TERRE HAUTE —
When they opened J. Gumbo’s, a Cajun restaurant, three years ago, Jeff and Shannon Habermel brought the taste of Louisiana to downtown Terre Haute.
Now, they are bringing the look and feel of New Orleans’ Bourbon Street to Wabash Avenue.
“It made me think of Memphis and Beale Street,” said Elizabeth Attebery, looking around her as she finished her lunch, seated in a back booth at J. Gumbo’s on Friday.
Okay, not the Beale street J. Gumbo’s was aiming for, but the idea’s the same.
The walls at J. Gumbo’s have been transformed into a 3-D version of a swinging jazz street, take your pick which one. Colorful buildings, illuminated windows and vivid colors create the feeling of being a long way from the now-chilly Midwest.
“It puts you in a whole different atmosphere,” Attebery said. “I thought it was very fascinating.”
Attebery was having lunch with Lisa Tryon in the new Bourbon Street section of J. Gumbo’s. Thanks to the talents of artist and stage designer Bob Holton, the back half of the restaurant virtually transports diners 800 miles to the Louisiana coast.
“I’m amazed,” Jeff Habermel, the restaurant owner, said looking at the 3-D walls in the rear of the restaurant at 665 Wabash Ave. “The guy [Holton] is really talented.”
Holton, who wears a Mario style cap and seems always covered in sawdust, is a longtime stage/set designer and artist from Bayfield, Wis., a resort harbor town on Lake Superior. Back in Bayfield, they call him, “Painter Bob,” Holton said. “I’ve painted everything in town.
Creating sets for stage productions at Indiana State University has brought Holton to Terre Haute for the past several years. It was during his summer visit this year that Holton made small watercolor paintings of several downtown businesses, including J. Gumbo’s. Later, Holton gave the painting to Habermel.
“This was the first thing he gave me,” Habermel said taking the small watercolor from inside a folder. After seeing the painting, Habermel asked Holton about transforming the inside of J. Gumbo’s. Within a short time, Holton was back at the restaurant with some ideas sketched on paper. He then returned to Wisconsin where he created an impressive scale model of the restaurant, showing his planned design.
“It’s an evolving thing,” Holton explained of the project. “There’s still quite a bit to do.”
Holton has already done similar work at a half-dozen other restaurants, mostly in Wisconsin but one in Montana, he said. His love is Italian architecture, so he would really like to do an Italian restaurant some day, he said.
“I enjoy the opportunity to do something different,” Holton said taking a break from sawing some new pieces for the new J. Gumbo’s interior. “Something that hasn’t been done before.”
The project at J. Gumbo’s has been under way for several weeks and has transformed the rear of the restaurant into a small version of Bourbon Street. Habermel plans to have Holton extend that work toward the middle of the restaurant. He also has an even bigger project in mind.
“I think we’ll call it, ‘G. Jumbo’s OK Bayou,’” Habermel said describing the new bar he plans to open in the restaurant. That name could change, he added. Habermel purchased the former bar from Larry Bird’s Boston Connection for the new room, which he hopes could open in six to eight months.
The bar will bring with it, Habermel believes, more evening traffic to the restaurant. As a result, his kitchen will expand along with the restaurant’s list of traditional Cajun or New Orleans menu items. He hopes to offer shrimp and oyster Po’ Boys, catfish sandwiches and a whopping-big traditional New Orleans sandwich known as a muffuletta.
“If you’ve ever had one, and had one that’s fixed correctly,” Habermel said, “it’s like, ‘Wow.’”
A native of New Albany, who came to Terre Haute several years ago with the Air National Guard, Habermel was the 2012 Junior Achievement Businessman of the Year, just two years after opening his first business. Since then, he has opened a second J. Gumbo’s location, which later closed. But this year, took the big step of moving his business from Fifth Street and Wabash to his new, larger location closer to Seventh Street and into space formerly occupied by bars. Not willing to rest, Habermel is deep into his new design and is looking ahead to the expanded menu and the new bar.
Taking big business risks doesn’t really get any easier with experience, Habermel said, adding that he still worries each day when he opens J. Gumbo’s whether the customers will keep coming in the door. He admires Peyton Manning and others who show work hard at their crafts, and determination can pay off, he said.
Despite those worries and the challenges, Habermel shows no sign of resting.
“I just can’t see myself being stagnant,” he said.
Reporter Arthur Foulkes can be reached at 812-231-4232 or email@example.com.