Will Tucker’s Ever Rise From the Ashes?

It’s an OTR institution. But after a bad kitchen fire, can anything be done to save Tucker’s bacon?

What with the music and the  buzz of people gathered at the Northside Tavern, and with the astonishingly salmon-pink sky hanging over the heads of those lolling in the courtyard, it’s a Friday night worth hanging on to. At the rear of the courtyard, Joe Tucker is selling turkey, beef, and veggie wraps to a line of Northsiders and friends, while his wife Carla is handling the chili and pushing chocolate chip cookies.

There’s a lot right with this scene, but there’s something kind of wrong with it, too: the reason the Tuckers are here is that their eponymous restaurant in Over-the-Rhine has been shuttered since July, when smoke and fire from an accidental grease fire shut the place down for extensive repairs. The event at Northside Tavern is to help them raise the funds to reopen.

At one end of the courtyard , a gentle-voiced singer is playing a guitar. Unaccompanied, he croons a ballad:

If I ever get rich Mom, the first thing I’ll do
I’ll buy a big gold mine and give it to you…

The old Hawkshaw Hawkins country tune features a young man sharing a dream; the promise that you could work hard and make your mama proud. On purpose or not, it’s a good song for the moment at hand.

Tucker’s will celebrate its 70th birthday next year. That is, if there’s a Tucker’s next year, which, at the moment, seems hardly certain. Joe’s mom and dad opened the Vine Street location in 1957 (they ran other restaurants decades before that); mother Maynie peeled potatoes and kept everybody in line on Vine until 2012, when she retired at 92. The restaurant has weathered a lot since the days a slice of apple pie cost 15 cents. They’ve survived the exodus of local manufacturing and the decline of Vine’s entertainment district, capped off by the riots in 2001, and bounced back from a horrible shooting in 2011, when two masked gunmen opened fire inside the diner, paralyzing one customer and wounding Carla. Despite all of that, and the drop in business after the riots, it’s a spot folks have kept going back to for more than 50 years, the kind of place where kids who grew up there now take their own children.

You can learn a lot about Tucker’s just from pondering the details of July 27.

It was a Monday, when the restaurant is closed, and on that afternoon Joe brought his grandchildren in to make pickles and ketchup. Tucker’s uses its proximity to Findlay Market to make various items, from condiments to goetta, in-house.

Around 3 o’clock in the afternoon, Joe and the kids left, and some time that night, a guy who was living in one of the apartments upstairs let himself in and started cooking something on the stove. He was a local veteran, Joe says, and a drinker, and when grease splashed onto a burner and started a fire, the guy just took off without telling anybody. The owners haven’t seen him since.

“He was a good friend of ours,” Carla says with a frown.

“He had done a couple tours in Iraq and Kuwait,” Joe adds sadly. “Maybe we enabled him more than anything.”

Around 10 p.m. that night, firefighters broke down a door and quickly put out the fire. But by then, the kitchen area was destroyed.

“That’s water under the bridge,” Joe says. “I can’t hold resentments against nobody. I’ve got to move forward. He didn’t have nothing—I gave him free rent upstairs. He’s a good guy really, just had some tough times.”

Tucker’s has always risen and fallen with the neighborhood, and survived on exactly that kind of faith. The question now is, will it be around to benefit from the revival it helped to start.

“Joe really knows these folks,”  says Brother Tim Sucher, the pastoral associate of St. Francis Seraph Parish and School and a longtime regular, confirming what everybody in OTR knows: If you need help, you can always count on Joe and Carla. Tucker’s has been known to practice a provisional pay-what-you-can policy for those in need, and has donated plenty of food over the years to events at St. Francis and elsewhere. Sucher has seen Joe and Carla in action on countless occasions.

“There were several children that, um, were not living in the best situation and they would come to Tucker’s Restaurant after school,” he tells me, recalling one particular case. “Carla would sit with them, help them do their homework, would feed them—it was almost like an after school program.

“These people that come in there were just kids when they started going to Tucker’s, and now they’re adults, so [Joe] knows their families, and he knows their situation,” Sucher adds. “He and Carla can’t help but respond.”

Now, of course, it’s Joe and Carla who are in need, and they seem humbled—and baffled—to find themselves on the other side of help.

Joe speaks with a gruff voice that pushes the words out in a backwoods smear; he’s direct and avuncular, but not prone to long-winded answers. Especially not these days, when he’s taken on a Man of Constant Sorrow manner and is holding on tight to platitudes. It is what it is.

Carla has a smile that lightens any moment so thoroughly that it takes you a while to realize what a mistake it would be to get on her bad side. Sitting in a booth inside Tucker’s in October, Carla pulls out a stack of pictures that survived the fire only because they were stored in a broken refrigerator. One shows Maynie and Escom Garth “E.G.” Tucker, Joe’s parents, in a 13th Street restaurant they ran in the 1940s. E.G. looks dapper with a clipped moustache, and proud as heck of his establishment. Maynie is behind him, shooting the photographer a wary look.

The place in the picture is a classic mom and pop lunch counter, a gridiron of gleaming metal and easy-to-wipe plastic surfaces. Burgers, eggs any time you want, flapjacks, meatloaf, gravy, country food for country folks. Tucker’s was the first place in town—long before Frisch’s—to serve their burgers with tartar sauce. This matters.

But for the first time in forever, probably, Tucker’s no longer looks like the restaurant in the picture. Walls have been stripped out so that the wiring can be replaced. There are fixtures and tools and trash scattered across the counter, and the stools have all been yanked out. In the back are destroyed appliances and more stripped walls, and through the back door you can see where smoke stained the outside of the building. Tucker’s looks like it is being torn down and built up at the same time.

