Surrounded by patrons who have frequented her restaurant for more than 30 years, Robin Kelley refers to the people who have helped Artie's Tenderloin survive over 77 years as more than just customers.
"It's a lot of the same faces," she said. "We have the best customers. A lot of them are like family and have been to my home. They're good people.
"I've seen their kids grow up and have kids," she added. "We have a lot of people come back in here and say when they went to school they went to lunch here. They always talk about how they would get a tenderloin for 15 cents."
A few blocks north of Artie's and the historic South Main Street business district, Kokomo's downtown continues to gain new businesses and redevelop buildings. A new YMCA is going up, while a major apartment complex and baseball stadium are expected in the coming years.
It is sobering, in that respect, that a walk down South Main Street will produce a number of open windows and for rent signs in the series of blocks that were once home to businesses south of Wildcat Creek. Many of its current businesses have been in place for decades, consisting of a number of salons and antique shops complementing venerable restaurants and bars like Artie's Tenderloin and Ned's Corner Pub.
The Lake Erie and Western Railroad that used to run through the commercial neighborhood has been replaced by the Industrial Heritage Trail as the city continues to transform itself with more modern amenities. In some respects, the South Main Street district is part of a different era that thrived after the industrial boom of the early 20th century, bringing Haynes Automobile Co., Kokomo Rubber Company and the Diamond Plate Glass plant to the developing south side of town.
Its position along the railroad, the budding factories south of Wildcat Creek and the neighboring residential district to the north made South Main Street an ideal fit to house several businesses, laying the foundation for a neighborhood commercial district.
"Things began to develop around the factories after they were built," Howard County Historical Society Executive Director Dave Broman said. "They would start putting in housing for all of the people around there that worked in the factories. It was a little retail neighborhood that was close to the working men's houses and it was close to the factories."
Today, the customers who frequent the district value the closeness they share with fellow patrons. Many have been coming back for decades to get lunch, pick out a one-of-a-kind gift from the variety of antique stores or unwind for the day with a beer and a tenderloin.
"The neighborhood has really changed," said Janet Shipley, who has attended nearby Main Street United Methodist Church for more than 50 years. "Ned's used to be a drug store years ago. Artie's has been there forever. That whole street was the best place to go."
A history in Kokomo
After getting into it with management while working at Hill’s Snappy Service Hamburgers on North Buckeye Street, Artie Gillespie decided he would take matters into his own hands by opening Artie's Tenderloin in 1938, turning an old shoe shop into a restaurant that would become part of the backbone of Kokomo's downtown.
Artie's Tenderloin has been a local destination ever since, where teenagers and the working class would cram into the narrow space at 922 S. Main St. to get a 15-cent mini tenderloin and Coke for a nickle while conversing in the intimate atmosphere.
Since Gillespie died in a car accident in 1954, there have been many others who have carried on the tradition of owning the business including John Woods, John Bryant, Jesse Wall and Gene Lawman, to name a few.
Customers are now greeted by Kelley and her husband, Danny, who have worked at the restaurant for 30 years, owning it for the last 15. The tenderloin they serve inside is still reasonably priced at $3, along with other down home specials like pan fried chicken and chocolate cake.
"We're our own little niche over here," said Kelley, sitting in a single-seat booth as her husband Danny cooks nearby. "We all have our little businesses and we all know each other. It's our own little home down here."
Their customers come back for the value and the good conversation they've experienced -- over decades in many cases.
Mike Hosler has been coming to Artie's two or three times a week for "at least 20 years," he estimated. He has been greeted by the satisfying meals and good company Artie's has become synonymous with ever since.
"It's a wholesome meal," he said. "They have pan fried chicken like mom used to make years ago. They have homemade gravy. I go out of here and I feel satisfied when I eat a meal here.
"You just have a plate full of food, it's prepared nice and the people are nice," he said. "You don't come to some place for 25 or 30 years if it's not what you like."
The cheap prices, generous portions and tradition Artie's has established, Hosler said, have all been major factors in maintaining a loyal customer base.
"I imagine if you just listened to the guys that come in here, they'll know what they want to drink and what they want to eat because the same people keep coming back in," he said. "That's what is keeping them going."
It hasn't been easy maintaining the business as the years have passed, Kelley said. After major nearby businesses like Delco and Chrysler moved their operations, Artie's lost a significant portion of its customers.
"We used to get a lot of [business] from Delco, which is not around anymore," Kelley said. "Our business has not been doing really good lately, it's just been losing a lot of customers and a lot of people are retiring."
Broman said the closing of industrial plants like Haynes has changed the dynamic of the business district, which has maintained relevance because of its proximity to both the downtown and Markland Avenue, which sees significant automobile traffic.
"The original reasons for that neighborhood being there kind of went away," he said. "It hung on because it was on what developed into a major thoroughfare, which is Markland Avenue."
Kelley and her patrons remain hopeful new customers will arrive to keep the tradition of Artie's going as a destination on South Main Street.
Hosler is one of those hoping things will pick up for Artie's.
"There are people that eat here every single day," he said. "They've been very nice to me and I enjoy it here. They're pleasant people."
Life at Ned's
Down the street to the south at 105 W. Markland Ave. sits Ned's Corner Pub, a business that has represented Midwestern values since 1964 with its throwback wall decorations, shuffleboard and plenty of regulars who frequent the bar on a normal basis.
