The plot twist…that moment in a story when an event or experience dramatically shifts the future direction of the storyline and all the characters involved. I’ve always found these moments fascinating in real life, and so I started this new, recurring series—called “The Twist”—where I talk to entrepreneurs and explore the plot twist that led them to start their businesses.
Jessie Kelley is the co-founder of The Garden Table, a locally-sourced restaurant and cold-pressed juice bar located in Broad Ripple Village. In late summer 2016, she’ll open a new downtown location in the Marott Center on Mass Ave., adding a Modbar espresso system and full liquor bar to its already revered seasonal food and fresh juicery menu.
Jessie and I recently met to talk about her nomadic upbringing, the insane idea of bringing a juice bar to Indianapolis, the new rat pack of restaurateurs in the city, and the hardest part of owning any business.
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Joe: So this is our first meeting. What’s the Jessie Kelley story?
Jessie, The Garden Table: I moved around a lot as a kid and didn’t live in Indy until I was nine. I was born in Hawaii, and then I lived in Iowa and Kentucky. But I still say I’m from Indy. Both of my parents are from here. My dad is from the south side and my mom from Meridian Kessler. When we moved to Indy, it was like we were moving home, so I feel like I’m from here because of that.
I went to Bishop Chatard and IU. My parents told me I could go to any college I wanted as long as it was in Bloomington, Indiana, which is where they met. I fell equally obsessed and in love with it. There is a magic in Bloomington only felt by those who have resided there.
I really never wanted to move away to a big city or go that route, like I know a lot of people do right when they’re out of college. I knew that Indy was the perfect combo of everything for me. I love the downtown scene. I like that it’s so close. You can get there quickly from other places in the city. There’s not as much of a suburb-versus-city mentality. It’s kind of all mixed in. I love that about Indy. I think it has just the right amount of city and suburb. I just think this is an amazing place to make a life and have a home base here.
Joe: What did you get your degree in?
Jessie, The Garden Table: Journalism and PR. I quickly realized that you, basically, have to be someone’s bitch for five years in that industry, and I was like, “I don’t think I’m going to do that.”
Joe: That’s funny, because I’ve got a PR journalism degree too.
Jessie, The Garden Table: Really? Yeah you have to just chop away at press releases for three to five years before you do anything worth thinking about.
Joe: What’s your connection to food?
Jessie, The Garden Table: I’m more into eating, than cooking. That’s something I’m open about. Other restaurateurs might be like, “Oh my God. That’s so millennial of you!” But it’s real. Anyone that’s this amazing restaurateur, they started somewhere too. They didn’t know shit when they opened either. I’m really not scared to say that. It is what it is. I know good food when I taste it. I know when I see it or smell it.
My real tie to cooking was probably my grandmother, who never taught me to cook because she didn’t want anyone else in the kitchen with her. She grew up on a rural farm in Illinois where they made everything on the table from scratch. She was appalled there was such a thing as cake mix in a box – that was offensive to her. FunFetti birthday cakes were not an option.
Joe: When you were a kid, did you have dreams of owning a restaurant one day?
Jessie, The Garden Table: No, not at all. In fact, I always tell people, “If you were to ask me five years ago if I were to own a restaurant, I would say you are crazy.”
Joe: Five years ago, really?
Jessie, The Garden Table: Oh yeah. I always knew two things. One, that I didn’t want to always have an 8:00-5:00 office job. Two, that I wanted to create. That was really it. Over time, I have realized I like to create experiences for people, whether that be in their home, in their office, or when they go out. I actually was taught by my parents that it’s fine to not know exactly what you want to do all the time and let life take you where it may. When you feel like you’re good at something and you like it, do more of it. If you’re good at it, but you don’t like it, then don’t do it. I’ve always had that kind of philosophy. It’s not something I live and die by, but I think that’s important for being happy. I think that a lot of people get to be at the end of their 20s, and they’re like, “Shit, I’m still not doing what I love,” and it’s because they always have this uniform definition of what your career is supposed to look like.