With the help of volunteers from the block, they’ve been doing a lot of the work themselves. “We’ve been cleaning and doing some plumbing and electric work,” Carla explains. It’s been a demolition job so far, but as of late October things were at a standstill, as they waited for a clear indication of what to do next.

Reopening depends on what kind of improvements have to be made, and on that point the couple say they are operating in the dark. When Tucker’s opened on Vine 58 years ago, the standards and municipal codes for operating a restaurant were not just different but in many ways simpler. It’s a much more rigorous permitting system nowadays, one that Joe and Carla are not very familiar with.

Your average restaurant opening in Over-the-Rhine today comes with a mission statement, a publicist, and a valet to park your car. Chances are decent that the chef has a personal relationship with somebody at 3CDC, and a persona crafted in case a reality show comes their way. In no sense of the word are Joe and Carla “entrepreneurs.” They are two people who own and work in a restaurant, the same restaurant they have worked in for 38 years for Joe, and 37 years since they married for Carla. There is no plan other than the one that involves them making goetta every week. They haven’t taken a vacation in eight years, says Joe. Tucker’s predates the boom in Over-the-Rhine and remains largely untouched by it, too.

Right now, the thing keeping them up at night is whether or not they have to install a hood and exhaust vents over the cooking area, along with a fire suppression system, which could cost many tens of thousands of dollars. They are hoping the city will let them remain grandfathered in, not needing an upgrade. They have an architect and engineer drafting proposed work and filing it with the city; at the end of October, the city rejected their first set of plans. Once they get the OK, they get an inspection, and then they can start rebuilding.

A variety of fans and friends have labored to help get the griddle hissing once more. Jean-François Flechet, owner of Taste of Belgium, created a gift card that was sold, along with T-shirts, at City Flea and Findlay Market (and can be accessed online at squareup.com/market/tuckers1946). Chris Heckman, co-owner of design collective Losantiville, set up a GoFundMe page online, where $16,000 has been raised since July. “When I started the site, I thought like everyone else that they’re going to need some extra money to get through this. Even if insurance covers a lot, there’s going to be surprises along the way. And it’s turned out there have been surprises,” Heckman says with a sad laugh. “The worst part of it was the insurance they did have wasn’t going to cover what they needed.”

Supporters have proposed various Hail Mary passes. A startup consultant has suggested moving the restaurant nearer to Findlay Market, which could use a full-menu breakfast spot. This would put Tucker’s right in the heart of the OTR build-out, instead of a couple still-sketchy blocks away. (For the record, Joe says he would consider such a move.) Heckman wonders if a Haile Foundation grant is possible, or if the Tuckers could get some kind of loan. (Joe says he is already talking to someone about a loan.)

As of early November, none of the leading change-makers in OTR had reached out to the Tuckers with offers to help. Which is a little surprising. There’s plenty of interest expressed all the time for preserving the flavor of the community amid all the development and change. If that’s true, and not just lip service, then why not save Tucker’s bacon? Few OTR institutions that are still standing have been around as long as it has, or been such a defining part of their block. “I think the food is important, but ultimately it’s that it’s really a part of the community,” says Flechet. “You can go there and be sitting next to an attorney or a homeless person. It doesn’t matter what income level or race or social class—everybody’s welcome. Joe would never turn anybody away.”

Call it ambience. “With some other restaurants, it’s very much you’re walking into their world and you’re a visitor,” says Heckman. “But Tucker’s is a reflection of the neighborhood: You go inside and you are in the neighborhood.”

Given that Tucker’s is a rare space in OTR—and for that matter, the whole city—where a substantial mix of white and black patrons sit side by side, actually talking to one another, you’d think there’d be some interest from civic leaders in supporting this fixture. But so far help seems to be coming from competitors and folks who have been drinking the coffee and telling lies at the counter for years. (When asked if Tucker’s was on 3CDC’s radar screen, a spokeswoman e-mailed back: “No.”)

“It seems to me what’s holding this whole thing up right now is the city,” says Brother Sucher. He notes that after the shooting in 2011, Mayor Mallory was one of the first people to go to 1637 Vine Street and offer his support. “Where those folks are now, I don’t know.”

A cold morning at the downtown  outpost of First Watch on Seventh Street: Joe orders potatoes and wheat toast; when the food arrives he belts out “Thanks sport!” to the waitress. The progress report is what it is: Nothing has changed since our last chat in early October. Joe and Carla are still waiting for their architect, or the city, or somebody, to steer them through the process.

“I don’t know this stuff. I feel like I’m on a leash and it’s really weird,” he shrugs. Pretty soon he’s got to go. Maynie’s been in the hospital; there’s an infection, she’s lost some blood, and Joe says doctors have found compression fractures in her back.

The pressure to reopen is self-imposed. It’s pretty much all Joe and Carla know, and they seem a little lost without a restaurant to run every day. There’s another kind of pressure, too. I asked Carla how Joe is doing, and she said “he sees his mother every day…” At first, I think, that’s great—one unintended benefit of having more down time in your life. But then I get it: Tucker’s is Maynie’s life too, and every day the place isn’t running is a day Joe feels like he’s letting his mother down.

Maynie has wanted to see what shape the restaurant is in herself, but Joe hasn’t let her come down. He’s concerned about what she would see. “Mother’s 95,” he says. “She—we—don’t want to give up on her dreams.”

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