At Fifi’s Lunchbox on a recent afternoon, a few customers shared an early dinner. A waitress filled the soda fountain machine with ice as a deliveryman handled paperwork. Alternative rock music played over loudspeakers.

In relocating recently to Wabash Avenue, the establishment joined the list of small businesses opening, expanding or upgrading amenities in Terre Haute. Founders Jacqueline Ruff and Claudine Hann have shared their business’s story with other entrepreneurs who hope to see their own ideas come to fruition.

“We didn’t want to bring the same thing to Terre Haute that was already out there,” Hann said later in the day, sitting outside as servers handled the dinner rush.

Hann spoke about Fifi’s beginnings and expansions last month, as Launch Terre Haute marked Indiana Entrepreneurship Week. The organization, a Downtown Terre Haute, Inc. offshoot dedicated to providing resources for people interested in starting a business, participated in a live stream of entrepreneurs offering tips and advice.

Shelley Klingerman, Launch’s executive director, said other entrepreneurs could learn from Fifi’s incremental growth.

“I think Fifi’s is a perfect example of how to test a concept, and starting small and scaling up,” she said.

The restaurant, which takes its name from Hann’s food personality, started with a food truck the women took to area festivals after being laid off from a manufacturing plant. That was in September 2011.

Eventually, the business expanded into catering.

“For us, it was just a natural progression,” Ruff said.

They landed a building in North Terre Haute to use as a commissary in early 2013 and decided to use the space to serve coffee and bacon.

“That’s where the love of bacon came from,” Ruff said.

They set a goal of owning their own building by 2015, which they achieved last December. Fifi’s opened its doors at 2918 Wabash Ave. five weeks ago.

Customers filled the dining room at dinner time, choosing from menu items such as the Donut Burger and the Petunia Porchetta, the restaurant’s version of a Philly cheesesteak.

When she spoke at Launch’s event, Hann emphasized her and Ruff’s experiences with a growing staff, training, organization, networking and marketing.

They reached out to community resources, such as the Small Business Development Center at Indiana State University’s Scott College of Business, for help strengthening their entrepreneurial skills. An ISU strategic plan business group helped form Fifi’s business plan.

Small businesses like Fifi’s help define communities such as Terre Haute beyond large industries, said David Haynes, president of the Terre Haute Chamber of Commerce.

“The real lifeblood and spirit, I think, of the community lies with its small business,” he said. “They compete with one another, yet they collaborate on any number of community-wide issues or needs. And I think Terre Haute is very well represented in that.”

Of the chamber’s 753 members, 467 are defined as small businesses with 50 or fewer employees.

Statewide, nearly 1.2 million Hoosiers are employed by small businesses, according to Lt. Gov. Sue Ellspermann’s office.

There are 144,000 small businesses in Indiana, according to Ellspermann’s office, generating $129 billion in annual revenue.

Though no local revenue figures are available, Haynes said Terre Haute has seen small businesses grow in quality, size and number.

“It benefits everyone in our community,” he said.

Klingerman said there are a lot of local business opportunities and also noted that the community seems open to new ideas. She pointed to a downtown study completed by Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology graduate student Heather Finnell.

After conducting an online survey and focus group of community members, Finnell recommended that it was just as important for Terre Haute to maximize existing amenities as it was to attract new businesses.

Downtown Terre Haute, Inc., intended to consider Finnell’s findings while making a five-year downtown master plan.

Klingerman — who previously served as Downtown Terre Haute’s executive director — said there were a lot more business ideas floating around than people likely realize, but most entrepreneurs are working autonomously.

Launch Terre Haute was created to encourage teamwork among future business owners, she said.

“We need to offer that place to plug in and have all the entrepreneurs work together, collaborating and networking to build each other’s businesses,” Klingerman said.

Back at Fifi’s, Ruff and Hann said they also wanted to see more positive growth in Terre Haute, and hoped their business would remain involved in the community.

“We definitely want to help Terre Haute grow,” Ruff said. 

Reporter Nick Hedrick can be reached at 812-231-4232 or Follow Nick on Twitter @TribStarNick.