I just think that, especially in this country, you have such an opportunity to make your own career path and do what you want. It’s becoming more and more accepted that you can get into industries that you might not have a long tenure in or tons of experience in, because it’s really more based on your skills than necessarily your experience or your history. I always try to hire employees that way. We have people all the time that work for us that have never worked in a restaurant before. Hey, I’ve never owned a restaurant before, so we’ll figure this out together.
Joe: Yeah, we’re all figuring it out.
Jessie, The Garden Table: We’re all figuring it out. No, I did not always know this is what I wanted to do. Basically, I was traveling a lot with my boyfriend, Greg—also my business partner and co-owner. We saw an open market and were like, “There’s juice places on every corner of both coasts, but none in Indy. Weird.” That was the initial kernel that embedded in our minds. We tossed it around a lot for probably about a year.
Then finally, we had a unique opportunity in that one of Greg’s best friends from high school—also now one of my best friends—is an investor. She invests in different concepts and industries. She has a good eye for a good brand and good ideas. She is very open to new opportunities for that.
I was also always taught by my mentors that the hardest part is the money. If you can find a way to get the cash, you can do the other parts. I felt like we had a unique opportunity and was like, “Either you go for it and do it or stop thinking about it.”
We had a defining conversation where we said, “We’re doing it.” Then it was like, “Let’s get this business plan going.” That was a process too. That was a year of just developing it. You go through the different phases of super creative and you get a bunch done, and the concept becomes a thing. It almost is birthed before it’s birthed, you know? It’s there. You can almost feel it, so you want to flesh it out more. It was kind of like that.
I let that happen organically, which I think was really important, because I didn’t rush myself into being like, “Launch!” I let it burn for awhile. I think that was important for the whole entire process. Then, when it became time for it to be real, it had already been real to me for so long that it was almost easier. I went through phases, like I said, of bursts of creativity and then bursts of fear.
Jessie, The Garden Table: I would say the most difficult obstacle in the whole thing—and continues to be—is this basic human emotion of fear. I never analyzed it or thought about it before this…not until I owned a business. Actually, the first time that it really had me in its grip, I did not realize that that’s what it was. It took a lot of me reflecting on it to be like, “Why did I have this tweak out?” I was just scared, you know?
Joe: For sure. I think if your personality is prone to fear, then you’re much more aware of it. I’m probably more like your personality. I’ve owned this business for four years, but about two years in—soon after we adopted our soon—the shit got much more real. I realized people are now relying on me. My wife, Lindsay, stopped working full-time for a bit and there was much more stress and strain.
I actually had a physical breakdown. I remembered calling Lindsay and was like, “I might be having a heart attack right now. I don’t really know what’s going on.” We talked through it—and later I talked to some nurses—and they told me it sounded just stress related. I’d just never really experienced anything close to that before. It was the physical manifestation that this was some heavy stuff.
Jessie, The Garden Table: The manifestation of it. Yeah, one hundred percent. The exact same thing happened to me the night before we opened Garden Table. I was crying, but I wasn’t crying. There were tears coming down my face, and I was like, “What is going on?” It was a big night for us. It was a late night. It was a long night. I couldn’t keep it together. I was like, “What is wrong with me?” Then I was freaking out that I couldn’t keep it together.
Joe: Right, right…spiraling.
Jessie, The Garden Table: Yeah, it escalated. I barely ate at all for three days. Actually, the first time that I sat down and ate a full meal in our restaurant while it was open, I was like, “I’m glad that I can finally know what our food tastes like.” I’d been out of commission for a week.” I was there, but I wasn’t there. Do you know what I mean?
It was almost like an out of body experience for me. That’s when I had to reflect so much. I couldn’t even think about it at first, because it scared the shit out of me. Everyday I felt better as the week went on, but I had to just really reflect on it.
Joe: Yeah. I think that’s the important part. Acknowledge what it is and don’t try to run from it. Not that I’m talking from great experience. I’m clearly still learning as I go. But I have learned that fear can be an extremely powerful emotion, and I shouldn’t try to ignore it. Accept it for what it is. Face it, but be aware what you’re up against.
I’m so glad you shared that, because the outside can look at the success you’ve had so far and think it’s just been a breeze keeping it all going. But there’s all this inside stuff that nobody acknowledges.
