he downtown café serves burgers with and without meat. The pizzeria still flourishes after 30 years in business.
By Steve Kaufman | Photos by Josh Keown
One of the bittersweet aphorisms of the restaurant business is that everyone wants to open a restaurant – until they open a restaurant.
So, give some credit to two Southern Indiana sisters, Amy Baylor and Kate Lewison, for opening their own new restaurants – twice! (Actually, more than twice, as you’ll see.) They’ve done it again recently with their New Albanian Café & Brewhouse on Bank Street in the middle of Bustling New Albany. If you recognize the name, or the sisters, from the popular pizza place – the New Albanian Brewing Company Pizzeria & Public House, on Plaza Drive off Grantline Road – you’re right. But this new concept is about as far from pizza and beer as sausage and cheese can get from tofu and ground cashews.
Don’t stop reading here, carnivores. The café also has some of the best (real) burgers in town, plus bacon and chicken from local producers.
It’s all part of the journey, the on-and-off-the-adventure-train, that Amy and Kate have ridden for 30 years.
As teenagers, their parents, Sharon and Richard O’Connell, took over a failing pizza joint on Plaza Drive in New Albany, called The Noble Roman, in 1987. Over time, they turned it into the local institution, the New Albanian Brewing Company Pizzeria & Public House. (After the grind of building and running such a consistently good venture for 30 years, they’re entitled to every word of that long name on the awning.)
The amazing thing, looking back, is that this wasn’t a restaurant family. Richard had been managing the building for the owners – as well as their used car lot – and Sharon worked for the phone company.
It was hard work for everyone, not least for the girls.
“I always say, the best thing my father ever did for me was buy a pizza restaurant, and the worst thing my father ever did for me was buy a pizza restaurant,” Amy said. “Kate and I missed out on our entire high school life. We had to go in every day and make the dough and wash the dishes. And when we weren’t in the restaurant, we had to carry around a pager in case someone called in sick.”
The hours were so long, Amy recalled, “I was voted ‘most likely to fall asleep in class.’ ”
“We were 24/7 for so many years,” said Kate, “we missed every Christmas and Thanksgiving.”
“A lot of people who open a restaurant think they like to cook,” said Amy. “You like to cook? You’ll pretty much have to give that up and be a babysitter, a plumber, a janitor, an accountant, a repairman, (a human resources) executive.”
Some form of that ought to be at the top of every new restaurant contract.
So, new restaurant? Never again! Which is why, in 1989, Amy decided to open a barbecue joint in an adjoining spot, called Rich O’s. (“After my dad.”)
“I got weary of being called in all the time, so I thought owning my own place next door would be the answer to that,” Amy said. “Yeah, right! Now I was putting in 12- to 14-hour days in my own place.”
What she also did at that time, though, was pursue an interest in craft brewing. That led to the name change – New Albanian – and to a new direction for the business.
The sisters invested in a small brewery in Sellersburg, which failed. “But we bought the equipment,” said Amy, “and now it made sense to go into the brewing business, if only to brew for our restaurant.”
New Albanian was the 13th commercial microbrewery in Indiana when it started. Today, there are 147. “We just got voted the ‘Number One Local Beer in Indiana’ by RateBeer.com,” Kate reported.
That led, eventually, to opening the New Albanian Brewing Company Café & Brewhouse on Bank Street.
“Originally, this was not intended to be a restaurant at all, just a production brewery with a little tap room,” Amy said. “Mostly, the beer brewed here would go directly to the pizzeria, and we’d use the front part of the building as a tasting bar – but no food.”
That was the plan. But their third partner, Amy’s then-husband, took the idea and ran with it.
“He never thought what we did at the pizzeria took any work, he thought all you had to do was hire people,” she said. “So I said, ‘OK, you open the restaurant down there and you can see what it’s all about.’ But I figured, he was our partner, he’d take care of whatever needed to be done.”
Pretty soon, there was a chef and a sous chef, and the tap room had spiraled into “a whole crazy French gourmet thing.” And another failed experiment.
“The café had more to do with my ego, not fully understanding that we were getting into something different,” Amy ruefully admitted. “I naively thought we were doing so well with our pizzeria, it would translate well into this new entity. But it was, in fact, a different business and a different concept at a different location.