Taking over the former sites of the C.P Sanders & Son and Mills drug stores, Ned's has served as the area's local hangout where retirees, blue collar workers and everyone in between meet for a laid-back atmosphere, good food and a giant tenderloin, one of its signature menu items.
Started by Ned Glunt after he decided to give up his two-chair barber shop, the business has remained in the family ever since.
Kristi Kinsey returned for her second stint as a bartender at Ned's after working there in the late 1990s. She enjoys the company of an early Monday afternoon crowd fighting off the winter cold and chats about the restaurant's history.
"Here, it's like family," she said. "We've had the same customer base forever. Of course, you do have new customers coming in, and they're greeted like family as well."
Ned's has its share of people who have called it "home" as a watering hole, while it exists on the other half of the building as a down home restaurant.
Chuck Woolley had no problem remembering the details of Ned's history in Kokomo. He collects old photos of Kokomo, much like the historic photos hanging on the walls of the restaurant.
The regulars who frequent the nearby establishments are what makes not only Ned's, but the South Main Street district, a place to be.
"This part of town is just more laid back," said Woolley, who is retired after 30 years with Delco as a supervisor. "There just seems to be a different atmosphere here. I feel more comfortable right here in this part of town."
The crowd inhabiting the pub credits its dedication to maintaining a down-to-earth atmosphere and chilled out vibe for making it a place to come back to.
Steve Wooley remembers coming to Ned's since he was 16, noting that children are no longer allowed inside since the smoking ban went into effect in 2006.
"It's a nice place and there's no trouble," said Wooley, a retired Chrysler worker who lives in the Cedar Crest neighborhood. "You can come in here and relax and drink a couple of beers without having to watch your back or worry about getting in a fight. And there's good food."
Broman said the nostalgia connected with both Ned's and Artie's plays a significant role in driving the businesses.
"Artie's and Ned's, in particular, are Kokomo traditions," he said. "They've been there for so many years. It's one of those places you can say, 'My granddad took me there and got me a sandwich.' That means a lot to people."
A niche market
As she sifts through countless shelves of antiques and memorabilia inside Wild Ostrich Antiques & Collectibles, Bertie David can remember a time when antique stores thrived along South Main Street.
David said some of the buildings in the business district haven't seen the upkeep or redevelopment occurring downtown, but she would like to see the "antique district" thrive once again as a destination on the fringe of the downtown.
"It's a really nice place," she said. "It's a gateway to the downtown. I don't know why we haven't gotten more upkeep or revitalization."
Wild Ostrich is one of a handful of antique shops located along South Main Street, one of which is owned by David's son across the street at Douglas David Cottage, which offers Adirondack chairs, ottomans, bar stools, lamps and repurposed antiques at 906 S. Main St. Just down the block you'll find Main Street Antiques & Collectibles, which carries glassware, furniture, jewelry, toys and pottery, in addition to hand-stitched quilts and linens.
Wild Ostrich, equipped with a neon sign to lure customers in, has been providing "the unusual" for more than 20 years. Bertie and her husband, Herb, turned an old doll shop into a haven for countless nostalgic artifacts like popcorn trays, cigar collectibles, jewelry, sports memorabilia, vintage holiday decor, paintings and just about anything else you can imagine from yesteryear.
"There used to be a lot more antique shops around here, even though there are still a few," said David, who has lived in Kokomo since 1942. "There used to be about seven of them along this street, along with a couple of clothing stores. There were more stores open probably five or 10 years ago. I think the antique shops come and go because they often don't own the building like we do."
David said she would like the South Main Street business district to thrive. She has created a brochure to promote the antique shops, dedicated significant funds to billboard advertising and requested street lights from the city to aid businesses that stay open later along the strip.
"If we could get the street lights, I think that would help us," she said. "There has been a lot of focus on [redeveloping] the downtown, yet we're at the beginnings of the downtown."
Keeping tradition alive
To the south of Wild Ostrich is Northside Music Company, a full service piano and organ shop. Northside also specializes in everything keyboards – restoration, building, and selling of old instruments – as well as the retailing of new high-tech electronic pianos.
Owner John Mills started working at Northside Music in the 1950s, before he and his brother Dick bought the company in the 1960s. Situated along the Industrial Heritage Trail, the building is a throwback at the site of the former Kokomo Rubber Company plant, but remains somewhat anonymous at 1008 S. Main St.
Mills said the business, which also has a store in Lafayette, doesn't get many window shoppers, but instead has gotten its fair share of customers willing to travel from other parts of the region and state through its reputation.
"Our location really doesn't matter," he said. "Nobody is going to be walking down the street and specifically say, 'Oh my gosh, I've got to get my piano restored.' What they do is seek us out and come down here to shop."
Mills and his son Milo alternate between the two branches as they continue to provide a unique service. Northside specializes in a complete line of piano retail and piano restoration services with a full service shop featuring certified specialists restoring and replacing piano actions, sound-boards, cases, digital pianos and M.I.D.I. installations.
Being a longtime business in the area has come down to providing a needed service, Mills said.
"It's a niche market and this is a very narrow and specific part of it to focus on," he said. "We can take a 100-year-old piano and restore it with the modern M.I.D.I. installations to make it sound like new."