Jessie, The Garden Table: Yeah, exactly. I’m still working through that. It comes back sometimes. I have moments where I can’t believe it’s working. You just never know how things are going to be received by other people, whatever it is you do.
Joe: You always hear these stats like nine out of every 10 restaurants fail in the first year. Was there ever a point in the process of creating your business plan that you thought, “What am I doing?”
Jessie: Trust me, when I told my dad what I was doing, he was like, “Are you aware that 90% of restaurants fail?” I was like, “Thank you for the pep talk. I am. Mine’s not going to.”
Joe: Were there times where you were like, “What the hell are we doing? Maybe we should stop. Just stop this whole nonsense?”
Jessie: All the time. All the time. All the time. But sometimes you create something and it becomes bigger than you. And then you’re kind of scared of it, because you don’t have the control anymore that you had when it was an idea in your mind. You have to let go of that. Let it be it’s own thing.
Also, and I’m definitely still working through this, but I’m realizing that it doesn’t own you. You can pour everything into it and that’s great, but it doesn’t own you. At any point in life, we can take a left or right turn if we want to. Logically, I know that, but emotionally, sometimes it feels like, “I’m going to be hustling like this forever.” I don’t know why. That’s something that’s weird that I’ve noticed. But again, five years ago I never knew that I was going to be doing this, so for me to assume I’ll be doing exactly the same thing I am now in five years is crazy.
Joe: Ok so you ignored the conventional wisdom that owning a restaurant only leads to failure. But that wasn’t scary enough, so you said, “Let’s not do the traditional supply chain. Let’s source our food from local farms.” How did that decision come to be?
Jessie: That was always going to be a differentiator for us. I don’t say that to say that other places don’t have it, because many places have been serving local stuff for years. I just see no point in going to the big boxes. I see no point. It’s more expensive to go local. It just is. When you do local like that, there are no accounts receivable. You don’t get an invoice that’s due in 30 days. They come in, and, if we don’t hand them a check, we don’t get our delivery. It is what is is, and I don’t know any other way.
Also, there’s an aspect to it that makes me so happy. Literally, the farmer’s son pulls up in his pickup to make his delivery after driving an hour and a half. There’s something about that’s beyond what I can put into words. I think it’s amazing that that even still exists in this day and age.
Joe: What was the driving factor in that decision?
Jessie: It’s Indiana. How could you not? We’re in the farmland. You can’t drive out of the city without passing farms. So in my opinion, if you own a restaurant here then you should be buying from those farms, because why would you not? Why would you get your entire shipment from California if you don’t have to. To me, it was a no brainer. It wasn’t until we started doing it that I got feel goods about it, because I realized just how much this matters. It was a good choice. Now I see the connection that we make with them.
Joe: I feel like there’s a resurgence of farms who probably would have gone under had there not been establishments like yours.
Jessie: I hope so. I really hope that’s the case, and I hope that keeps increasing.
Joe: You’ve been open since October 2014. How would you grade your business so far?
Jessie: Oh my God, that’s a scary question. A+! No, I’m just kidding.
Joe: Ha, and what criteria would you grade yourself on?
Jessie: Honestly, I think the only criteria that anyone that has a restaurant should grade themselves on is their customer’s level of satisfaction. There are amazing restaurants that serve unbelievable food, that close within a year. I read about them all the time. Maybe the food is not right for the area, or it’s too expensive or too cheap? I think there’s a lot of weird variables in the restaurant industry. You never know.
You can have this random location nowadays that becomes a destination. For instance, Milktooth. Three years ago, what was that street? No one was on that street. Bluebeard, obviously, started making that street a destination, but now there’s at least 10 local businesses within a couple blocks that I love and make the drive down to all the time. Everything used to be location, location, location. Now, it’s all about the vibe.
Joe: Get off the beaten path.
Jessie: Yeah, the vibe…mixed with the food…mixed with the aesthetic mixed…with the brand. I think it starts more with the brand now than anything. I think there’s a lot of people that come to Garden Table all the time, because they connect with the brand. Not necessarily because we have one dish that’s their favorite thing to eat when they go out. I think there’s a lot of factors in that, but I don’t think there’s any obvious winning combination. I also think that’s why this industry is scary, because there’s really no blueprint.
