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.
Patachou Inc.—a collection of restaurant concepts in Indianapolis, including Cafés Patachou, Petite Chou Bistro and Champagne Bar, Napolese Artisanal Pizzeria and Wine Bar, GELO Dolce Bar, Public Greens an Urban Kitchen Greens and Grill and PATATRUCK Mobile Patachou Kitchen. She is also the founder of the Patachou Foundation, partially supported by Public Greens and focused on both feeding healthy after-school meals to children around Indianapolis who struggle with hunger and educating them about whole foods.
Earlier this month, Martha and I sat down in her Napolese Wine Bar to talk about her lifelong love for food, her switch from the legal to the culinary field, and how she forever changed the Indy dining scene.
Joe: I would love to start at the beginning. Tell me a bit about your family. What kind of influence would you say they’ve had on you?
Martha: Actually, in terms of the food world, it was a very positive influence. My father was an avid eater. He loved food. Both of my parents were born and raised New Yorkers—my father in The Bronx and my mother in Brooklyn. I was born in Brooklyn, but when I was three months old my family moved to Texas. We moved there because my father was in an MD/PhD program at the University of Texas. We were led to believe that the most amazing ingredients and the finest food—wherever it came from—ended up in New York and Paris. (My father was a bit of a Francophile due to his experience in the war.)
He had a real knack for language. Ended up teaching himself Italian in his mid 80s and spoke it fluently. Both my parents were first generation Americans. They lived in multilingual homes and in neighborhoods that were multilingual. My father spoke Yiddish, Russian, French, Italian, German, and English. He really was more than proficient. He was fluent, and it was quite incredible.
Joe: Oh wow.
Martha: My father’s happier stories were always about this food that ended up going to New York and to Paris. And so I believed as a child—I’m talking an eight or nine year old—that that was just the situation with food.
I loved food. I always loved the taste—the texture and the whole process of making food. I got a lot of joy out of dinners with family, with people and friends. Our vacation was going back to New York to visit family that lived there. Although that was great seeing cousins and aunts and uncles and grandparents, I just cannot tell you how much joy I got going to the neighborhood markets and going shopping with my aunts. Grocery shopping was so different in Indiana.
Joe: What was the shopping experience like here at that point?
Martha: Growing up there were A&P’s, and then Kroger and Marsh stores—all these big box supermarkets. As opposed to New York where—and it’s still like this for the most part—every several blocks is a different neighborhood in New York City with its own butcher shop, bakery, pastry store and green market. That was really fun for me.
I had this one experience…I want to say when I was probably 12 or so…where we drove from Indiana to New York for the High Holy Days, which usually happen in the late summer or early fall. I remember walking from my grandmother’s house to the produce market with my father to buy produce. There was a bushel basket and a sign above it that read: “Decker Melons.” I remember my father saying, “Those melons are from Indiana.” I was like, “I’ve never heard of them. We’ve never had them. How come we don’t eat them?” And he literally was like, “These are the best melons in the world.” It was one of those moments when a seed was planted inside me. In my mind, I was like, that makes no sense. We don’t have those in our Marsh grocery store. That just makes no sense. And that was instrumental in my brain.
Joe: Such a great story. Ok, imagine if Norman Rockwell were painting a picture of your dinner table back when you were a kid. Describe how he would paint that picture. What did your table look like growing up?
Martha: My mother was very much a 1950s housewife. And people then, regardless of your economic status, didn’t eat out. Eating dinner out was seen as a celebration, an occasion. We didn’t eat out a lot. My mother made dinner every night. I remember walking into the house after school or in the summertime after we played outside. (And this was back in the days where you really did play outside. You would leave your house at 8 or 9 in the morning and wouldn’t come home until the dinner bell rang.) I remember running in and always loving the way the house smelled. It just smelled great. My mother wasn’t a fancy cook, a very simple cook. We always had really good food on the table. She always set the table, which is something I’ve done since I first had my own apartment. I’ve always believed in setting the beautiful table and did that for my children. They do it now—one of our traditions that I love.
That’s what I remember. I remember just always loving that aspect of walking in the door and knowing that someone was there, a light was on and something good was cooking for me.