“So we didn’t have the best reason for starting it, and it was at the worst time in the economy you could ever want.”
Rocky road is more than just an ice cream flavor.
“It knocked us off our high horse and made us start over from scratch,” Amy said.
They went through some weird attempts to pair food with their beers. They tried to arrange for food trucks to stop outside.
They tried pop-up chefs. They hooked up with “another guy who thinks all you have to do in the restaurant business is cook food,” said Amy.
Then they got lucky.
Enter Stacie Bale, a grammar-school friend of the sisters’ who had gone into the restaurant business herself, running the innovative Earth Friends Café on East Market Street for a few years, which she had to close, as well as one in the Kentucky International Convention Center, which closed around her when the center began a three-year overhaul.
“I felt like the universe kept punching me in the gut,” said Stacie. The sisters could relate.
“Kate and Amy came into the convention center one day to thank me for serving their beer,” Stacie recalled. “From then, the wheels started turning. I shut my business and, within three weeks, we were ready to open here (in New Albany).”
That was the spring of 2015. Stacie’s concept, a version of the burgeoning farm-to-table movement, was all local produce and meats.
Want a burger? It’s the finest quality meat from a local farm. Want a veggie burger? “We have a bacon cheddar cheeseburger that’s entirely vegan,” Stacie proclaimed. “We can do that here. They can’t do that anywhere else.”
Want fries with that? “We don’t have a fryer, but we have a whole bunch of sides, and everything is handmade.”
Essentially, said Stacie, “we try to make anything for anybody. I feel, if you have a group of four that comes in, someone’s going to be a vegetarian, someone’s going to be gluten-free, someone might be vegan and the fourth person might be all-meat-all-the-time.
“So we go above and beyond for people,” she said. “But at the same time, you have to keep a pretty simple menu. You can’t have four pages of stuff.”
It’s not unlike what Amy recognized about her pizza place years before.
“We never expanded the menu there, we never tried to be everything to everybody. We just concentrated on making what we made as good as possible.”
“It’s just a nice, casual hangout spot. No chef, no sous chef,” said Stacie. “I provide a recipe book and hire people, and they prepare the recipes.” Of course, the beer has also been a cornerstone of the business. “We finally have the tap room we always wanted,” said Kate. In addition to its own New Albanian beers (“I think we have 14 on tap,” she said), the restaurant also offers guest taps from other local craft breweries. There’s no Bud, no Miller.
And so, the pizza place rolls, the craft beer flows, the new place gets its legs and downtown New Albany bustles. “There’s a 200-unit apartment complex being built two blocks away,” said Amy. “We’re the first stop on their walk.
“We’ve already put together a little welcome-to-the-neighborhood package, with a copy of our menu and a 64-ounce growler for them to come in and fill up.”
It all appears to have come together.
“Amy and Kate have been in one spot for 30 years. They know how to be in one spot for 30 years. And while they were in one spot, I was all over the place. I’ve pulled all that together to run this restaurant. It has allowed me to be smart, to focus on inventory while still pleasing people,” Stacie said.
She’s certainly pleased the sisters.
“I told Stacie, this would not be happening if she were not here,” said Amy. “She came in and recognized all the mistakes we’d made, and turned this place around.”
What’s to eat?
The New Albanian Brewing Company Café & Brewhouse specializes in burgers that pair with the company’s craft beers. The NABC Burger piles on bacon, cheddar cheese, avocado, a fried egg and garlic aioli. The Bacon Cheddar Burger features smoky jalapeno. And everything can be substituted for vegetarians and vegans.
The New Albanian Brewing Company Pizzeria & Public House has a full complement of pizzas, sandwiches, pasta dishes, lasagna, stuffed mushrooms and salads.
Both places feature the company’s full line of craft brews and its homemade beer cheese.
New Albanian Café & Brewhouse
415 Bank St., New Albany
11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Tuesday through Sunday; Closed Monday
New Albanian Brewing Company Pizzeria & Public House
3312 Plaza Drive, New Albany
Open 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday
through Saturday; Closed Sunday