It is an uninspiring, almost desolate winter morning, but inside the Café Patachou restaurant near the corner of 49th and Pennsylvania Streets, people from all walks of city life seem animated. Happy, maybe. At home. Hipsters with perfectly constructed deconstructed hair, pressed businessman with a New York Times in tow, mothers lugging babies bundled in car seats—all are drinking from the fill-it-yourself coffee cups, all are lit by the glow from the brightly painted walls. Most hardly need the menu, a rather straightforward breakfast assortment whose signposts, even after 20 years, remain the decadent whole-wheat cinnamon toast and a selection of omelettes with catchy names like Hippie with a Benz (spinach, tomato, mushroom, and feta) and the Overachiever (bacon, cheddar, sour cream, and horseradish). These are the faithful, here in droves every weekend for this simple but satisfying (and often locally sourced and organic) food, and because, especially on Sundays, it is where they feel that they belong. “It’s like part of these people’s lives,” says Erin Roudebush, who has worked as a server at a number of the Patachou locations. “You don’t understand—people would be lost without those places.”
Here, too, is Martha Hoover, founder of the chaos, sitting in the back of the restaurant where, 20 years ago, she would place her infant son in a bassinette while she rolled out pastry dough. In 1989 Hoover, a lawyer with no formal culinary training, started the café in her own Meridian-Kessler neighborhood because she wanted a place where she could “hang out with her kids” and feed her customers the same way she fed her family. Today seven cafés carry the Patachou name, including a swank, new French eatery in Carmel’s Clay Terrace and a coveted outlet in the new Indianapolis International Airport. “She’s a savvy business woman—she’s built a brand. That’s a difficult thing to do, and, by and large, she’s done it on her own,” says one local restaurateur. “She’s created a demand for her product. People stand in line in the cold every weekend and drink coffee—stand, waiting outside her stores to pay 12 bucks for a mediocre omelette. She’s very smart.”
A tiny blonde who looks nowhere near her 55 years—she is sometimes mistaken for one of the hip, youthful servers—Hoover has achieved success through a variety of means. The type of restaurant she introduced to the city came at the right time. She ignored the cautions of industry veterans who told her that she could not prepare foods the way she wanted to. And, above all, she focused on details to an extraordinary extent—a level of attention that may be in jeopardy, especially at the airport location.
This morning, though, even among the hubbub of silverware and dishes and the calling out of orders, Hoover does not seem to miss a thing. She folds and refolds her napkin. The wall sconces seem too bright and the background music too loud. Framed awards from numerous media outlets hung on the wall across from her seat appear “catywampus.” “Does anyone else notice this?” she quizzes a waitress. “Is it just me, or am I crazy?” she says to another. She orders her breakfast—salmon, a cup of strawberries, and field greens with a balsamic-vinaigrette on the side—but her eyes never meet the menu. One waitress across the room is smacking her gum a little too loudly, and another is dispatched to stop this undesirable behavior. If the place was running on all cylinders before she arrived this morning, it is humming along even more smoothly now.
Martha Hoover is in the details.
Hebrew National salamis. Pickles. Green tomatoes. Sauerkraut. As a child Hoover could smell her grandmother coming down the TWA ramp, her suitcase crammed with the stinky stuff. These were luxury items Hoover’s family could not find in Galveston, Texas, where the family had moved from New York when she was a baby. Hoover’s physician father moved the family again when she was in the fourth grade, this time to Indianapolis. Here, her father would unwrap the salamis, age them in the garage, and later serve the dried, desiccated meat alongside eggs. “It was probably nasty,” Hoover says, “but we thought it was the greatest thing in the world. And, you know what? It was.”
In 1962—the year before the arrival of the EASY BAKE Oven and its boxed brownie goo baking under a lightbulb—Hoover made her first Baked Alaska. She was 9. Her mother was a “very, very good, basic home cook,” but Hoover mostly learned to bake at the side of one her mother’s sisters, Sylvia. When the family would visit New York on the Jewish holidays or on summer vacations, Sylvia would instruct the little girl who could barely peer over the kitchen counter how to create delicate pastry dough, flaky croissants, and lemony tarts. And it was Sylvia who sent Hoover and her cousins to the Italian bakery around the block to find dessert.
