Tinker Street Rises From The Pandemic’s Ashes

Diners at Tinker Street pre-pandemic.

The real estate market might have been booming despite a pandemic, but for Tinker Street owner Tom Main, trying to sell a restaurant with no end to a global health crisis in sight was a losing proposition. “We had a few people come and kick the tires,” Main says, referring to his 80-seat upscale farm-to-table restaurant on 16th Street, which he put up for sale in November, “and one guy offered to buy the business if I stayed in. If that was the best scenario, I figured I’d better just keep the place.”

Keeping the place was exactly what loyal customers and people in the neighborhood were hoping for, as rumors swirled that Main had closed Tinker Street for good or that other concepts were already being planned. But, as Main admits, he just wasn’t ready to let go.

Like many, Main spent the bulk of the last year in what he calls “a dream world.” Just a few short weeks before Governor Holcomb was issuing a stay-at-home order and closing down dine-in restaurant service indefinitely in March of 2020, Tinker Street hosted an anniversary party for its regulars, an open-house where no one wanted to leave. “We figured people would stop by for a glass of champagne and some hors d’oeuvres,” he says, “but hours later, everyone was still there.” It’s a chilling memory after a year when most restaurants have limited capacity drastically and many people have avoided dining in restaurants entirely. The days of raucous, wine-sipping crowds sitting elbow-to-elbow at Main’s cozy seasonal eatery seem a beloved tradition that may be changed forever.

At first, Main and his staff found new purpose for Tinker Street’s closed-down kitchen, using the space to make as many as 40,000 bag lunches that his crew delivered to areas where people weren’t getting enough to eat. When the federal government passed the first relief package, which included the Payroll Protection Program, there was promise that restaurants could reopen for carryout and limited service. But having to get 25 of his 33 staff members back on the payroll to satisfy the program’s stipulations was more stress than it was worth. With an additional $600 added to unemployment checks, many just weren’t interested in coming back.

Main operated carryout for just two short weeks with a lukewarm response from customers and staff alike. Closing off the parking lot for outdoor dining or removing seats also seemed impractical. “What are we going to be able to serve 10 people?” Main remembers thinking. And with protests over police killings broiling just a few blocks south downtown in late May, it was clear that staying closed was a better option than bleeding more cash.

But putting the restaurant where you’ve built a team and a clientele for half a decade wasn’t just a cut-and-dried effort for Main. Since the restaurant made its debut in 2015, he’d seen Tinker Street through the loss of his original business partner Peter George and the departure of the original chef Braedon Kellner (now at the recently opened Cunningham Restaurant Group Asian concept Modita in Bottleworks). He wasn’t just going to give the place up without a good offer. As the summer and fall passed, he saw staff find positions elsewhere, and he did his best to support his competitors’ struggling restaurants with outdoor dining and carryout. And like many, he fretted about the pandemic and the health of his staff and friends. “In total, I had seven COVID tests myself,” Main says, “all of them negative.”

As many restaurants added family-style offerings and grocery items to their curbside delivery menus, Main was resolute in keeping things as they were at Tinker Street. “One of the buzz words of the pandemic has been ‘pivot,’” Main says, “but I didn’t want to pivot. What I love about Tinker Street is its tightness, its hospitality, and its energy.” And when Main didn’t see that coming back any time soon, he finally bit the bullet and put the real estate up for sale in late fall. “I would say by about October, I just thought I was all over with it, and I was pretty burned out,” Main says. “I’m going to be 64 this coming summer, and I’ve been in restaurants for most of 30 years. The business has gotten more and more difficult to make a profit. With more restaurants opening in a still fairly modest market, it was harder to keep good employees.”

Fate has a way of writing its own story, however, and the lack of legitimate offers for the Tinker Street property seemed to be telling Main something. Over the winter, he took a break and didn’t even stop into the restaurant for almost six weeks. Then, one day, he stopped by, sat in the restaurant, and cried. “I remembered so many things, not just the good times but the hard times. Out of those things is how you get to know each other. When you go through things together and you come through with more trust in each other.”

Shortly after that, he called his chef, Tyler Shortt, to have coffee. They chatted about the old days, and then Main said, “What do you think about getting the band back together?” Shortt jumped at the chance and started making arrangements to return. So, too, did Ashlee Nemeth, the longtime front-of-house staffer whom Main calls “the face of Tinker Street.” After a few months at Foyt Wine Vault in Speedway, she’ll be returning in a new role as sommelier.

In returning, Main wants to give his employees even more of a stake in the business with profit-sharing measure and more of a sense that the staff is truly learning the business instead of just working for a restaurant owner. “I wanted people coming back to work to feel like this is truly their home,” Main says. At first, Main says that he hopes to open with seating for around 35 customers both inside and on the patio, a little less than half of what the restaurant used to seat. This means the menu will be a bit leaner, though with favorites such as Asian-glazed pork belly and the restaurant’s famous shrimp and grits.

Main wants all of his employees to feel as though he’s showing them not just what’s in front of the curtain but in the back as well. And he wants to involve everyone in decisions about such aspects of the business as wages and tipping. Main hopes that customers have also had their eyes opened to the small margins that restaurants operate on and what they do to provide excellent and safe service for customers. “People think I’m rich because I own a restaurant that’s always busy, and I drive a Mercedes,” Main says. “But I bought the car used, after six years, and I live in a modest apartment.” Main is quite forthcoming about his restaurant expenses, and he’s glad to open the books for anyone who’s curious. “You know those heaters that keep the patio so cozy in cold weather? The propane alone costs $1,500 a month.” And those crisp linens on the table? In 2018, maintaining them rang up to the tune of $43,000.

“This is definitely not the place where I can make enough money to retire,” Main says. “When you’re a restaurant owner, you’re the last person to get paid.” It’s the passion that drives Main more than the profits. “I just feel like this is the right thing to do. I’m playing the long game here.”