Joe: Yeah, this plus this equals success.
Jessie: Yeah. I did a lot of research in the beginning, but the more research you do the more you discover there isn’t a blueprint for this. There’s not.
Joe: What kind of research did you do? Did you talk to a lot of restaurateurs?
Jessie: I talked to anyone I could. We were very eager for info of any kind. But you can talk to 10 people that own restaurants in this city, and I think they would all have a different combo of why theirs is good, why it works, and why people like it. Again, I think that has to do with the combo of everything of what people are willing to buy or eat at certain places versus others.
Joe: So with your upcoming Mass Ave restaurant, what made you think now is the time to open another location? You’ve only been doing your thing for less than two years. What made you think, “Yeah, this is the time,” rather than get more experience under your belt?
Jessie: I’d say, first and foremost, that’s the type of people that Greg and I both are. We always, from the beginning, have said, “This isn’t going to be a one-time, mom-and-pop-shop thing.” We had growth goals for the company. It’s important to me to plan for it like I would any business, regardless of industry. I think that’s always a risk when you grow. Probably a lot of people don’t grow quickly, because they’re scared of the growth—rather than just going for it.
Also, we went small with the first one on purpose. We didn’t know everything we were doing. We knew there was going to be a lot that we were going to figure out. This space was perfect for that. It was the right size. It was the right place. It was in the heart of an area that I’ve been in for 20 years.
It’s great for what it is, but the concept was always bigger than this. We started talking about the second one right after this one opened. We were always talking about that. It was a matter of the real estate. It was natural for us that we were either going to go north or south. We were either going to go downtown or go to Carmel.
Joe: I see each of those markets—Broad Ripple, Meridian Kessler, Downtown, Carmel—as such a different animal, if you will.
Jessie: Totally different?
Joe: I imagine you have to design and market them so differently?
Jessie: Yes, I think you do them differently. I do still think there is some precision to fitting within the area that you’re in and realizing what they want there. For instance, we have no espresso in Broad Ripple. There are two reasons for that. One, it’s really expensive to put one in restaurants. And two, we’re right by Monon Coffee and we’re not trying to steal their dime. We made a conscious decision to not do espresso there at opening.
Downtown, there’s so much morning traffic down there. Both living and working, people going into the city every morning. It’s so obvious to me that our coffee program was super important down there. It’s the business center of the state. There’s so much business traffic, so I knew there was going to be a lot more early morning business. In Broad Ripple, people drive there from their house or on their way to work. Versus downtown where people are up and hopping at 6:00 a.m.
We’re also doing a Modbar down there. You come up, get in line, and you can order. You don’t have to wait for a hostess. You don’t have to walk across the busy restaurant. I purposely put it close to the door, so that people can get in and out. Get a coffee, get a juice, and be done with it. We’re also going to a full bar down there. People want to drink when they eat lunch. Especially, when they brunch on the weekends.
Joe: It’s a totally different experience.
Jessie: It’s a different scene there. So those are two things that we are doing downtown that are different than up here. That we may never do again, or we might always do it from now on. I definitely think the area matters.
I’m actually really grateful and happy that part of our whole thing with our brand is that we can change it whenever we want. We can grow it into something different or take it back down. Scale it down. The essence of it is still the same. The offerings might be expanded or more limited than other places.
Joe: What are some of the lessons that you learned in your first two years that you can put into play at your next location?
Jessie: I would say the biggest thing is the people factor. Having people work for you in any capacity is a very interesting and delicate relationship. I always wanted to have the kind of company where, as an owner, I’m very in tune with my staff. And I think we are. But it’s a very fine line of deeply caring about your staff—the people who are helping your business be alive every day and are really the face of your business—and also being able to draw the line when decisions come. You can’t cater to everyone. You can’t make everyone happy. That piece is really interesting. It’s ever changing.
I actually had a friend in the business who—when we signed our funding deal—said, “Congratulations, the easy part is over. Now welcome to your worst nightmare: people.” At first, I was like, “Ha ha.” Then, two months after we opened I realized he was right. It’s one of those things. The human factor is very real.