Her father loved to eat but did not cook much. His specialty was inspiration—he was the one who put the wonder and mystery into food, subscribing to Gourmet and the New Yorker, ordering Time–Life cookbooks, and watching Julia Child. “There had been nothing like that on television, to my mind, before her,” says Hoover. “And here she was talking about living in Paris—the people, the food. It was like watching a National Geographic special. It was like, ‘Wow, people eat like this?’ She was big, boisterous, made fun of herself, and drank wine. It was eye-opening.”
Her father would often accept goods in trade from the families he treated—fresh produce, bacon, eggs, and butter. And on Sundays, if he were not working, the doctor would indulge his three children with what he called French coffee. “He’d take a cup of black coffee in a tea cup and make it so it was perfectly still,” says Hoover. “We’d all hold our breath, nothing could move the table. And then he’d take a spoon—and I thought this was the biggest deal in the world—and take heavy cream—the real thing, back then, it wasn’t the ultra pasteurized—and have it so it laid perfectly on top of the hot coffee. If you had a diagram of the cup you’d be able to see the black and then the white. And we’d lift it up, and drink it very carefully, like it was a hot chocolate sundae, where you’d get the cold cream with the hot coffee. We didn’t like the taste. We liked the ritual.”
Her father had been a grunt in World War II, stationed in France. He regaled his children with stories—more often than not related in terms of food—of the people he met and places he visited during the war. Once, when his unit was stationed near the German border, Hoover’s father, the only one in his group fluent in French, befriended a French boy who had lost his family. The boy tagged along with the GIs, and after the war, her father and the boy kept in touch through letters. When Hoover turned 17, she saved up her babysitting money and, along with a friend, took her first trip abroad to what was then the most exotic locale she could imagine—France. She stayed on a small farm owned by that French boy, now grown with a wife and family.
“His wife didn’t speak any English at all,” says Hoover. “And here we were, two teenage girls—I didn’t realize what an imposition we must have been. She’d go out in the morning and get us eggs for breakfast, then kill the chicken we were going to have for dinner that night. I was fascinated with the way they hunted and gathered and prepared their meals. It was an unbelievable way to live.”
In France—the muse of Hoover’s hero Julia Child—a notion lodged in Hoover’s mind, an idea that would simmer for decades before being served up. Good things did not have to come on TWA planes in suitcases. They could and should come from the local farm, the neighbor’s garden, and even the café down the street.
At Indiana University Hoover majored in political science and read cookbooks the way others read novels, but she pushed aside any culinary aspirations because her family valued a formal education. She began law school at the IU campus in Indianapolis. “I did it because I knew I’d have parental support if I went to graduate school,” Hoover remembers. “I did it because it gave me three years to think about what I really wanted to do, and, if all else failed, I’d be a lawyer. It was a default education.”
In law school, during a break between classes, she overheard John David Hoover, an older student, talking about St. Louis. Hoover found the former Vanderbilt running back attractive and interesting. She decided to flirt the way she knew best, telling him that she had a St. Louis cookbook. He countered with an offer to cook her one of his favorite dishes, a shrimp tarragon that was a specialty of a restaurant there. The Jewish girl who did not eat shellfish accepted the invite, and ended up pushing the food around her dish, never taking a bite. “Who couldn’t fall in love with a guy who was a poor student, probably spent all his money on shrimp, and cooked me dinner?” says Hoover.
The couple married, and honeymooned in France, where Hoover bought saffron. “I carried it with me the entire time,” Hoover says. “And when we got home, I hid it. I was so sure someone was going to steal it from me. It was precious, like gold.”
She became a deputy prosecutor under Steve Goldsmith, a future mayor of Indianapolis. Under Goldsmith’s direction, Hoover worked in one of the nation’s first sex crimes units, prosecuting rapists, child molesters, and wife batterers. “These were never good circumstances,” she says. “There was always a victim and there was a criminal—and you’d always wonder how their lives might have turned out differently. It was not easy to put people in jail.” Sensing Hoover’s ambivalence, Goldsmith—today a regular customer—took to calling Hoover a “crème puff.”
