Feeding success: Restaurateur invests in Fort Wayne's future

James Khan, local restaurateur, co-owner of the Hoppy Gnome and BakerStreet Steakhouse, was a south side kid. Southeast side, specifically, almost on the border of New Haven.
"If I lived on the other side of Adams Center, I would have went to New Haven,” Khan says.

On the weekends, Khan and his boys would walk laps around Southtown Mall, drinking their Orange Juliuses because that's what you did.

Southtown Mall originally opened, in part, because the bustle of Fort Wayne had moved away from downtown by the late 1960s.

Glenbrook Mall opened on the city’s north side in 1966. Then, three years later, Southtown opened at the front door of the city when driving in from Highway 27, at the corner of South Anthony Boulevard and South Clinton Street.

His senior year at Harding High School, Khan lived in the Crown Colony housing addition with his mom, a straight line and two wheel-turns from Southtown.

“(About) 40 years ago, (the Southeast side) was what Southwest is (now)," Khan says.

Southtown Mall was booming with 157 stores and services. However, by the late 1990s, the mall’s tentpole stores began closing. Then Southtown closed itself in 2003, symbolic of the economic downturn of the Southeast side.

“If not for the medical field and General Motors, I think Fort Wayne would have been in bad, bad shape,” Khan says. “Fortunately, (those industries) kind of sustained us economically to a point now where we have our leadership not just investing in Downtown Fort Wayne, but this entire 11-county northeastern region of Indiana.”

As northeast Indiana develops a new wave of regional culture, entrepreneurs like Khan are paving the way, reinvesting in their hometowns, creating jobs, and spreading hope.

Today, Khan and his business partners with their two restaurants, the Hoppy Gnome and BakerStreet Steakhouse, employ 150 people in the region. With some quick math, Khan calculated that translates to more than $3 million per year in salaries with tips.

“Money that goes back to them is going back into the community again and again,” Khan says, whether it’s through church tithes or buying opportunity-enabling cars.

The Hoppy Gnome sits at the corner of Berry and Clinton streets in Downtown Fort Wayne, and Khan is proud of the momentum it's creating there, as a regional hub of activity, flavors, and cultures.

“I feel like Hoppy Gnome was an additive to what Downtown is becoming," Khan says. "Our next restaurant will be Downtown, and I think that momentum is going, and I don’t think that’s going to stop.”

His next venture Proximo, will serve Latin faire breakfast, lunch, and dinner, seven days a week, potentially staffing up to 80 employees at the old location of The Golden at 898 Harrison St.

Khan says the plan is for a May opening, depending on the timeliness of everything involved.

According to him, Fort Wayne is now big enough for experimentation. He and his group have master plans to open two more restaurants, potentially employing up to 500 people with all of his properties combined.

“There’s enough going on here that we can keep bringing new concepts to town and invest in the people—invest where I grew up,” Khan says.

And as a south side kid—a Southeast side kid—he hopes to invest there, too.

“I don’t know if it’s a dream or a goal or desire, but at some point I want to put something out Southeast,” Khan says.

Overall, he explains that the goal is to produce, sustain, and prosper in Fort Wayne, although his local ambitions are not without outside temptations.

When the Hoppy Gnome opened in 2015, “we were pursued by everyone,” Khan remembers.

Big name cities wanted in, and an Indianapolis group out-pursued them all. Khan and his group even took meetings in Indy where his restaurant would have been set in another mixed-use building, just like the Fort Wayne location, with a free condo offered to close the deal.

Khan says, while the offer was flattering, he fell in love with the idea that he could do it in Fort Wayne instead. Loose agreements were made to remain home. Khan's business partner, Lysa Pelkington, grew up in Fort Wayne and his other partner and chef, Peter Shuey, grew up in Peru, Indiana, about an hour Southwest of Fort Wayne.

Even so, Shuey was living in Anaheim, California, working at a Marriott when Khan was ready to open the Hoppy Gnome. Then in his mid-30s, married with a child, Shuey says there was a lot of apprehension about making the move back to northeast Indiana. Peter Shuey

“But we also saw the bigger picture," Shuey says. "We saw what Fort Wayne had to offer, and we saw the vision the city had moving forward.”

The Hoppy Gnome’s menu, created by former partner Chad Kyle and Khan himself, has now been mixed with flavors and techniques Shuey brought back with him from the coast.

Khan still isn’t sure he considers himself a "foodie." But he does appreciate the “cool symmetry” of food by a chef who is an artist and can “create something from nothing.” And despite his team's success in the restaurant industry today, his journey to life as a restaurateur has had its detours.

During his senior year at Harding, Khan's physics teacher suggested engineering as a career, and he took the advice.

He attended Purdue University, transferring his electrical engineering credits to IPFW his senior year and working as an engineer in New Haven after that.

“I hated it," Khan says. "In school, you're solving these fun problems: 'A backpack falls out of a plane, and you have to skydive and catch it. What’s the ratio?' So in your imagination, you’re imagining this.”

But reality never lived up to the hype of his homework.

Thankfully, Biaggi’s Ristorante Italiano opened on the Southwest side of Fort Wayne the same year Khan moved back to northeast Indiana in 2001, so he started working there as a part-time food runner, and after a month, he was promoted to server.

“I’d be at my engineering job thinking of different ways to sell pasta,” Khan says.

Five months after they opened, Khan was asked to be in Biaggi’s management training program, so he left his engineering career for an $8 an hour position.

Through a fortuitous set of circumstances, including bumping into the right person at the right time, Khan went from working at a restaurant to running one, to co-owning multiple properties.

“Nothing happens without purpose,” he says.
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Read more articles by William Bryant Rozier.

William Bryant Rozier is the managing editor of Fort Wayne Ink Spot newspaperThrough his own fortuitous set of circumstances, he now writes, takes photographs, designs stuff, and makes short video projects for a living. He’s written for Frost Illustrated Newspaper, Indian Country Today, and Ebony.com. He’s photographed for USA Today, Getty Images, and Black Enterprise Magazine.