Editor's Note: This story on the soon-to-be-opened Bluebeard restaurant appeared in the May 2012 issue.
For 10 weeks this winter and spring, we followed father-and-son team Tom and Ed Battista as they faced the joys and tribulations of opening their new restaurant, Bluebeard. It is a venture, however rewarding, not for the faint of heart. Here’s how the Battistas’ vision for a simple Italian-style bakery spiraled into a mini restaurant complex poised to open in June—and overcame loan rejections, overworked architects, and a hulking oven that barely squeezed through the door along the way.
WAIT for it to RISE
Tom Battista has long been known as a champion of local businesses and the arts. He served as the founding president of IndyFringe, for instance, and bought and redeveloped the Mass Ave buildings that house Black Market and R Bistro. But while traveling for his day job as Jimmy Buffett’s stage manager, he couldn’t help but notice that nearly every city on the “Margaritaville” singer’s tour schedule had better bread than his hometown. What Indy needs, he thought, is a bakery focused on fresh, flavorful bread with a good crust and a soft crumb.
He even tried to lure bakers our way. “Six years ago, I asked Blue Dog in Louisville to open a spot in Indy, and they said they weren’t willing to expand,” says Battista. They did, however, offer to mentor an apprentice. So in December 2010, when a spacious 1920s building became available, he decided to open a bakery himself (with help from his family). In the summer of 2011, Tom sent his nephew Charlie McIntosh to Blue Dog to learn the art of hearth-style bread to prepare for Amelia’s Bakery.
COOKING BY THE BOOKS >> The owners were inspired by writer Kurt Vonnegut, because he made Indy a more flavorful and intellectual place. So they named their new venture Bluebeard after his eponymous 1987 novel about the life and work of a renowned painter.
The literary theme has since bloomed into a haute library mise-en-scene. The 68-seat restaurant will
be complemented with bookshelves (stocked with the likes of Vonnegut, Wakefield, and Whitcomb Riley) and pre–World War II typewriters. “We’ll even place a typewriter at the bar with stamped postcards,” says Ed. And if you finish the note, Bluebeard will mail the message for you.
ADD a little SAUCE
Bakery plans went slowly along for 10 months until insiders gave Tom a tip he couldn’t resist. Usually, unless a restaurateur finds someone willing to transfer an existing license, scoring a “three-way” license (for beer, wine, and spirits) can be tough—and costly. According to Greg Genrich, president of Bradford & Riley, a consulting firm devoted to alcoholic-beverage permits, three-way permits normally sell for between $45,000 and $55,000 apiece due to the high demand. A town’s population determines the number of permits given, and Indy’s quota is usually full, or close to it. But in the fall of 2011, when the 2010 census results showed a population surge, the Alcohol & Tobacco Commission (ATC) began auctioning off 94 new permits for a mere $1,000 apiece. Tom called Genrich to get in on the action.
Why not? The building sits in front of the soon-to-be-finished Cultural Trail, which would generate enough foot traffic to support a bar concept in addition to the bakery. After they won the permit, plans began in earnest. They had only one year to put the license into action; the ATC is known to revoke licenses if it believes someone is fraudulently sitting on a permit with the intent of selling it for a profit.
One problem: the long-standing religious history of the Holy Rosary parish. Neighborhood associations, after all, have been known to preemptively oppose a permit if they disagree with the concept. So the Battistas embraced a more community-focused restaurant instead. Ed and his childhood best friend, John Adams, the current chef at H2O Restaurant & Sushi Bar, had always dreamed of opening a restaurant together. This seemed as good a time as any.
>> See more photos here.
PLAN & PREP
Chef John Adams recruited his wife, Abbi Merriss Adams, to act with him as co-chef. They understand one another’s strengths and weaknesses (John’s the morning “list” guy; Abbi is the last-minute “fine tuner”). Plus, the couple has kept a book of ideas since Abbi’s New York internships, so the theme was easy to agree on: locally sourced, seasonal offerings that reflect lighter Italian fare. Paninis for lunch, for instance, as well as bar snacks and several medium and large entrees, like Honey Mussels with celery-root fumet and black truffle or a Gunthorp Farms grilled pork chop with pancetta, Brussels sprouts, roasted mushrooms, and vermouth. John and Abbi had advantages preparing the menu: They both worked for supportive mentoring chefs—Greg Hardesty of Recess and Room Four, and Nicole and Eli Anderson of H2O Restaurant & Sushi—and have close ties with other local restaurateurs, chefs, and vendors.
But they needed guinea pigs. In March 2012, the two hosted a preview brunch at friend Ed Rudisell’s Black Market. The affair drew quite a packed crowd, including Regina Mehallick and Erin Kem of R Bistro, Erin Till of The Libertine, and members of groups like the International Wine & Food Society and Chaine des Rotisseurs. As the final dish arrived—a pain perdu resting in a pool of maple white anglaise—the room buzzed with applause and communal chatter. Abbi and John, exhausted, then knew their menu was on the right course.
BUILD TO A SIMMER >> The bank didn’t love Tom’s rock-and-roll day job and turned him down for a traditional small-business loan. So he borrowed against his other properties and moved fast on the building permit. (Though Tom would not disclose the amount of capital raised, he did share that he’s working with no other investors on the project.) The Battistas are quite handy, and they handled a good deal of the restoration on their own—from diamond-grinding the original terrazzo tile floors to framing all of the walls. But they did interview architects and developers and quickly learned that restoring and recycling an old building is no plum job. “It’s much harder for them to plan—and since their job is to keep things moving, they typically don’t like all the surprises,” says Ed Battista. Like finding out that their gargantuan 96-by-96–inch, 156-inch deep commercial oven for Amelia’s would take an entire day to squeeze into the building. (They rolled the oven through on a ½-inch steel pipe because there was only about one inch of clearance on each side.) But star designer Mark Demerly of Demerly Architects (Elements, Recess, Room Four, and Tini) was up for the challenge. It may come with risks, though. Since the Battistas have no big backers and are repurposing so many materials throughout the space, Demerly may have to pause or even halt projects because of temporary money shortages or the owners waiting on the right materials. As of press time, though, construction was in full swing and on schedule.
COMBINE all INGREDIENTS
Bluebeard’s management team has obsessively sought out Indiana-based food vendors. From local livestock and produce farms to syrup and liquor start-ups, the new restaurant’s opening will mean big bucks for regional sources. But it doesn’t happen overnight. Five months before the expected opening, Laura and Tyler Henderson of Growing Places Indy, a local nonprofit that cultivates urban farms, met with John and Abbi to determine which heirloom produce Bluebeard’s menu would require. They then purchased and seeded several bitter greens specifically for Bluebeard, including radicchio, endive, dandelion, and escarole, as well as cippolini onions.
Photos by Tony Valainis.
This article originally appeared in the May 2012 issue.