Occasionally we would get to go out to dinner. And the trend now is people eat out more than they eat at home. (Hey, I’m in the restaurant business, so thank God people eat out today!) When I was raising my own children, I really had this thing about the family table. I think there’s nothing that can replace the family table, and I don’t really think it matters where that table is…your breakfast room, your dining room, or someone’s restaurant. I think eating together is the most important thing you can do with a family. I really do.
Joe: Where in Indiana did you grow up?
Martha: The northside of Indianapolis.
Joe: What’s interesting to me is that you’ve traveled around a lot. You’ve gone to many different places.
Martha: I’ve been lucky.
Joe: What is it about Indiana that keeps you here? What’s the pull? More so than the restaurants you started?
Martha: First off, I literally took myself to Paris. Again, this goes back to to hearing since I was a little girl about this amazing place called Paris. I studied French in high school and college, and I babysat almost every Friday and Saturday night in high school to save enough money. For graduation from high school, I asked for an airplane ticket to Paris, and I left three days after graduation. I stayed in France for almost four months that trip, and it was such a transformative event.
I’ve probably been to Paris 25 or 30 times since that initial trip and I love traveling. I’m not a huge adventurer traveler, though I’m trying to become one. I really love getting to know wherever I go. I love getting to know the city and whatever neighborhood I’m most comfortable in. But I am a creature of habit. I’ve stayed at the same hotel—usually in the same room—for the last 12 years. Same thing in New York. And I love it! I love just going and not feeling obligated to go to museums. I really love just going and pretending that I’m living there as a local. I really love that.
I do love Indiana. It’s beautiful. It’s accessible. I can get to it, and I can leave from it quite easily. Plus it’s where I grew up, so it’s natural for me to be here. I found the community to be insanely, remarkably supportive of what I’ve been doing. Those aren’t things you take for granted. You really do look at it with tremendous gratitude. The bar to entry for me would’ve been almost impossible in 1989 in a city like New York.
That also keeps us here. We’ve got an incredible lifestyle here for what most people in big cities cannot imagine what we’re paying—by “we” I mean collectively—for housing, schools, green spaces, everything. It’s a very attractive community.
Joe: So true. Now transitioning into your life as an entrepreneur, and your shift from the courtroom to the kitchen. Obviously food has been part of your life since you were a kid. Was there a moment when you were just doing your job as a lawyer and said, “I’ve got to make this other dream become a reality.”
Martha: Every moment of my day. For one of my birthday gifts, my parents gave me the Time Life Foods of the World series. Have you ever seen those?
Joe: Not the Foods of the World series, but Time Life for sure.
Martha: Those books are still some of my most cherished possessions. I really wanted to be in food. I really, really loved food, but I went to law school. It was a default education for me because I didn’t know what else to do. I knew it would buy me some time while I figured things out, and it did. Not only did I figure things out, I met my husband in law school. He was a third year student when I was entering my first year.
I never really left the idea of wanting to do something in the food world. But see, there was a huge difference back then between my generation and my generation’s parents. My parents saw restaurant work as being an absolute negative. Being in the service industry meant you had not moved to America, gotten educated and made something of yourself. It was not a profession.
Also, it’s important to throw yourself in the middle of the historical context. Where women were….where education was, it was a big deal that I just went to law school as a female. I graduated law school in the mid-70s and not even 20 percent of my class were females. It was considered a very big deal, if you were female in a professional graduate program. The world was a much different place.
But the switch from law to food worked. And it happened because I happened to be smart enough to marry the right man who was very supportive. I really mean that. He was very emotionally supportive and knew that this was something I really wanted to do. (Oh, he was also into food and wine!) He gave me the support and freedom to really execute on that idea.
Here’s another reason. My father was a bit of a dreamer, but he didn’t execute well on dreams. He was one of these people that would always say, “I should have done that” or “I could have done that.” And I was always the scornful one going, “Why didn’t you do it?” He’d say, “I could’ve bought the Coca Cola stock when it was 2 dollars a share. I could’ve bought Chrysler when it was one dollar a share.” I’m just like, “If you knew that, then…. And so I decided very early on I was not going to be that person who said, “I could’ve or I should’ve.”
Joe: That’s so fascinating.
