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IUPUI Magazine

Business Issue, Summer 2007

Recipe for Success

Article by Ric Burrous

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Law school classes in the old IU School of Law-Indianapolis building on the IUPUI campus taught Martha Hoover how to argue her case before judges and juries.

These days, though, the "cases" she's making are less about food for thought and more about satisfying the appetites of her newest "judges," the customers visiting her five Indianapolis-area restaurants.

In 1989, after a short legal career as a member of the Marion County prosecutor's office and after starting a family that includes husband John, two daughters, one son and her "other" two children (also known as the Hoover family dogs), she launched Café Patachou on North Pennsylvania Street.

Nearly two decades and dozens of awards and accolades later, Hoover now oversees the five restaurants bearing her brand - Café Patachous at 49th & Pennsylvania, in the Fashion Mall on River Crossing Boulevard and in Carmel on 126th Street; Patachou on the Park in the downtown Simon Building; and her newest, Petite Chou, in Broad Ripple.

Her explanation for the unusual career shift? A passion for mealtime.

"I've been addicted to food my whole life! When I'm eating dinner, I'm thinking about what I'll have for breakfast," Hoover laughs.

Filled a need

"My legal career really was very satisfactory, but it just didn't fill that creative need in me," Hoover says. "I'd started my family and I'd desperately look around for a place to take the kids when we wanted to eat out. But to me, the food industry in those days was too mechanized, too chain-oriented."

So Hoover decided that if restaurants couldn't satisfy her food desires, "I'd start my own."

Armed only with her gut instincts - "I've never had a five-year business plan, only had a business class or two" and a determination to fill a culinary void - she created Café Patachou. Nearly two decades later, the restaurant hasn't moved. The Patachou menu still adorns the north and east walls of the narrow restaurant. Local artists' photos are still featured on the south wall. And a children's play area is helping a new generation of young mothers enjoy time away from home. Oh, and the aroma of bread, pastries and breakfast and lunch items smells just as tasty.

"We wound up with the perfect menu and the perfect location for the kind of place I wanted to go to, wanted to take my family," she says. "Sometimes I'm not sure how it all happened, but it's worked out."

She admits to being "a bit of a control freak," but Hoover acknowledges that she wouldn't have been nearly as successful if it weren't for her "outrageously supportive" husband. "He knew I was an incredibly hard worker and would do what it took to succeed, though I'm not sure he knew how far things might go," she says with a smile.

In those rare moments when she isn't taste testing her products, using a cell phone to negotiate with a vendor, or envisioning her next location, Hoover likes to walk her dogs along the Monon Trail near her home. And she and John "love to travel," though she admits, "we're not adventure travelers."

"My idea of a perfect vacation is to watch people, especially watch them eat, how they order, what they like, and how they eat," she laughs. "I admit it - I'm a little bit of a voyeur, but to me it's research. If I know what pleases people, maybe I can recreate that in my restaurants!"

Legal education helped

The North Central High School graduate admits that a lot of friends and colleagues are bemused by her entrepreneurial success, considering she never went to business school. But she is convinced her law school training on the IUPUI campus prepared her well.

"A business degree is obviously an exceptional asset, but law school can be a brilliant education for many fields, too," she insists. "You're taught to think in ways many people aren't wired to think. You have to think on your feet. You have to be flexible and adapt to conditions that change in an instant. And you have to be able to solve problems that weren't there a minute before."

Most of all, she contends, law school teaches students "there is a solution to any problem." And that, Hoover believes, may be the most valuable lesson she learned in her days at IUPUI.

In an industry that chews up most fledgling restaurants in a year or two, her restaurants have beaten heavy odds. She believes it's no coincidence that her training methods create a different kind of ambiance.

"I always try to impress upon my staff that we don't serve food, we build relationships," she says. "That is ALWAYS the first thing we talk about in employee training."

It's a plan that has served the Patachou family well. Customers often walk through the doors to be greeted a little like Norm in TV's Cheers. It isn't unusual for Hoover or her staff to remember details of a customer's life for weeks, or even months. And though each of her restaurants has its own idiosyncrasies and identity, they share a welcoming atmosphere.

Hoover knows her style can be demanding, but she is proud of the fact that she knows the names of all her employees, as well as bits and pieces about their lives. "If I expect it of them, why should they expect less from me," she says.

Future plans

The popularity of her restaurants has built a loyal clientele, one that tugs friends, family and even out-of-town visitors to one of Hoover's cafes. That exposure leads others to ask her often about expanding into other cities, in and out of Indiana. Hoover has thought about it, but isn't ready to make that leap just yet.

"I love that I can still drive to all of my restaurants in the same day, and can eat in all of them regularly," Hoover says. "I like being able to oversee the day-to-day operation, to make sure that we're always living up to my goal of good, healthy food, sourced locally where possible and prepared by our own kitchen."

That proximity and accessibility - okay, control - has forestalled expansion plans outside of Indy. But Hoover doesn't mind daydreaming a bit.

Still, "until I can resolve in my own mind how to make sure we stay true to my vision, I don't know that I'm ready to grow the business that way," Hoover says.

For now, she's happy maintaining the quality of the Patachou restaurants, offering patrons "who are just like me - eager to visit restaurants that offer good, healthy meals" just what they want.

She launched Café Patachou "at just the right time. The American food revolution was just starting - people were beginning to want very different things when they ate out, and that was what we had to offer."

Hoover shakes her head ruefully as she recalls those early days.

"I only had something like three items on the menu," she says. "We had a one-page menu, and the print was really big just to fill up space."

These days, the spaces she's filling are patrons' stomachs.

"I want our customers to know I appreciate their coming in," she says. "Our staff knows there are many places they can visit and many ways they can spend their money; we want them to know we appreciate them choosing us."

Since taking the plunge 18 years ago, Hoover hasn't wavered in her belief that she made the right choice.

"I don't think I ever have those days when I ask myself 'What have I gotten myself into,'" she says. "Mostly, I say 'My heavens, look what we have done.' I guess that really, I'm a Pollyanna underneath it all. But the truth is, it's still fun."

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