Again, it doesn’t matter what business or industry, but it’s a very fine line that I’m always learning to dance or the difference between friend and boss. When to put on my owner hat and when to put on my we’re-all-humans hat. It’s hard. I don’t think it will ever be easy, because humans are…
Joe: …every person is different.
Jessie: Right. Humans are ever changing. And that’s probably the biggest fear of opening the new location—dealing with a larger staff and a lot more humans under your umbrella. At the same time, I’m excited for it. I constantly envision this bustling restaurant and all these people working there. It’s exciting and scary, because it’s the one factor that you can never put off. You can never quit dealing with it. It’s always there. Ever present. It’s always a factor. Because if someone on your staff is unhappy, that could rub off to six customers that day, and that’s shitty.
Joe: I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately. I’ve intentionally pushed off adding staff to my business so that, for that time being, I can maintain flexibility in my schedule and hang out with our son.
Jessie: I’m envious of you.
Joe: Yeah it’s so great! But then, as I think about hiring staff, I wonder how I’m going to get them to have the same vision or take the same ownership of what we’re creating? How do I instill that in them so that they’re not just into it for the paycheck? Do you try to instill that, or do you accept the fact that it is just a paycheck for some people?
Jessie: I do try to instill it. I think a lot of that is about empowering people so that they feel like they can make decisions that affect the company. They feel that responsibility on their shoulders and it makes them want to do the right thing. I think that’s important. We try to make our staff part of the business. We try to get everyone involved in things that aren’t theirs specifically, so that they care. That’s really hard.
And, no matter what, you’re always going to have those people that don’t want that. They just want to clock in. Those aren’t necessarily bad employees. In fact, a lot of times, they’re great employees! But there is something to be said for someone who feels that they’re really part of the company. That decisions or moves that they make will affect the company. I think that helps to make people care more, but it’s really hard.
Joe: Lately, I picture these new kids on the Indy scene—a rat pack of restaurateurs—that have come around in the last couple of years. Do you feel that? Do you all hang out? Is it pretty congenial?
Jessie, The Garden Table: I feel like it is pretty congenial—especially for all the newcomers—because we’re all new. Sometimes, I wish there was a little more of, “let’s all hang out together,” but it’s hard. With this industry, your off time is precious.
But I do feel that we have great connections with those restaurateurs that we do know. I just met Joshua Gonzales who owns Thunderbird. They’ve been around for a little bit, but he was at the very forefront of those new places popping up. We talked to him a long time about our cocktail program downtown. He gave us so much amazing insider advice. Random little tips that are priceless to me and probably so common in his head. But the fact that we can even have a conversation like that I think is really cool. It needs to continue.
I think the worst thing that could happen—and it’s really sad when it does—is when restaurateurs feel like they need to keep their secrets. I think that is an old school way. That’s how it used to be. But most of the people who I’m talking to are the new kids on the block, so it doesn’t feel like that. And I’m happy about that.
Joe: It makes it more inviting to me as a customer when I know that there’s this good vibe from one restaurant to another. That you’re all in this together.
Jessie, The Garden Table: Right. I think so too. I absolutely love going to Milktooth. I go there as much as possible. Greg and I feel that way about that place. It’s happy. It’s nice. We go there and the waitstaff knows who we are. That’s so special.
Joe: We’re sitting here and having drinks 30 years from now. What are you doing then?
Jessie, The Garden Table: I’ll be the first to say I don’t know. Nor do I necessarily care. I mean, I don’t feel like I’m necessarily doing what I was meant to do. I feel like I’m at the beginning of being fulfilled in my career. The real fear is becoming complacent with myself or the life that I’m creating. I never actually want to quit creating my life.
To me, it’s about creating experiences for people. We’ve done that with Garden Table against many odds, so I want to keep doing that wherever the path leads me next. I’m very open, as you can tell. It’s almost like I wait until a couple more bricks are in front of me before I take my next step. I don’t wait until I can see really far and know it’s safe. It’s really exhilarating. It’s really freeing. And it’s scary as shit.