For a change of atmosphere I switch up locations where I write and it’s often all over the city, including downtown at The Indianapolis City Market. The usual routine is to arrive around 2pm and after ordering a beer from the Tomlinson Tap Room, grab a seat on the mezzanine near an outlet. It has to be after 2 o’clock because that’s when the bar opens (most important) and the lunch crowd thins out (least important) so I can get a table. From time to time I’ll also go during lunch hours to people-watch and observe the hustle and bustle of the proprietors downstairs. There’s everything from tamales to juice bars joining the traditional and ethnic eateries you can imagine with a bit of retail sprinkled amongst them.
I first thought the bar’s late open was a covenant handed down from management or some arcane municipal code until speaking with Matt from the Tap Room. He informed me it was an ownership decision to open after the lunch hour. People weren’t drinking any earlier than that – at least not enough where it made a huge difference. And after playing with operating hours the current start-time made the most economic sense. Their 12 o’clock open on Fridays works out better but for the most part, the teetotaling Monday through Thursday lunch crowd is just there for the food, he said.
My eventual goal is to eat at each and every stall and have a taste of what these hardworking folks have put together. I see them manning their shops and greeting visitors while deftly navigating their spaces, some of which are no bigger than the size of a residential kitchen. A few are busier than others and while strolling through the aisles you’re occasionally met with the “pick us!” eye contact. I know the feeling. Being in the concession business for several years we accepted the fact that some people will stop, some won’t, and short of grabbing them by the lapels you just have to wait your turn. I’m sure there are interesting relationship dynamics among the operators as well. Certainly there are friends who’ll help you out in a jam with a CO2 tank or can opener but I can imagine tiffs and run-ins happening like any place else. You’re both comrades and competitors in this little self-contained village. I looked up lease rates on the Market’s website and despite a hefty CAM charge they seem reasonable for a downtown setting. A bonus is being located directly across the street from city hall guaranteeing business at least 5 days a week and for a solid two hours it’s packed at lunchtime. I’ve been on a Saturday which can be a toss up, however.
If this type of location is a possibility for your concept it’s important to do your math as critically and objectively as possible. Naturally there is risk but settings such as these can be worth taking the plunge if your menu and food costs are smartly coordinated. Advantages would include the captive audience on a daily basis, proximity of downtown office workers in huge numbers and what I imagine is the absence of higher lease rates and rigidity of a “national” landlord. Besides electric, gas, and rent there are fewer expense headaches that come attached with a brick and mortar space of your own. There’s plenty of seating, trash receptacles, and a couple of nice restrooms all of which are cleaned and maintained by the Market. The disadvantages as I see them are pretty much the same as anywhere: doing the numbers needed in the hours available to make the effort worth it. Also, instead of being down the street your competition is beside, behind or in front of you so your value proposition is fighting in close quarters. When downtown’s empty on holidays does it make sense to open? What about Saturday? The nice thing about doing recon on places like these is you can easily and comfortably watch the action over time, take notes, do the calculations and make the determination. The Market is closed on Sundays so you’d need to figure six business days into your plan. For whatever reason even with a city our size downtown on Sundays is a strange animal.
Your two main objectives especially here are speed and simplicity. The easier the prep and faster the sale, the better you’ll do with the time you have. I’d guess people working downtown with an hour for lunch will spend between five and ten bucks on the weekdays. That can also get expensive. Many people bring their lunches but splurge on Fridays so perhaps there’s a creative play earlier in the week that goes away on Friday for a higher ticket average. Maybe there are buzzworthy “Fridays-only” items priced at a premium likely to sell out. For any concept I’d recommend the smallest menu you can get away with.
If you’re there to eat the price points are competitive with an overall experience you could generally describe as a food court showcasing local fare in an historic atmosphere. The only thing missing in my opinion is a bit of theatre, some off-beat pizazz to cement it as a downtown destination. What that is exactly, I don’t know. The operators seem to enjoy the captive audience and easy-going guests but I’m not sure how lucrative it is for some. After packed lunchtime crowds the late afternoon grinds to a halt and bodies in the evening were scarce the several times I went. Most operators seem to break down and close up by three or four o’clock so I’m guessing downtowners are either ready to go home or choose other after-work haunts.
The City Market has undergone several renovations over the years and by all appearances they seem to have gone well. There are seasonal farmers markets, live music events and even a YMCA bicycle hub. Bookings for private events are available.
With an over one hundred year history and the spate of apartments and condos coming online in the area hopefully business remains bright for this beautiful building and the people inside it.
- 1 unbaked pie shell
- 1lb fresh spinach
- 4 eggs
- 1C heavy cream
- 1C milk
- 1/2t salt
- 1/4t nutmeg
- 1/8t cayenne
- 1/4lb Swiss cheese, grated
- 1/2C Pine nuts, lightly roasted
Heat oven to 375 degrees. Bake shell 15 minutes. Steam spinach 5 minutes. Dry and chop coarsely. In bowl, beat eggs; add cream, milk, salt, nutmeg and pepper. Stir in cheese, spinach and nuts. Pour into pie shell. Bake 25-30 minutes.