Today’s feature: Small-town charm mixed with fresh ingredients, made from scratch.
That’s a recipe for success in many of the area’s finer restaurants, which have managed to survive despite their locations.
They trade lower rent for fewer regulars. But in a larger city such as Fort Wayne, they’d have a lot more competition and would have to fight even harder to stand out, restaurant owners say. Luckily, plenty of diners are willing to drive a great distance to satisfy their cravings.
“There’s an air of romanticism, almost, with a smaller restaurant in this ‘little secret town,’ ” says Caleb France, who co-owns Cerulean Restaurant in Winona Lake. The village and nearby Warsaw are home to about 18,000 year-round residents.
“On weekends, half of our reservations are from out of town. We’re really pulling on that ‘destination experience’ from other areas. That’s how we survive,” France says.
Sandra Dillinger, who opened Sandra D’s in Auburn nearly 10 years ago with her chef-husband, Bentley, agrees.
They feed a lot of tourists in the summer, she says, but in winter, they must rely on loyal locals in the town of about 12,000 residents.
“Our philosophy has always been ‘small, quaint, simple.’ We would rather serve 40 people well than 80 people poorly,” she says.
She already owned the building on Main Street when the couple decided to open their Italian-inspired restaurant there.
“We both knew the challenge of location. (Bentley) would say, ‘if the food is excellent, customers will come,’ ” Dillinger says.
“In a small town, you have that loyalty, more of ‘Let’s support that place,’ ” France says.
But that’s not always enough to pay the bills year-round, which is why he runs ads in the Fort Wayne and South Bend markets and his catering business relies on the region’s orthopedics industry.
“If we just had the people in town, we would definitely be out of business. I meet people every week that never even heard of the Village at Winona, let alone Cerulean Restaurant,” France says.
In Roanoke, the upscale Joseph Decuis lures about 95 percent of its diners from other towns, owner Alice Eshelman says.
“While we greatly enjoy our small-town location, we also enjoy having 500,000 people within a close proximity,” she says, adding that the restaurant has regular visitors from Indianapolis and Chicago.
“So we see our small-town appeal as an absolute plus, taking advantage of the best of both worlds,” Eshelman says.
Attracting enough diners to fill tables every night is just one of the challenges of running a restaurant.
“Drawbacks are many; the main one is food cost,” Dillinger says. “Smaller restaurants do not receive the same discounts as the chains do. So we make up for that (by) trying to make almost everything from scratch, which is more labor-intensive,” she says.
That’s also the case at Cerulean, which will celebrate its fifth anniversary this summer. Everything – from gelato to Italian sausage – is made in-house. Herbs and vegetables are grown in the onsite garden.
“One thing you have to do in a small town, … is have a broader menu and a bigger menu. In my dream restaurant, we’d have a small menu that changes every day,” France says.
Instead, he offers Bento boxes and sushi at lunch and a Mediterranean-style dinner menu that changes regularly and includes a tapas section. Previous dishes have used buffalo, quail and skate, a type of fish.
But serving fresh ingredients year-round is an expensive challenge, regardless of availability.
“The more we can get consumers exposed to that concept, the more it will spread. Hopefully, prices will come down. That’s when it will really catch on, when price is the same as at the cheaper chains,” France says.
One idea that is catching on, even in the Midwest, is the “farm to fork” philosophy, which focuses on local ingredients and the entire food-chain process.
More restaurants are highlighting the source of their food, such as duck from Maple Leaf Farms in Milford and chicken from Gunthorp Farms in LaGrange. Joseph Decuis in Roanoke raises its own Wagyu cattle and Mangalitsa pigs; its chickens provide eggs.
The latest area restaurant to join the trend is T.W. Fable in Bluffton, which opened in the fall and serves “modern American” cuisine. The “Fable” in the title incorporates the words “farm to table.”
Owner Tiercell “T.W.” Schwartz moved back home last year after working in New York restaurants. He opened his Main Street restaurant because he wanted “to shake things up in a small town,” he says.
When he had New York visitors, he learned that most of them wanted to find familiar chain restaurants.
“I, on the other hand, would take my guests an extra block and find this little restaurant off the beaten path and it would be the best meal anyone could get. This is what people remember, but they need to be taken out of the safety zone and pushed sometimes,” he says.
“That is why meals need to be kept at an affordable price.”
His dinner menu has featured dishes such as maple-glazed salmon with fingerling potatoes, scallops au gratin and coconut-crusted mahi mahi with coconut-curry risotto.
One Saturday night in January, more than 100 diners braved the cold to try the restaurant. He’s also noticed more customers from local towns, including Berne.
“I know it’s an uphill battle, but I think it will be worth it in the long run for the community,” Schwartz says.
“If you can commit to doing new things, no matter the cost, I think the long-term benefit is going to help sustain your business,” France says, adding that each major menu change costs Cerulean Restaurant thousands of dollars.
“There’s a payoff; it makes it fresh and new for the person experiencing the restaurant,” he says.
And that keeps diners, especially those with a taste for something a little bit different, coming back.
“Each time we talk about moving, we always go back to (this): We would lose the small-town charm of our unique, quaint little restaurant,” Dillinger says.
And that trade-off wouldn’t be worth it.
But finding the right recipe for mystique and mass appeal is tricky, France says.
“It’s a fine balance, how secret you are, how ‘nook’ it is. You always want to retain that little bit of romance,” he says.