The real estate market may have been booming despite a pandemic, but for Tinker Street owner Tom Main, trying to sell a restaurant with no global health crisis in sight has been a loss. “We had a couple of people coming to kick the tires,” says Main, referring to his upscale 80-seat restaurant on 16th Street that he put up for sale in the November business if I stayed inside . If that were the best scenario, I would have thought I should just keep the place. “
Keeping the space was exactly what loyal customers and people in the neighborhood were hoping for when rumors surfaced that Main had closed Tinker Street for good or that other concepts were already planned. But as Main admits, he just wasn’t ready to let go.
Like many others, Main spent most of the last year in a “dream world”. Just weeks before Governor Holcomb placed a stay at home order in March 2020 and ceased service to restaurants indefinitely, Tinker Street hosted an anniversary party for its regulars, an open day that no one wanted to leave. “We thought people would stop by for a glass of champagne and some starters,” he says, “but hours later they were all still there.” It’s a chilling reminder after a year when most restaurants are drastically limited in capacity and many people have avoided dining in restaurants. The days of noisy, wine-drinking crowds sitting elbow to elbow in Main’s cozy seasonal restaurant seem like a cherished tradition that can be changed forever.
First, Main and his staff found a new purpose for the closed Tinker Street kitchen and used the space to prepare up to 40,000 packed lunches, which his crew delivered to areas where people weren’t getting enough to eat. When the federal government passed the first aid package, which included the payroll protection program, there was a promise that restaurants could be reopened for operation and limited service. But putting 25 of his 33 employees back on the payroll to meet the program’s provisions was more stressful than it was worth. With an extra $ 600 on the unemployment controls, many just weren’t interested in coming back.
Main operation for only two short weeks with a lukewarm response from customers and employees alike. It also seemed inconvenient to block off the parking lot for outdoor dining or to remove seats. “What can we serve 10 people?” Main remembers thinking. And given the protests against police murders that brooded just a few blocks south of downtown in late May, it was clear that it was better to stay closed than to bleed more money.
But locating the restaurant in which you built up a team and customers for half a decade was not just an easy task for Main. He had seen Tinker Street since the restaurant’s debut in 2015 through the loss of his original business partner Peter George and the departure of original chef Braedon Kellner (now at the recently opened Asian concept of the Cunningham Restaurant Group) Modita in Bottleworks). He wouldn’t just give up the place without a good offer. During the summer and fall, he saw employees find positions elsewhere, and he did his best to help his competitors’ struggling restaurants with al fresco dining and takeout. And like many others, he was concerned about the pandemic and the health of his co-workers and friends. “In total, I had seven COVID tests myself,” says Main, “all negative.”
With many restaurants adding family-style deals and groceries to their roadside delivery cards, Main was determined to keep things the way they were on Tinker Street. “One of the buzzwords in the pandemic was” pivot, “” says Main, “but I didn’t mean pivot.” What I love about Tinker Street is its narrowness, its hospitality and its energy. “And when Main didn’t see that it would be back soon, he finally bit the ball and put the property up for sale in late autumn. “I’d say by about October, I just thought I was done and I was pretty burned out,” says Main. “I’ll be 64 next summer and have been in restaurants for almost 30 years. It has become more and more difficult to make a profit. With more restaurants opening in what was still a modest market, it was more difficult to keep good staff. “
Fate has a way of making its own story, however, and the lack of legitimate offers on the Tinker Street property seemed to say something to Main. He took a break over the winter and didn’t even stay in the restaurant for nearly six weeks. Then one day he came by, sat in the restaurant and cried. “I remembered so many things, not just the good times, but the hard times as well. You get to know each other from these things. When you go through things together and have more confidence in each other. “
Shortly thereafter, he called his chef, Tyler Shortt, for coffee. They talked about the old days and then Main said, “What do you think about bringing the band back together?” Shortt took the chance and made arrangements to return. So does Ashlee Nemeth, the long-time employee in front of the house, whom Main calls “the face of Tinker Street”. After a few months at Foyt Wine Vault at Speedway, she will return in a new role as sommelier.
On his return, Main wants to give his employees an even bigger share of the business through a profit-sharing scheme and make them feel like they’re really learning the business, rather than just working for a restaurant owner. “I wanted people who come back to work to feel like this is really their home,” says Main. Initially, Main is hoping to open with seating for around 35 customers on both the patio and the patio, a little less than half of what the restaurant used to have. This means the menu will be a bit leaner, albeit with favorites like Asian glazed pork belly and the restaurant’s famous shrimp and semolina.
Main wants all of his employees to feel that he is not only showing them what is in front of the curtain, but also in the back. And he wants to involve everyone in making decisions about aspects of the business like wages and tips. The main hopes that customers have also opened their eyes to the small margins restaurants work with and what they do to provide excellent and safe service to their customers. “People think I’m rich because I own a restaurant that is always full and I drive a Mercedes,” says Main. “But after six years I bought the car second-hand and I live in a modest apartment.” Main is very open to its restaurant expenses and is happy to open the books to anyone who is curious. “You know the heaters that keep the terrace so cozy in cold weather? Propane alone costs $ 1,500 a month. “And those fresh sheets on the table? In 2018, maintenance was $ 43,000.
“This is definitely not where I can make enough money to retire,” says Main. “When you are a restaurant owner, you are the last person to get paid.” It is passion that drives Main more than profits. “I just think this is the right thing to do. I’m playing the long game here. “