It was a quiet Saturday in mid-September. The sun was shining on the eastern banks of the St. Joseph River. Notre Dame’s bye week meant that locals — who might have been consuming alcohol at a tailgate, or barbequing at home in anticipation of the Fighting Irish — instead looked for entertainment elsewhere.
Several bikers traveled along the St. Joseph River bike path in downtown South Bend. Others enjoyed the sights and sounds at Seitz Park near the East Race, the city’s whitewater rafting facility.
While there is new life in this part of downtown thanks to numerous recreational opportunities and a series of new housing developments along the river, developer Dave Matthews envisions an even more vibrant East Bank neighborhood. Located east of downtown proper, the East Bank is a prime spot for untapped real estate in South Bend with its easy access to shops, restaurants and outdoor attractions within a half mile walk.
The area is also becoming more pedestrian and bike friendly as the city works to implement its “Smart Streets” initiative along Jefferson Boulevard.
“Dave has a very exciting vision for this block of South Bend. Matthews, LLC just recently got approval for a development project on the east Side of Niles Avenue,” Khoa Huynh, the Director of New Business Development for Matthews LLC, says. “We want to use this crepe stand as a pilot project for what happens next.”
(Editor’s note: Be sure to read our article on Matthews’ plans for further East Bank redevelopment, including a new six story mixed use building.)
As part of his vision for a more vibrant downtown, Matthews opened a new restaurant concept in the Emporium Building at Niles and Jefferson in the East Bank neighborhood. It is unique to the South Bend area, the first of its kind: a creperie.
“A crêpe is a thin, French-styled pancake,” Khoa explained for those who may have never tried the French-inspired dish.
Crepes have not taken off in the US as they have in Europe. The preferred American breakfast pancake is of the thick variety — the one that you use with a healthy dose of Aunt Jemima syrup or stacked in an IHOP all-you-can-eat fashion.
Matthews writes on his Yelp page that the whole project is a “social experiment”.
“We want to develop a vibrant downtown. A walkable, livable community for everyone to enjoy,” Khoa tells me.
“Here at the crepe stand, we use ingredients that are locally sourced or organically certified — so high quality ingredients — and we also pay all of our employees a living wage,” Khoa notes. “So the social experiment is if we are providing a high quality and healthy food option and paying our employees well, can we attract more people to downtown South Bend. We want to see if the business aspect of it is viable all the while helping to make downtown South Bend a more vibrant place.”
Matthews is paying his employees at Smoothies, Crêpes, & Coffee $10 an hour. The experiment is in the mold of the movement to raise the minimum wage nationally.
The current federal minimum wage stands at a paltry $7.25 an hour and has not changed since 2009. Tipped employees earn even less: only $2.13 an hour, although employers are supposed to make up the difference to reach the full minimum wage if tips do not cover the gap. While states are free to have a higher minimum wage if they so choose, Indiana has not opted to do so.
Business practices aside, while crepes may not have a household stamp of approval, they are much more versatile than your average pancake, as I learned during my visit. They come in every variety that you can imagine, from a traditional sweet crepe to what Khoa refers to as a “savory crepe”.
The crepe stand uses fresh products sourced from Purple Porch Co-op just a few blocks away. Khoa estimate that three-fourths of their food comes from PPC. The rest either comes from Whole Foods or a locally-owned supermarket chain, where they ensure that the product is certified organic.
“Blueberries are really hard to come by these days,” Khoa said with a smile, noting that in addition to fresh fruit they also make their own homemade hazelnut spread. “We also serve savory crepe. An example of a savory crepe would be a Denver omelet crepe.”
As for coffee, Khoa notes that they serve Intelligentsia brand coffee, a Chicago-based roasting company. Intelligentsia is a fair trade company that works directly with suppliers from Central America, South America, and Africa.
After the interview, I sat down to try out a banana fruit smoothie and a trio of crepes: the orange zest, apple pie and chicken.
The orange zest crepe was topped with whipped cream, a light glaze and some powdered sugar. While tasty, it was nothing compared to the apple pie crepe, stuffed with freshly cut apple slices and a sprinkle of cinnamon flavor. Absolutely delicious!
And then there was the chicken crepe. The best way I can describe this savory delight is a light pastry stuffed with chicken and creamy alfredo sauce. It sounds a bit weird, but if you are a fan of fettucine alfredo, this is a crepe that you will want to try.
The crepe selections at Smoothies, Crêpes, & Coffee range in price from as low as $3 for the basic orange zest variety to as high as $7 for savory crepes with meat. Smoothies are $4 for 12 ounces or $5 for 16 ounces. Coffee is $3 for a 12 ounce “House Blend” or $4 for a 16 ounce. In other words, cheaper than Starbucks — and they still manage to pay their workers and bean growers a fair wage.
The social experiment may or may not succeed. The location — while promising in the long term with the new developments sprouting up all over the East Bank neighborhood and downtown South Bend more generally — is not very obvious. You could easily pass by without ever knowing that the crepe stand even exists.
The game changer may just be Matthews and his team. The ambition and commitment to the area is undeniable. The goals are lofty but entirely achievable with the community’s support.
You could help make it a success with a visit to the atrium at the Emporium Building. They are located at 121 S. Niles Avenue in downtown South Bend. The hours are 6:30 am until 9 pm Monday through Friday and from 9 until 9 on the weekends.
Special thanks to Angel Cortes for his photography, camera work and post-production.