Martha: I just dove in. That has actually been my personality all along. I’m not impulsive, but I don’t overthink things. I just jump in. I’m always like, “If it doesn’t work, I’ll figure out how to swim, and I’ll get to the edge of the pool.” I think it’s going to work. I don’t entertain Plan B’s very often. I don’t believe in a Plan B. I think it takes a certain person to understand that. I never had a backup plan. I think those with backup plans—sticking with the pool analogy—when they touch water start to freak out and automatically go to the Plan B.
Joe: You’re almost guaranteeing that Plan A won’t work because you’ve already got a second one ready to go.
Martha: That’s right. I just never, ever, ever would entertain having a Plan B. Every time I would tell friends I wanted to open a restaurant, people would tell me how many restaurants fail, what a miserable business it is, how horrible employees are, everything. I didn’t want to hear it. I knew all of that going in. But I had the weird belief that I could do it differently and better. I just had that sense, and that’s what I did.
You know what else, back then there truly was no restaurant in the city where I would eat because I was really into a certain variable—I would consider it a French quality of food. I had children and I wanted to get out of the house. I wasn’t my mother, and I didn’t want to be wedded to the kitchen at all. I was a very modern woman.
Joe: This is the 1980s?
Martha: Yeah, early 80s. Two of my three children were born. I opened the restaurant in 1989 not knowing I was pregnant with my third child. I did that really because I thought that there were probably other people in this neighborhood who had the exact same sense about eating out and didn’t want to go to the Olive Garden or whatever the chains were. Indianapolis really had zero history of supporting independent restaurants. From that perspective, it was a bit risky. Again, it goes back to my personality of just saying, “I’m going to do it. It’s going to work.”
Joe: Everything I’ve read about you always seem to paint this picture that whenever you ran up into a wall, you’d just say, “I’m going to plow right through it.”
Martha: I did plow through walls.
Joe: I’m interested though the times where you ran into the wall and fell back on your ass.
Martha: Oh, every time I run into a wall, I fall on my ass. I think it was Mark Twain who said: “All you need in this life is ignorance and confidence, and then success is sure.” After falling on my ass, I never minded getting up, dusting my pants off, and just saying, “It’s going to happen. I’m going to make this work.”
Also, I don’t mind thinking, I think that’s why I did okay with the law stuff. I’m okay thinking on my feet. Law school really taught me to think about problems in many different ways from many different sides. There are very few legal challenges where you go from A to B. You go all the way from A to the end of the alphabet and back to B. It just taught me in a weird way to find solutions and to figure it out.
That’s how it worked. When I’d fall on my ass, I also didn’t mind getting up and saying, “Boy, I just fell on my ass, made a fool of myself. I’m going to do better and I’m going to go different way.” Then I just did it.
Joe: Grade yourself, what kind of boss would you say you are? Would you work for yourself?
Martha: You have to actually ask my staff, I think. I would hope that they would think that I was exacting, yet fair…also considerate and thoughtful. There are certain non-negotiables in my company. Here’s how I look at it: I don’t have a gun pointed to anyone’s head and say you have to work for me. There are lots of places that any of my employees can work. I appreciate that, and I really know that there’s severe competition in the restaurant world today. Nationally, there are articles in the Wall Street Journal about the need for chefs, the need for kitchen people, the need for servers and for professionals in the restaurant business. I get what the universe looks.
I’m very appreciative of the people that work for me, but it is my business. It didn’t just happen by accident. I do have a remarkable amount of goals and visions for how I want the business to look like, not in 10 years but at the end of everyday. You don’t get there without having systems and rules and standards. If you’re going to work for me, you have to adhere to the systems, rules and standards. That’s how most successful businesses run. This isn’t a democracy, we don’t get to vote on things. At the end of the day my job is to make the decision and once the decision’s made, I really have to stick with it and enforce it and make sure it works for the business.
For 26 years I’ve had an open door to my office. People can call me, text me, email me, come into my office, and I will talk about anything. I’m happy to listen and I’ve learned so much from listening to my staff. I’ll give you a perfect example.
