For Jeanne Kern, Building a Destination Downtown Starts with Building Relationships

By+Gwen Ragno

Photography by Jason Bryant

After spending her entire adult life working in the service industry, Jeanne Kern is turning her eye to serving Elkhart in a different way.

Kern left her job as marketing manager for McCarthy’s on the Riverwalk at the end of June after nearly seven years working for the downtown restaurant. Before that, she worked as a server at other local staples, Lucchese’s and Antonio’s, as well as a few chain restaurants.

“My husband wanted me to stay home and raise my children, [but] about five years into that I was like, ‘I need to get out of the house.’ It turned out serving was my gift,” says Kern.

She started working as a server at McCarthy’s just a few weeks after it opened in October 2009. Three years later, she took a temporary position as an interim manager, which turned into a permanent position as the restaurant’s marketing manager.

“It’s amazing what you can learn about marketing when you don’t know anything about it,” Kern says with a laugh.

And learn she did. Kern tackled each task set before her with methodical determination and all the personal attention that made her a successful server.

When the owners said they didn’t like where the restaurant was ranked on TripAdvisor.com, she started inviting diners to leave reviews and responding to negative ones until it climbed from 39th place to a steady first or second. They wanted to win The Elkhart Truth’s “Best of Elkhart County” contest, and she promoted the voting process until McCarthy’s placed first in fine dining this year.

“I learned an awful lot working at McCarthy’s. It’s a great facility,” says Kern. “I feel really comfortable about the work that I did there.”

Kern believes that everything she learned at McCarthy’s will help her find success in the next chapter of her life, as she turns to new projects.

Right now, she is renovating a historic building at 220 S. Main St. in partnership with her brother, Neil Perron. Perron lives in Denver, so when he decided to buy a building in Elkhart, he asked Kern to be his partner. He handled all the financing, and Kern oversees the day-to-day operations.

The building already has a ground floor tenant, Home Instead home health care, and Kern is currently finishing up renovations on an apartment on the second floor.

Kern describes the apartment’s design as a modern feel, with a big living room facing Main Street and a big kitchen and deck at the back of the building. The deck, she says, may be the biggest one in downtown Elkhart at 20 feet by 30 feet. There is already a tenant lined up to move in as soon as the apartment is finished.

Now, Kern and Perron are brainstorming possible tenants for the lower level of the building. They’ve considered a brewpub (inspired by the one in the movie Inglorious Basterds) or possibly a bakery. Kern’s favorite idea? A speakeasy, complete with a back door and a sliding window where customers give a password to enter.

Kern is excited about everything that is happening among her neighbors in the 200 block of Main Street, with a vibrant lineup of businesses like The Black Crow, Stephenson’s, Bethza Makeup Studio, Secret Door Games, Mini Delights, Arts on Main and Taig Marks. She believes that the culture developing there is one that could eventually spread to the rest of downtown Elkhart.

“I have my feet wet enough to know that all Elkhart needs is a few more people who have an interest in cultural development,” says Kern. She points to downtown Goshen as an example of how the right culture can be magnetic. “People go there for a reason.”

She says that she thinks the key is in building relationships among downtown business owners for a better sense of community. It’s part of what she believes the 200 block has done right so far, and she says Pete and Dawn Recchio, former owners of The Black Crow, have been integral in creating that environment. She thinks the 100 block, where the Recchios recently opened their new store Dwellings, is on the cusp of gaining that culture as well.

“I just think that Elkhart is so close,” says Kern. “We need to turn the corner, and I’d like to be part of that.”

Kern says that working with her brother on the 220 S. Main St. project has whet her appetite to find her own projects downtown to invest in with her husband. Most recently, they began the process of purchasing the restaurant The Vine, just next door at 214 S. Main St., from its original owner, Mary Spillane. 

Through her newfound ownership of The Vine and other projects in the coming years, Kern knows she wants to invest herself in making downtown Elkhart a place where people want to come spend time.

“It’s really about loving where you’re at. So many people are into this fast lifestyle, [but] we really need to slow down and take a look at who we are as a community and make that downtown work,” she says.


Gwen Ragno is a professional journalist who contributes features to GatewayMile.com.



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