After the birth of her first child, Sarah, Hoover continued her work in the Marion County prosecutor’s office as a part-time employee. But when her second daughter, Rachael, was born, Hoover became a full-time stay-at-home mom. Hoover says while the experience was enjoyable, she also struggled. “I wanted things to be orderly,” she says. “And kids, well, they’re just not. My friends would tell me, ‘You’ve got to let it go. You’re going to drive yourself crazy. Everything doesn’t have to be perfect.’ And I’d be like, ‘Why not? Why can’t kids see things the way they’re supposed to be?’ I gave it my best shot.”
Hoover found sanctuary in the kitchen, solace in the hunting, gathering, and preparation of the nightly meal. Inspired by her travels in Europe, she made simple but satisfying fare—typically grilled or roasted meats and fish with large helpings of fresh fruits and vegetables. She also began collecting antique linens, and took photos of tables that she had set, putting the images that most appealed to her in scrapbook albums. During the summers, she took the girls to the pool and on the way home would always stop by the Atlas Supermarket or a neighborhood garden for fresh berries. It all became routine—a ritual. But by 1989 Martha Hoover had developed a new habit—a slight detour to drive by a property near 49th and Pennsylvania streets—one that “spoke to” her.
Patachou—French street slang for crème puff. In 1989, Hoover took Goldsmith’s put-down and gave it a new life. She convinced a skeptical commercial real estate agent to work with her by plying him with treats from her kitchen. She wrote out her first menu by hand on a single piece of paper, and secured a loan not because the idea struck a chord with the banker, but because, thanks to her former career as a lawyer, Hoover and her husband were deemed a good credit risk. “If I failed, I knew it wouldn’t ruin us, but it would have caused damage,” says Hoover. “I knew there was a downside—I just didn’t believe the downside would ever come.”
Hoover was pregnant—five months—with her third and youngest child, David. Still, she remained hopelessly optimistic. The 49thand Penn. location, a stroller ride away from the Hoover home, would allow her to do laundry in between rolling out pastry dough. The biggest challenge, Hoover figured, would be nursing, but her Jewish immigrant grandmothers had survived the grind of work-cook-nurse-repeat in their Brooklyn kitchens—why not her? She vowed to feed her customers like she fed her own family, with bountiful chunks of fruit, dressings and tarts from scratch, and turkeys—the real thing, not processed—roasted in-house.
“When I said I wanted to roast my own turkeys, the food service guys literally giggled,” she says. “They thought I was nuts. All this was really—this is not bullshit, I think it might sound like it since so many people have usurped the word—but it was really organic. Organic and spontaneous. The café, to me, was an extension of what I was already doing at home. And to this day, if someone rejects a plate of food for whatever reason or doesn’t eat all of their food for whatever reason, I look at it and I’m just crushed. I take it personally. After 20 years, I’m learning to deal with it. But, still, I take it very, very personally.”
She threw together a children’s play area for David, made sure there was always a space for Sarah and Rachael to draw, and, thanks to fairly family-friendly hours (5:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.) made the café a second home. When Patachou opened, the counter was full of customers after five minutes, and by that first Christmas, Hoover fashioned nametags at the stools for her regulars.
She had no restaurant experience, never waited tables, never hosted, and never washed dishes. Despite the snickers, she continued to roast her own turkeys and poach her own chickens. The result was the sort of place that the city had not really seen before. “She’s a visionary,” says Susan Sanders, Martha’s older sister by three years. “A lot of people have dreams and don’t know how to execute them. But she knows how to turn them into a reality. When Martha started, no one was doing what she was doing. When she started, there were pancake houses here and God knows what else.”
Martha Hoover no longer roasts her own turkeys, couldn’t if she wanted. Even in the current economic climate, even as other independently owned restaurants (and corporate ones) go belly-up, Patachou continues its expansion. The opening of Hoover’s French-inspired café in Carmel’s Clay Terrace will bring the number of eateries with the Patachou name—each with its own look, clientele, and vibe—to seven. It’s a claim no other Indianapolis restaurateur can make. “I guarantee you she can go into any location she wants and the real estate broker or property owner will say, ‘Did you say Patachou? We will pay you to build this space out,’” says Neal Brown, owner and chef at the recently shuttered L’Explorateur. “It might cost a million to open the restaurant, but they know what’s going to happen. It’s going to draw people to that location. She has that power now.”
