco indigenous groups in Colombia.

Main recently visited the Kogi’s mountain community along Colombia’s northern Caribbean coast, and he’s an investor in the Younger Brothers Trading Co. that sells the region’s coffee online.

“There’s a bunch of small growers all over the planet,” Main said. “They’re just not compensated very well. … I’m trying my best with the Kogi and Arhuaco, where we are partners with them and we know what we’re giving them is right.”

Chuck Dietzen

Main credited his 25-year friendship with Chuck Dietzen, founder of Timmy Global Health, for expanding his worldview.

Dietzen, a physician who’s the former medical director of pediatric medical rehabilitation at Riley Hospital for Children, said Main donated Puccini’s food to Timmy Global Health, an Indianapolis-based not-for-profit that expands access to health care and organizes volunteers on college campuses.

During the pandemic lockdown, Dietzen co-founded Indy Free Lunch with Main and Big T’s Auto Salvage owner John Sluss. The initiative featured sack lunches assembled at Tinker Street and distributed to underserved neighborhoods.

Nemeth said Tinker Street employees worked on the project for months.

“While we were closed, people would walk by and see us working there,” she said. “They would ask, ‘Are you guys reopening?’ We would say, ‘Possibly, but this is what we’re doing for now.’”

Tinker Street’s commitment to underserved residents rolls on with a food truck purchased for the restaurant by a philanthropist.

The food truck allows for more substantial meals than the ham and cheese and PB&J sandwiches of the Indy Free Lunch era. Main said the truck makes frequent visits to Shepherd Community Center, 4107 E. Washington St.

“We always wanted to deliver high-quality food to some of the more limited-resources areas and give people a special dinner moment,” Dietzen said.

The doctor said he and Main are like-minded advocates.

“If we can make the world better, we’d like to work with each other on doing that,” Dietzen said.•

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7 thoughts on “Tinker Street owner says restaurant perseveres because of its people

  1. Our Theatre Group LOVES Tinker Street food & staff too. We’re welcomed, served delicious food—always with enough time to arrive promptly at our local play. So thankful they are open once again!

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