It’s easy to spot co-owner Kristine Bockman behind the counter at GoldLeaf Savory & Sweet. She’s the one wearing the glittery gold mask.
Her customers who line up, six feet apart, to order their breakfast wraps, coconut-milk chia puddings, and walking lattes might not even recognize her without that signature protective bling. After all, Bockman and her husband, John-Christian, opened this snug neighborhood cafe in mid-June, during that brief quarantine moment before masks became mandatory in public spaces yet essential anywhere that people wanted to slow the spread of COVID-19.
“At first, it was just this awkward suggestion,” Bockman says of the restaurant’s mask policy posted on the front door. “Now with the city backing us, I get to be bossy and tell people they can’t be in here without their masks on. And not just on their faces, but pulled up over the nose.” (Meanwhile, she’s cheerily steaming up their chai lattes and pulling their Julian Coffee Roasters nitro cold brews.)
What’s it like opening a restaurant in the middle of a pandemic? “Terrifying, horrifying, exhausting. I don’t know if I’m doing the right thing—ever, on any given day. I try really hard, but things change so often and so quickly, and all I want to do is make sure my customers and employees are safe and we are doing everything we can do,” Bockman says. “All of the food is designed to take away, and people are putting their own lids on their coffee because it’s a little less handsy for them. We took out at least 45 percent of our tables right before we opened. They’re out in my garage.”
Such is life for the restaurant industry’s freshman class in 2020, who opened to a decimated audience more focused on their sourdough starters than any of the hot new places to eat. Newbies like GoldLeaf had to rewrite business plans on the fly, suddenly get their hands on the right kind of to-go packaging and outdoor furniture, follow the constant ebb and flow of virus-related government regulations, find this delicate balance between staying open and staying healthy … and do all of it while working out the multitude of normal kinks and adjustments that come with launching a new restaurant into the unknown.
Even before COVID threw us all off our game, the GoldLeaf team learned a painful lesson in how to pivot hard. Back in February, as they were busy getting the long-abandoned 2,200-square-foot space ready to function as a restaurant (during those halcyon, pre-coronavirus days when they thought they’d be open by early April), Bockman fell from a ladder and shattered her wrist, requiring two surgeries and ongoing physical therapy. What bad luck, they thought, innocently.
But then, world events transformed their restaurant—originally conceived as a local spot for affordable grab-and-go baked goods during the day and more relaxed shared-plate appetizers and desserts come evening—into something slightly less intimate. Bockman had planned to serve simple, fresh dishes like shrimp on a bed of couscous and maybe a meatball of the week.
Instead, she fills her chalkboard menu that hangs over the register with scaled-down delights like a masala-hummus sandwich on housemade focaccia, a breakfast burrito stuffed with black beans and sweet potatoes, a wasabi grilled cheese that will kick-start your sinuses, and a tidy muffaletta-style sandwich stacked high with cold cuts and a thick layer of olive salad. There is a buttery ham-and-Gruyère croissant that always sells out early, Everything Cookies that look deceivingly frumpy but are loaded with a magical jumble of coconut, butterscotch chips, craisins, and sea salt, and a solid selection of both wine and kombucha by the can.
Originally from Texas, Bockman lived in Seattle for 17 years, where she owned a catering company before she and her husband moved to New York City together. There, she worked as a sous chef in “a little Italian restaurant that is no longer” while dreaming of opening her own place some day. Eventually (reluctantly), they settled in Indianapolis, closer to John-Christian’s parents. “I didn’t like it here for the first year—at all,” Bockman says. That was six years ago, before she fell in love with her neighborhood, a tenacious pocket of SoBro, and found the perfect little boarded-up corner spot close to home, where she would open her restaurant 20 years in the making.
With walls painted a dramatic peacock blue, rustic dark-wood accents, and a brilliant “Stay Gold Indy” mural scrawled in metallic script beyond the bar, the place feels especially welcoming, which is an impressive feat considering a portion of the room is taped off for crowd control. Lately, Bockman and sous chef Robyn Lukens have been experimenting with their pastries. They’re making savory ones like open-face jalapeño poppers and big, flaky blossoms of Smoking Goose City Ham, cheddar, and Dijon, as well as sugar-dusted sweet ones imbued with flavor mash-ups ranging from cocoa-fig to cocoa-banana to raspberry-chocolate.
Drive by GoldLeaf on a sunny day and you will see couples and families happily brunching at the handful of sidewalk tables, dogs at their feet and bicycles stacked nearby. A year ago, this same block of storefronts sat unused, a blip along a highly traveled corridor of small SoBro homes and businesses like Black Circle Brewing Co., which plans to open a satellite next to GoldLeaf. Location has a lot to do with success in the finicky world of restaurants. All of those trendy eateries along Mass Ave and the Fletcher Place–to–Fountain Square spoke of Virginia Avenue can attest to the built-in benefits of critical mass.
And good for them. When someone ventures this far off an established, thriving restaurant row (see also King Dough setting up shop in untested Holy Cross and Baby’s move into a former Talbott Street drag bar), it’s because they have a lot of faith in a neighborhood. More than just running a restaurant, they are building a community from the ground up, weaving together all of the little pieces they love—the gritty ones and the golden ones, too.