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Almost Home's Gail Smith: Making Things Happen
by Donovan Wheeler photos by Caitlin Fogle
[dropcap]E[/dropcap]njoying a break from what had been a damp and lukewarm summer to that point, the crowd which had showed up the night before Independence Day had gotten so thick—particularly along the sidewalk across from the bandstand—that I found it difficult to make even a few steps safely. Navigating my way through the locals who had gathered, then finding my seat, while somehow avoiding spilling my beer in the process became a herculean effort. Gingerly I worked past one cluster of friends and neighbors, then snaked around another huddle of local acquaintances, and finally I averted a collision with a shifting collection of good friends I hadn’t seen in while. But as I rounded broad shoulders and ducked under tall shadows, I couldn’t help but marvel at how quickly Greencastle’s newest tradition: The First Friday music and food event had caught on. Even in a small city such as ours, the massing of people along this one-block stretch of Franklin Street often creates the sensation that the town is a bit larger, and leaves us craning our necks for all the familiar faces we can spot.
And among those, there’s one face everyone seeks out. When I finally noticed Gail Smith—the owner-operator of both Almost Home and its accompanying Swizzle Stick Bar—she was surrounded by her much taller staff under the shade of the food tent sitting some fifteen feet from one of her three front doors. When she locks eyes with patrons, she casts a beaming smile, a sweeping wave, and (when possible) a hug or a motherly forearm-handshake. When she turns to her staff, she still smiles…but anyone watching knows that she’s in charge.
In my experience, I’ve come to the conclusion that this is how it should be. Part of being the man or woman running any organization is the ability to stand amid that turbid vortex of chaos and remove all ambiguity. Yes means exactly that, and no means succinctly the opposite. Got it? Then let’s get busy.
When she and her then business partner Sara Bridges started the Almost Home Tea Room a quarter-century earlier, few could have imagined that the diminutive, soft-voiced Smith would evolve from afternoon pastries and lunchtime recipes into a stand-alone titan of the Greencastle business district. No one, that is, but Gail Smith. Even in those early days, as she nursed along her growing business, she was looking for her next move.
Gail Smith: “There for a while when I had more time: I wasn’t open every night of the week, I didn’t have a bar, and I wasn’t involved with The Final Approach,” Smith said referring to the auxiliary business she spear-headed for roughly four years a decade earlier, “I had more time to devote to other things outside of here which involved many trips to Indianapolis. Those visits are what drove the bar-scene corner of marketing. Before I opened the Swizzle Stick I had a little bar in the dining room which seated four people. I already held a full liquor license as well, so it just made sense to purchase this additional space, open a full bar, and then let it complement the restaurant. When I launched this thing, I didn’t completely know what I was doing—which is how I am with everything that I start—but, I’m a big risk-taker so that’s a feeling I’m accustomed to.”
Donovan Wheeler: Did the Swizzle Stick become what you had envisioned, or did you have something else in mind at first?
GS: “I had an idea of what kind of place I wanted, but the Swizzle Stick effectively evolved on its own. I thought the bar would be closer to the street, and the back would function as a conference room of sorts. But when we laid it out, there wasn’t enough room. At the same time…2008…the Great Recession hit us, and [here she sighs] there were just all kinds of stresses back then.”
DW: Do those unexpected changes include bringing in bands?
GS: “I had pub chairs up front, which gave the place a very different feel at that time. Then the area’s musicians approached me…and we have so many good musicians in this region…and once we started hosting bands the bar’s concept continued to evolve. Along the way Steve Michael has been very helpful. In the beginning he posed a lot of good ideas and guided me through those early days. Then Steve St. Pierre got involved and proved to be very helpful as well.”
DW: That leads me to the Greencastle Music Festival. How did that idea germinate?
GS: “It was my 20th anniversary, and I thought, ‘We need to have a party.’ So I spoke to Terre Haute’s Steve Ellis, who is a great marketer, and he exhausted me with ideas many of which led to the Music Festival. At the same time I became acquainted with former Cubs pitcher Lee Smith. I often saw him in Arizona at spring training, and I knew he was putting in a lot of time with all sorts of promotional events. So I asked him, ‘Would you ever come to Greencastle and be my celebrity?’ He said, ‘Yeah, sure…’ He told me the cost, and it wasn’t outrageous. So with Steve’s help, we made the first event a go.”
GS: “Dave Corbin was a tremendous help also. Furthermore the next year was his 25th anniversary, and he and I were both thinking, ‘What a great way to celebrate your business.’ And then the year after that was York’s 25th anniversary, so the timing always worked out very well from a celebration standpoint.”
