When Chef Toby Miles came to Fort Wayne for the first time, he didn’t know what to expect of the city’s culinary scene. But while he was walking from his downtown hotel to Copper Spoon, he noticed a trend.
“I was really surprised by the number of restaurants downtown,” he says. “And they all looked like unique, independent restaurants.”
Toby came to Fort Wayne from Westfield, Ind., just north of Carmel, in late November 2019 to participate in the city’s first Chef Swap event coordinated by Visit Fort Wayne and Visit Hamilton County.
Together, the two Indiana visitors’ bureaus arranged for two chefs—one from Fort Wayne and one from Hamilton County—to create brunch menus and swap kitchens to serve them.
Chef Aaron Butts at Copper Spoon participated, and Toby was the chef from Hamilton County.
Since neither chef normally serves brunch, participating in the Chef Swap provided a much-desired opportunity to test a brunch menu, Toby says. And while he enjoyed working with Butts, sharing kitchen space, and concocting a mouth-watering menu of locally sourced sausage fried rice and ooey-gooey cinnamon rolls, the experience was also eye-opening and reflective for him.
It was eye-opening in that he realized how much was happening in downtown Fort Wayne’s culinary scene, and it was reflective in that it made him appreciate the growing trend of independent small businesses and locally owned restaurants that are reshaping cities across Indiana.
Take the story of his restaurant, Rail, for example. Serving upscale, Midwestern “food raised in a barn,” Rail is located in a refurbished red barn on Park Street in downtown Westfield.
The barn that Rail is now located in was falling down when Toby and Melanie found it.
If you visit the area today, you’ll probably be charmed by a row of historic houses rehabbed into unique, small business—a bookstore, a florist, along with other local restaurants and boutiques.
But what you might not realize about Park Street is that it wasn’t always that way, Toby says. About five-and-a-half years ago, when he and his wife, Melanie, decided to open a restaurant there, Westfield’s small business scene was experiencing a downturn. A few local restaurants had closed, causing him and Melanie question whether they should launch their venture in their hometown or go to Carmel—a notoriously wealthy city nearby—instead.
“We could have gone to Carmel, and been more successful right off the bat,” Toby says.
Rail Restaurant & Bar is located at 211 Park St. in downtown Westfield.
So why did he and Melanie decide to stay in Westfield and invest there?
If you ask him, it was a combination of personal experience, the right opportunity, and a strong network of authentic small business support at the city level.
After taking an unconventional path to cooking (having earned his bachelor’s degree in journalism at Ball State), Toby got his first big break in the culinary world as a sous chef for Keltie’s, a now-shuttered staple in the downtown Westfield dining scene.
Keltie’s is where he met Melanie, too. (She specializes in the sweet side of the menu, like breads and baked goods, while he specializes in the savory meats and entrees.)
Rail's garlic rosemary rubbed pork loin over a dill and herb pasta topped with ricotta, parmesan, and blistered tomatoes.
Although Toby left Keltie’s before it closed, he knew that many locals still mourned the loss of their old favorite, so he reasoned that if he and Melanie opened a new restaurant together, they would have some immediate support from Keltie’s fans.
“We remembered how fiercely loyal Westfield residents are to their small businesses,” Toby says.
The second reason he and Melanie decided to open Rail in Westfield was the right opportunity came available. They stumbled on the perfect location for their ideal restaurant: A quaint, empty barn near the center of the city. The problem was, it was in bad condition when they found it. The barn had no power, no lighting, no electric—nothing, Toby says.
“It was literally going to fall down,” he explains.
Even so, their landlords and local leaders in Westfield worked with them closely to understand their vision and help them rehab the unconventional space, breaking down barriers to access and innovation.
“Everyone was just very understanding of us trying to do something new,” Toby says. “The permits, codes, and regulations the City had didn’t exist for the type of restaurant we were creating. But the City helped us along. In doing so, they built a template for more restaurants to follow.”
Rail offers a "barn to table" food experience in downtown Westfield.
Five-and-a-half years later, Toby says the City of Westfield’s commitment to supporting Rail has not wavered, and it’s allowed him to keep his business thriving.
“They still listen to what we need, and they go out of their way to make sure that we’re taken care of,” Toby says. “People might think, ‘What can a city really do to help a restaurant?’ But it comes down to asking: ‘What can we do? Do you need anything?’”
Vicki Duncan Gardner, Communications Director for the City of Westfield, says that the city’s downtown growth revolves around its 2007 comprehensive plan to revitalize its Grand Junction District, which Rail falls within.
Along with supporting public and private projects to transform the area into a destination, the city works with existing and hopeful business owners to support their visions, too.
“It goes to the core that we’re very much an entrepreneurial community,” Duncan Gardner says. “Our government is very accessible. Our mayor works hard to make himself accessible to business owners and residents.”
A look inside Rail.
Toby says the Mayor of Westfield, police chief, and fire marshals all regularly check in on him at Rail to make sure he has everything he needs.
“It lets you know they’re there,” he says. “If I do need something, I’ve got the phone numbers to make it happen, and I know they’re going to actually do it; they’re not just talking.”
The concept of local leaders going out of their way to support small-to-medium-sized businesses instead of vying to attract “juggernaut corporations like Amazon to set up shop in their area” is part of an important trend in cities, reports Strong Towns.
“The key to building a strong community is a strong ecosystem of local businesses,” it says. “One of the largest complaints from small businesses around the country is that their local government seems to set up regulations to purposefully trip them up. Often, it comes down to the fact that these regulations are difficult to understand. Small business owners are crunched for time and stretched thin, so finding ways to make codes easily digestible and accessible are paramount to an SMB’s success.”
It’s this authentic network of local support that has allowed entrepreneurs like Toby and Melanie to keep growing Park Street’s small business scene, too. Since they opened Rail in 2014, they’ve launched another food business next door to it: An ice cream and pastry shop, Cone + Crumb, which Melanie is taking the lead on.
The Miles opened Cone Crumb next door to Rail in 2019.
For Toby, it’s all about diversifying the area’s small business scene, so it’s not overly saturated with any one type of establishment.
After experiencing downtown Fort Wayne’s dining scene, he’s inspired by the eclectic mix of small, local businesses there, too. Looking to the future, he has one, overarching hope to keep the momentum going.
“My hope is that cities—whether they are Fort Wayne or anywhere else—give as much support to independent businesses as Westfield has given us,” Toby says. “There are people with great ideas out there who just need a kick to get going. A city’s resources can really help people. A lot of smaller cities in Indiana are trying to reinvent themselves. You’d be surprised how much a little bit of a kick in the right direction at the city-level can propel independent small business in that city.”