People have been asking Jeanne Kern why she’s been hanging out at The Vine, the prominent Elkhart restaurant at 214 S. Main St.
She’s been honest that she’s not a manager or server, but coy otherwise. She’s ready to reveal that she’s becoming the new owner.
The orange sign in the front window indicates she’s applied for a riverfront development liquor license and her local hearing is Oct. 20. She’s hammering out a purchase agreement with owner Mary Spillane. By early November, she hopes to have possession.
“Last year I laughed them all off,” she said.
After she bought and renovated a downtown building with her brother across the alley from The Vine, that changed.
“I thought, ‘why not?’ The craziest cold call I’ve ever made in my life,” she said.
She left McCarthy’s in June and is ready to be an owner.
“After working for other people so many years and putting my heart and soul in the business, it was time to do that for us,” she said of her husband, Tom.
This is big news. The Vine opened in 2007 as an offshoot of the South Bend location. Both were downtown places at which you could do a business lunch or stop in before or after a show at the nearby theatre.
The South Bend location closed awkwardly and publicly in 2014 after the city of South Bend indicated that the restaurant owed back rent for occupying the city-owned building.
The Elkhart location persevered and remained that place between fine and fast casual dining that offered a great salad and decent food otherwise. Its bar is comfortable and engaging. It’s a key part of downtown. The Vine offers a perch with food and drink.
Spillane’s Vine in both cities was a good concept, but she hasn’t been an owner who was active in the Elkhart operation. Kern will be. She intends to work alongside the loyal staff members and said she wants to nurture them. They, in turn, can nurture guests and that will nurture the bottom line, she said.
She’s hired Brian Caplinger, known as Chef Cappy, to be the executive chef. He’ll move from Port Huron, Mich., and start in mid-November.
She’s not sure how the menu will change, but is quick to say that Mary’s Garbage Salad will stay. It’d be a bad business decision to mess with the mix of greens, raisins, candied walnuts, apples and bleu cheese, she said.
There’s a long Elkhart tradition of the garbage salad, meaning that a lot gets tossed in, going back to Nicky D’s. Mary’s salad has become a modern favorite.
Otherwise, Kern said they’ll assess the menu, which has appetizers, pastas, steaks and seafood. Kern said she’ll focus on service and defer to Caplinger on food. I’d love to see the dishes become more memorable, more distinctive.
“I don’t want to be fine dining, I want to be Vine dining,” she said. The name won’t change, she said. She likes the name and knows it has value in Elkhart.
That’s the kind of savvy and thinking that will make her successful. She sees opportunity to make the service more friendly, warm and fun, she said. She’s been a master of that kind of service since she left banking and went to work as a server when she had young children. “I called it my paid social life,” she said of the restaurant work.
Kern is planning a renovation in January and intends to accentuate the age and character of the building. “When we’re done with this place it’s going to be an extension of my home,” she said.
The Vine has been that for some of the loyal customers over the years. It’s a place where business gets done and where people unwind. Downtowns need a variety of places, but The Vine has adequately filled that role of being a Main Street location where people can rely on the food and getting back to work in an hour. It’s a nice spot between the breakfast and sandwiches at the Old Style Deli and finer dining at Artisan and 523 Tap & Grill.
It can be more than adequate. I expect Kern will enhance how much people already enjoy this place. She will assure that the service is thorough and reliable.
“I just feel like Elkhart is on the verge of something and I want to be part of it,” she said.
I hope she’s right. I look forward to what she can do with the place.
I’m hungry. Let’s eat.