From Wagon Factory to Friendly Tavern
‘Everybody Knows Everybody’ At The Friendly
Writer / Christy Heitger-Ewing
Photographer / Brian Brosmer
With a tear in his eye, a customer reaches out his arm to shake hands with Scott Barnes, owner of The Friendly Tavern, a staple in downtown Zionsville for nearly 60 years.
“Dad passed away recently, but I wanted to let you know how much he loved this place,” the man says, smiling and grateful. “Thanks for being there for my dad all these years.”
Barnes is humbled.
“There’s no better compliment,” he says.
The Friendly Tavern’s building has been around since the 1870s — originally erected as a wagon works factory that made carriages and shipped them via the railroad. The bar area was where workers forged the steel, and the upstairs section is where the carriages were assembled before being rolled down a ramp to a loading dock for shipping.
“It’s since been bricked in, but you can still see, on the second floor rear wall, the arched opening for where the ramp went down,” Barnes says.
In between being a tavern and a carriage shop, the building was Russell and Son, a family-owned plumbing and heating company, originally run by Charles Russell and later handed down to sons Hearn and Earl. In 1958, Hearn converted the business into a dining establishment, The Friendly Tavern.
Barnes has been in the restaurant business for 25 years, but for many of those years he worked on the Human Resources side of things, doing hiring, ordering, marketing and menus for eight different eateries. In 2002, he was ready for a change.
“I got tired of what I was doing and thought it was time I get back to running a single restaurant,” says Barnes, who grew up on the north side of Indy.
He started out at 18 years old washing dishes and bussing tables. In college, he bartended, then landed his first job managing a restaurant soon thereafter, and a career was born.
Though he didn’t know he would one day run a tavern in Zionsville, the quaint town had been on his radar since he was a teenager.
“I used to come up here all the time in high school and college,” Barnes says. “I was enthralled with the location, the brick street and the little shops.”
So, when the opportunity arose in April 2002 to purchase The Friendly, Barnes jumped on it.
“I’d looked at other locations, but this was a good fit for me because The Friendly already had a strong name,” Barnes says. “I wanted something established that I knew I could grow.”
Having witnessed the booming growth in Carmel, Fishers and Avon, he guessed that Zionsville was the next area to flourish, and he was right.
Barnes’ stepson, Nick Rebic, has worked with him for the past five years. His son, Reed, who is studying sports management, also fills in during college breaks. Barnes’ wife, Sharon, pops in for meals as she owns the nail salon across the street.
Barnes describes The Friendly Tavern as an icon for the community.
“That may sound strange to call a restaurant iconic, but I’m telling you — people know the name,” Barnes says. “It’s been here for so long and has such a fantastic following and a good reputation for serving quality food at reasonable prices. It brings people around time and again.”
One reason the community loves the place is because of the staff, who provide a homey, family atmosphere.
“Everybody knows everybody,” Barnes says. “We’re the ‘Cheers’ of Zionsville.”
Barnes remarks that it’s impossible not to get to know people when you’ve been standing at the front door for 15 years. But it’s that human interaction that originally pulled him toward the restaurant business in the first place.
“If you can brighten someone’s day by serving them a delicious meal or even just by holding open a door, that’s what it’s all about,” says Barnes, who finds that the most challenging part of restaurant ownership, in general, is finding and training the right people to run the business.
“That’s why when you get good people working for you, you do all you can to ensure they don’t go anywhere,” Barnes says. “I don’t micromanage people. The only way to be a successful business is to hire competent, self-motivated individuals.”
And though The Friendly’s building is rich with historical charm and exudes a timeless atmosphere, Barnes admits that the ancient facility presents its challenges.
“It was built to be one thing and then changed over time, having endured an add-on,” Barnes says. “When you blend two structures together that weren’t in the original plan, it can get tricky.”
Since this place was never intended to be a high-volume restaurant, that means it has smaller water lines coming into the building and smaller drain lines going out of the building. Though Barnes has brought the electrical up to code, obstacles continually pop up.
“It’s always something, but you know what? The Friendly is The Friendly,” says Barnes, who has no plans for renovation or remodeling. “People like it the way it is. They feel comfortable here. They can come in wearing shorts and a t-shirt or a suit and tie. It doesn’t matter to us.”
In 1861, then President-Elect Abraham Lincoln, on route to Washington, got off the railroad and stopped in the heart of Zionsville to address the friendly citizens of this quaint town. Now, more than 150 years later, the community gathers just down the street, inside The Friendly Tavern, for tasty food, big laughs and a good time.
Check out all The Friendly Tavern has to offer at 290 S. Main Street or visit them online at friendlytavernzionsville.com.