[dropcap]B[/dropcap]y attracting acts both local and regional, from the likes of Terre Haute’s multi-faceted Ellusion to the popular Indy-based cover band, The Flying Toasters, the Greencastle Music Festival quickly became the city’s summer highlight, especially for the growing segment of the population looking for a summer high-point that didn’t feature livestock barns and truck pulls. The festival’s success was never more apparent than during the two most recent incarnations, when the late afternoon sprinkle of seated onlookers increasingly transformed into a midnight hoard of exuberant dancing people crowding the stage with an energy we normally only witness with a big-time act in downtown Indy. Yet again, what appeared to be a happy circumstance was a direct effect of Smith’s ability to anticipate and make her next move.
GS: “You can’t keep doing the same thing. You’ve got to elevate it every single time…that’s one thing I’ve learned. You might step on a few toes, but the way I feel about it is, ‘Hey, who else is doing this, and why not try it out?’ This is ‘Marketing 101’…that simple. You have to try new things, ramp them up as you go, and really get behind them yourself.”
DW: You mentioned that the festival was originally a “one-shot deal.” What do you mean, and why did it continue?
GS: “After the first one, which was so much work, I was already thinking, ‘I can’t keep doing this.’ Then people would come up to me and say, ‘Oh, you’ve got to do this again.’ So, I’ve created a monster,” here she breaks into laughter. “Now it’s a big event. I’ve got people from Arizona, Arkansas, Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee…who all come to the music festival. I met a couple at an Indians’ game who were standing in line to get Lee Smith’s autograph. So I told them about his time in Greencastle and about my event as well. Since then, they’ve been here the last two years. They live in Indianapolis, and they will not miss it.”
DW: That leads me to the addition of the First Friday events. Were those the direct result of the Music Festival, or did this come from a different direction?
GS: “I needed something to get me fiscally through the summers. So, I sat down with Sue Murray, and discussed the concept of the ‘First Friday.’ I pitched my idea to her, and she was (and still is) so supportive of me and what I’m trying to do here. She said, ‘Whatever it is you want to do…you have my blessing.’ Because I’ve brought people here.”
GS: “Sue’s only concern was that I was taking on too much for only one person. She connected me to Tami VanRensselaer, and she’s been a huge asset. She does all the ‘running’ for me. She approaches all the businesses and seeks their support. It’s the perfect arrangement. We ask people: ‘What do you want to feature on First Friday?’ Then Eric Bernsee runs free advertising in the paper.”
DW: Based on the success of the bigger festival, this seems like a no-brainer.
GS: “We had a hard time last year getting people to want to be a part of it. Businesses were reluctant. I thought, ‘What are you thinking? This is free advertising.’ I’m offering cheap booth space where operations can toot their own horns, but it takes time to get people to sign onto something like that.”
DW: Sounds like that leaves you putting in some very long days.
GS: “The First Friday in June, I held a breakfast for seventy people in the morning, and I was up at 5:00. So, by 11:30 that night, you could have blown me over with your breath.”
DW: When you think back to that little tea room twenty-five years ago, and now sit here in front of your bar and look down the street…how do you feel about what you’ve built here?
GS: “I feel pretty accomplished. I feel like, ‘Wow, I’ve done this.’ And I’m not saying this because I want some pat on the back. I feel as if all of this is my legacy. This is what I’m leaving my kids and my town as well. Contrary to what many people may think, I haven’t made any money—all of that has gone right back into this place. But I do think I’ve created a visible presence for the city, and I think I’ve offered something for the people who live here. What that leads to are the relationships this has given me. You can’t put a dollar-sign on that. I have great friends, who I’ve grown very close to, and it’s because they were customers in here. That’s my greatest personal accomplishment.”
DW: That seems like a strong selling-point in terms of getting people to dine here in town rather than driving to Plainfield or Avon or somewhere like that.
GS: “Sometimes you have to go to other towns…for variety or other reasons. But where else can you go and run into a half-dozen or more people whom you know? People you can instantly strike up a conversation with and chit-chat about family and what’s going on here in town? It’s a warm and cozy feeling…it’s something you simply feel good about. You just do. Down the road, the meals and the beers…you’re going to forget about all of that eventually. But you’re always going to remember the feeling you had sitting back by the bar, sitting up front, or sitting outside with all the people who matter to you. Because it’s comfortable. It’s home.”
DW: Is that feeling you’re describing the reason you prefer to close down the bar shortly after midnight instead of staying open later?
GS: “I never wanted to have a bar that stayed open until 3:00 in the morning. First of all, how much money can you make from 1:00-3:00? You have to deal with the mess, and obviously those people are intoxicated, your staff has to stay that much later, and there’s never any good when you’re out that late at night. I want people to come in, have dinner, stay and listen to the band, enjoy their evening, and then go home happy.”
DW: You’ve created an environment for just that. Not just the décor and that sort of thing, but as a craft-beer writer, you’ve attracted a lot people like me because you’ve really expanded the role classy beers play on your taps.
