All Small Businesses Should Take a Lesson from This Teeny French Restaurant in Nowhere, Indiana
A tiny French restaurant in Bloomington, Indiana, epitomizes everything I think small business can be — simple, down-to-earth, and focused on what matters. In this case, that’s delicious, homestyle French food and doing it their way.
I headed toward the dingy white building with green trim a block from Bloomington’s hippest street (if you’re from outside the Midwest, USA, that’s an oxymoron).
It didn’t feel like the place I remembered from the last time I’d been in Bloomington, a year before, when I’d discovered randomly fabulous crepes. But it also seemed unlikely there’d be two French restaurants in a four-block radius in central Indiana. Turns out, there were. But I trust Google directions more than my own memory, so in I went.
Once I stepped through the front door, I knew for sure I’d gotten something wrong and thought, Crap, I better get out of here before someone greets me.
All day, I’d been building up the memory of those fantastic crepes from my intended Bloomington French restaurant, so I didn’t want to get roped into staying at this unproven place.
Just as I turned away to head out the door, a woman’s voice said, “Hello, may I help you?” in a soft French accent.
I couldn’t be so rude as to leave then, so I resigned myself to having crepes for breakfast the next morning. I followed her to a table.
I wasn’t expecting a menu during Covid times, so I looked around for a QR code to scan for the menu. I saw nothing, but the woman quickly reappeared and said, “We have steak, chicken, and salmon on the entree menu tonight, or fish pate and potato leek soup to start. We have one red wine, a white wine, or coffee. What will you like?”
I stared at her blankly for a stupidly long time before realizing, Oh, that’s the menu. Those are my choices.
Then — This is delightful! My minimalist self loved not having to waste time agonizing over 30 things on the menu, mentally bickering with myself over whether I should order the meal I wanted or get something cheaper to save 5 bucks.
After I chose fish pate (having no clue what that was going to be), potato leek soup, and red wine, I finally took a look around the dining room.
No doubt, the place hadn’t changed in decades. The tiny dining room had no decorations except antique lamps on each table. The two focal points were the open ducting (not in the industrial-cool way of new restaurants), and two huge, glass garage doors that transformed the place into an open-air restaurant on warm days.
I was still sad about missing out on the crepes, but I guessed (correctly) that they couldn’t decorate so sparsely and serve crummy food.
The other side of the dining room was set for a big group clearly coming later. As I slowly enjoyed my dinner alone, reading Everything is Figureoutable by Marie Forleo, the other tables filled up and it felt familiar, familial, and refreshingly down to earth.
I later read a local newspaper article about the restaurant and the couple who owned it. It was written many, many years earlier, judging by the couple’s appearance in the picture alongside the article.
Then, as now, the husband and wife owners both wait tables, split the other duties, and stick to what they know: serving the same unpretentious, provincial French food they make at home, for really reasonable prices.
During 40+ years in business, they’ve stuck to the same formula. There’s nothing frou-frou about the place, nor was there ever. They don’t try to compete with high-end restaurants, though their food quality easily compared and the unique experience overshadowed most upscale restaurants I’ve been to.
They didn’t put QR codes on the tables during Covid, even though so many other restaurants have. They didn’t upgrade to a fancier dining room with white table cloths and $150 bottles of French wine.
That’s not who they are, and they’ve chosen their way with intention. An example for all small businesses.