While the Patachou restaurants still bear the strong imprint of their founder, its operations are now executed by a full-time staff of 72. She knows each employee by name, and both parties shower one another with admiration and, in many cases, authentic affection. “It takes a while to get to that point, but Martha can be a mother figure to you if you reach out to her,” says one server. Bruce Steckler, who runs the kitchen at the first location, has been with her since day one, and is not alone in his standing as a long-time employee; 30 have worked at Patachou for five years or more.
“We had someone on staff say the other day—not to me, to one of her co-workers—that she thinks we’re all kind of nuts because we’re so ‘into it,’” says Hoover. “I was like, ‘Yeah, we are all into it.’ I’m not going to ask someone to do something that calls for drinking the Kool-Aid or being a part of some big scam, you know? But you do have to buy into the company philosophy of food and service in order to succeed here.”
Some, however, complain the philosophy, while good, is also somewhat bland. The critique is that at Patachou, concept trumps cuisine. Hoover does not apologize for having a brand manager—a luxury for an independently owned restaurant here—or for her food.
“Concept trumps cuisine?” says Martha. “I don’t even take an offense to that. The food we serve is remarkably simple. I mean, we’re talking oatmeal and eggs. We are not a chef-inspired, chef-driven restaurant, and in the food circle, I think people are kind of amazed by our success. What we do is very straightforward but obviously it’s hit a chord with a lot of people. And if people had the time to gather, prepare, and cook for themselves, I’d like to think that’s kind of the way they’d do it.”
Chef Thom England, a culinary instructor at Ivy Tech Community College and one of the leaders of the local slow-food movement, is dumbfounded by the criticism. “I don’t want to be blown away by breakfast, I’m sorry. I don’t think of it as an ostentatious meal. It’s the foundation for the rest of your day, and at Patachou they have that foundation down cold,” England says. “It’s funny, a bunch of us were just talking about Martha the other day—these were all chefs, all fans—taking about how great Patachou is. It’s local, it’s neat, and it’s good, clean food. What’s not to love?”
England says that Patachou has helped create a desire for independent restaurants here and has long been a leader in locally sourced products and organics, but what impresses him most is that Martha’s stores are not merely restaurants. They are part of the community. “Most everything else is so homogenous,” he says. “When you go into a Patachou, you feel like you’re eating with your neighbors.”
Patachou is now so ubiquitous that not only can you dine with your neighbors, you can eat with your fellow travelers as well. In November, Patachou On The Fly opened in the new Indianapolis International Airport—Hoover’s well-managed brand was deemed culturally and culinarily significant enough to join a handful of other local eateries that define and reflect the tastes of this city. Along with the locally-inspired art there, those restaurants will help shape visitors’ first and last impression of the community.
“We’re kind of an accidental brand, and now that we’ve realized it, yes, we’re running with it,” she says. “And the reason is, it occurred to me not too long ago that it’s either for me to run with or for someone else to knock off. And we get knocked off a lot. All over. It’s very flattering that people borrow a little of what I’m doing. I’m totally fine with that. And I don’t want to make it sound like I’ve got this empire and I’m building armor around it, but we’ve worked hard at this for 20 years. The initial branding might have been accidental, but nothing has been since.”
The success or failure of the airport location will undoubtedly prove to be her biggest test yet. Patachou’s past success can be fairly attributed to Hoover’s attention to detail, and much is out of her control there. Patachou’s partner in the venture, HMS Host, a large company that operates hundreds of airport entities around the world, owns the controlling stake in the relationship and controls the workforce, giving them a keen influence over the food, service, and atmosphere—all Patachou hallmarks. Business has been brisk, Hoover says. But in spite of the constraints of the partnership, she will judge success there by whether the airport café rises to the standards set by her other properties.
“Martha is the only person I’ve ever run across who starts with the quality of the food and works backwards,” says Steven James, Patachou’s longtime operations guru who has spent his entire career in foods service. “Other places start with a dollar figure and go from there. She’ll taste something or make something in her kitchen and ask, ‘How we can make that for 400 people?’”
This article originally appeared in the March 2009 issue.