GS: “That came from a few different directions. One were all my trips to Indy. I saw there where the beer taps were going. I also subscribe to The Dish which keeps me very up to date with the trends in the dining scene. But I also have very dear friend who owns a restaurant on Mass Avenue, R Bistro…she’s one of the top five chefs in Indianapolis. She and I have traveled to San Francisco, and Boston, and Chicago…we’ve been all over the place. I’ve also been to Sun King’s operation, and I’ve just watched what they’re doing very carefully. Their marketing scheme is simply brilliant. I think they played a huge role in ramping up the momentum of craft beer in the state. And then you factor in the climate in places like Mass Ave and Fountain Square…that’s where I got my inspiration for here.”
DW: So let’s talk about inspiration. Let’s say that someone decides that they want to do what you’ve done here. Given your success, what would you say to them before they get started?
[dropcap]H[/dropcap]ere, Smith pauses, a pursed grin on her face. This is one of those moments where I’m quite sure that what I’m going to hear isn’t exactly what she wants to say. But Gail Smith hasn’t reached her place by sugar-coating reality, nor has she gotten here by being rude. This is when I see the Gail Smith who built a hallmark for Greencastle, the Gail Smith who balances honesty with consideration. The woman who both loves her town but who also knows that the limitations we live with are lucidly clear.
GS: “What are you going to sell? Let’s talk about your idea, and I’ll tell you how well it’s going to work. Then, how much are you investing? Are going to put in $50,000? Or $250,000? And then I’d ask: ‘Are you going to be alright if you invest $250,000 and then never see that money again?’ Because that’s what’s going to happen.”
[dropcap]I’m[/dropcap] working for my next question…fumbling my words and hemming and hawing around for a snazzy, on-point verb, when she redirects:
GS: “Let me ask you a question: What is your perception of me and Almost Home?”
DW: I think you’ve accomplished a lot, and you’re doing very well.
GS: “I do look like that. People see this place…the money I’ve put into it to make it look nice…and think I’m making a lot of money. But that’s not the case. There are times through the year where I don’t know how I’m going to make payroll. I mean look at us now…there’s no one in here. But I still have the same bills regardless. So, if you’re going to start a business in a small town like Greencastle, then these are the factors you need to take into consideration. Why do you think most of the big chain restaurants have stayed away? It’s because they’ve already done their market-research. They know they’re not going to make enough money to sustain a franchise here…otherwise they’d already be here by now. What we need down here is retail. We need people to sell things…even if they’re trinkets and such. That’s going to require people with a passion, a motivation to will through the challenges…and it’s going to take someone with cash in reserve.”
DW: Given that, had you considered starting somewhere else? Somewhere more populated?
GS: “My family is here…my boys and my grandkids are here, and I need them. I like them being a part of what I’m doing. My son Brian is very involved in the Music Fest, and I simply could not pull it off without him. He’s here at 7:00 in the morning hauling that trailer in here, and then he’s moving it out at 2:30 in the morning. And that is a LONG day. Then throughout the year the power will blow, a fridge will go out, and he’s the one coming through. He’s doing it for his mom, because no one else is doing it. We don’t run on committees; it’s just a handful of people who make it all happen.”
DW: Who else has helped along the way?
GS: “Sara Bridges actually opened this with me in 1990. Even though she handed 100% of it over to me after the sixth year, she still has a presence here: she does a lot of my cleaning and even fixes my chairs. There were many other people in the beginning who helped me out and are still a wonderful part of my life. Thursa Evans is a mentor to me. She’s 87 now, but she played a huge role early on, and practically wrote the cookbook we put out herself. Everything I’ve learned about cooking and running a kitchen she taught me.”
GS: “The stories about people such as these…I want those to play a central role in the 25th anniversary celebration. We’re going to set up a whole booth of memories, and we also want people to reach out to us and share their favorite memories as well. Just think about all that’s happened within those four walls, things which Almost Home has been a part of. One lady approached me, told me she had moved to the South and was back here for the first time in almost 15 years. She mentioned that, as she was almost to Greencastle, she kept saying, ‘Oh I hope Almost Home is still there!’ Not only was she happy to see it still running, but she made a point to share with me how much this place meant to her when she used to live here.”
[dropcap]E[/dropcap]arly in our conversation, Smith aptly compared what she does to managing a baseball game, constantly planning and strategizing, only to scratch and change plans when the unexpected happens. If you’ve ever spent a Friday or Saturday night at the Swizzle Stick, then you know that Smith’s management style is built around work…a lot of it. And with the exception of a rare, more-than-earned/well-deserved sit-down meal with her grandchildren, I have all too often watched her carry just as much of the load as her employees. When you watch her haul a full tray of drinks through a packed crowd, clean up a spill under a pub table, or take an order two feet away from the band’s blaring speaker…when you look at the three buildings she purchased, developed, and grew one at a time…? You have to respect that.
“You have to be the person who makes things happen,” she said to me. She is, and she does.