Martha’s story, like her brand, and the food she serves, is disarmingly simple – and devastatingly effective.
So how did a lawyer with no restaurant or business experience, raising two young kids with another baby on the way, kick start an unstoppable trail towards a thriving group of restaurants in Indianapolis (simultaneously performing the small miracle of transforming the local dining landscape on the way)?
“My ignorance paid off”, Martha says with an infectious optimism that I soon realize is a trademark. “I had always loved food. Had grown up with parents who taught me that. Had travelled wide-eyed in France aged 17 and learned so much from that culture and become entranced by it. I was a good cook but not a chef. And it wasn’t hard to see that the food scene in Indianapolis in the 80s and 90s was horrible. I couldn’t understand why, when we were in the middle of a huge state, growing some of the nation’s best produce, we only had chain restaurants”. So Martha invested in her original vision (to prepare and present the best “simple” food using fresh, local, high-quality ingredients) and has stuck to it ever since.
As we chat more, I come to realize that the genius of Martha is also that she lives the philosophy – always attending to every small detail, rolling up her sleeves, being involved with everything, driving it on with her own passion. And then she reveals one more thing. A unique, magical thing… “Having children dictated the kind of restaurant I opened because I was also a committed mother at home. As my children grew and became more independent so did my brand. When I started in 1989, I didn’t know I was pregnant. I gave birth to the first restaurant at the same time as the birth of my 3rd child. It really changed how I looked at my business. My son is now 25 years old – and my relationship evolves with both, hence I know that I will never get tired and complacent with my company.
“As an entrepreneur you take risks,” she continues. “I just happened to have the self-knowledge to realise that if I am going to gamble on anyone I am going to gamble on myself.”
Her Patachou empire continues to grow and Martha is now a local culinary legend. She has just opened her 11th restaurant: Public Greens.
And Public Greens is one special project. “Our main goal,” she explains, “is simply to feed kids that aren’t going to get dinner that night.” It is an urban, farm-market-inspired cafeteria with a community focus, dedicating 100% of its profits to feed at-risk and food-insecure children in the community. It also employs a dedicated farmer for the block-long grounds, fully planted with crops and edible flowers used in the restaurant and in the foundation’s feeding program.
Beat that. I can’t wait to go see (and eat).
As the interview draws to a natural close I refer back to her reflections on how motherhood affected her working life. I make a comment about getting the balance right but, quick as a flash, she corrects me. “Balance is not how I looked at it. It was more truly a ‘blend’. I couldn’t switch coldly between my work and my home life, my mind just didn’t work like that – when I was at home I would think about my business and vice versa. So I decided to blend everything – kids and work. Now, every experience I have impacts upon everything I do at work, and also everything I do as a mother. When I stopped trying to compartmentalize my life, it became enriched and whole.”
And no doubt it is this approach that helps Martha “wake up every day excited about what I do and excited about my day.”
Now that, as she says, “is a gift”.