We started the Patachou Foundation to feed children in our city. One day, I was at my office and someone knocked on the door. It was one of my workers, and she said, “I think it’s amazing that Patachou is doing this foundation. I think it’s so incredible that we’re feeding kids who don’t have food at home. I think it’s really important, I’m really proud of it. But there are people in our own four walls who, if they lost their job at Patachou, would probably be in a similar position in a week or two. They wouldn’t be able to pay rent, pay for the car, pay for preschool, and pay for food. They’d be in that situation.”
I was like, “You’re right.” We do pay really fairly—especially for this market and this industry—but that doesn’t mean that people working here are getting rich, right? I was like, “You’re right.” We sat down, and I said, “Let’s figure this out.”
As a result of that conversation, we started the Patachou Financial Literacy Workshop where we hold a 2-night bootcamp four times a year with financial literacy training. Not the old school way—we don’t make people come with budgets. It uses the voice our staff can appreciate and understand. It’s not mandatory, but we have remarkable attendance rates. Anyone who attends and passes the Financial Literacy Workshop is able to—in their time of financial need—tap into what we call the Patachou Employee Emergency Relief (PEER) fund. We’ve had several people ask for loans, grants or gifts. They use them when life gets hard and when a hardship hits them.
The fund has a really fast turnaround time. I have nothing to do with telling who gets the money and who doesn’t. It’s totally run by, organized by, and run by three members of our staff…as is the financial training. I’m really proud of those two services!
Joe: For sure. And that’s probably an incident where you wouldn’t have known or heard had you not had that open door policy.
Martha: No. I probably wouldn’t have. That was a really light bulb moment.
Joe: Speaking of the Patachou Foundation and how you’re providing meals for those in Indy who aren’t sure they’re going to have another meal. I was curious if there were other things you’re focused on further upstream that not only address the immediate needs but also maybe the causes of poverty within Indianapolis?
Martha: The sad truth is that food insecurity, hunger, domestic violence, drug use, violence in the community, bad education, bad educational outcomes, childhood illnesses and diseases—like diabetes—unfortunately all those things are interlaced and locked into this ball of poverty.
Martha: And the Patachou Foundation is not going to solve all those issues. I think if we have impact on one of those issues that there’s a ripple effect that impact other issues.
What we’ve found is that the kids who eat our food do it after school. Meaning, they are going to school! And they do well in class because they’re actually getting nutrient-rich food, as opposed to eating food that comes out of a cellophane bag or fast food or not eating at all—or being forced to eat the breakfast and lunch that’s being provided at school. We all know that those are deplorable. I think that we do have a way to impact those other fingers, but the goal is to really stay true to our mission, and our mission is really limited. We want to feed nutrient rich food to children who live with food insecurity. We want to teach them about the foods that they eat and the joys of the table. That is as much as we can really impact. Quality food should not be an elitist experience.
Joe: One last question on Public Greens—so you create this concept where all the funds from this restaurant go directly to feed children in Indy. But you’ve got to market it in such a way that people get in the doors. You’ve got to find ways to pull them in. So do you want people to be inspired to come in the doors because of the high quality of food or because of where the money’s going to go?
Martha: The restaurant is run like a business. It is a business. It’s not a not-for-profit restaurant. It is very much a for-profit business. It also happens to be, I think, one of the most unique and innovative concepts—not just in the city but in the United States. The fact that it’s associated with a micro-farm. The fact that each of the ingredients on the menu are almost 100 percent locally sourced. I will say it’s the only restaurant in the state that can boast that. The proteins are really high order proteins. The desserts are amazing. There is nothing about the place that is not high quality food. I want Public Greens to be known for the high quality food.
People know Patachou because of the food, the ambiance, and the quality of service. I want Public Greens to be known for that too. That fact that the profits are being earmarked to a foundation that feeds poor kids is the cherry on top of the sundae.
Joe: So if somebody ate there and left having no idea where the funds would go that’s still satisfying the purpose of the restaurant? Because to me, knowing where the money’s going is a driving factor. I know I’ll enjoy the food, but it’s also this sense of a higher purpose.
Martha: One of my goals in starting the foundation and doing the restaurant this way was to really prove you don’t have to be a millionaire. You don’t have to be uber rich to do something like this. Profits aren’t bad. It’s what you do with your profit. If you just lined your pocket with them and didn’t do anything good for the community or staff or business, that’s just really gross.