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COLUMN

Costlier and later than planned, unique downtown business prepares to open

'Rudy's' will offer DeBrand's chocolate, cigars and Hoosier beer and wine

Tuesday, April 23, 2013 - 8:23 am

If “Rudy's” does indeed open as planned in an old Victorian house at 409 W. Brackenridge St. in August, you'll be able to enjoy fine cigars, DeBrand's chocolates and a selection of Indiana beer and wine just a couple of blocks from Parkview Field. And owner Rudy Mahara couldn't be happier, except for one thing:

It will have happened more than a year later than expected – testimony that opening a small business in Fort Wayne can be both challenging and frustrating despite local governments' $1.4 million effort to improve the process.

As challenging as being ordered to move a toilet one-eighth of an inch, for example.

“Ninety-nine percent of the (government) people were very kind and helpful to walk you through their box. What they didn't realize was that their box shouldn't have been there in the first place,” said Mahara, who had planned to open his unique shop in time for the TinCaps' 2012 home opener.

As I reported in August 2011, Mahara is president of Strategic Benefits Consultants Northeast and was a member of the Esquire Cigar Club, which operated for 17 months in a restored single-room schoolhouse off Illinois Road before a combination of business, regulatory and personal problems forced owner Dan Hoffman to close in early 2011. So Mahara and Hans Sheridan, a fellow cigar smoker and Mahara's director of marketing and client development, decided to renovate the Brackenridge house into a cigar, wine and beer bar with the help of some of the furnishings and cigars acquired during esquire's liquidation.

At the time, Mahara thought renovations would cost about $40,000. But, just like his schedule, that proved overly optimistic. Now he says renovations could cost as much as $175,000.

The question is: Why were both predictions so far off the mark?

Mahara does not place all the blame on the bureaucracy, nor should he. Would-be business owners have an obligation to educate themselves about all legal requirements before they start, not after. Still, he correctly pointed out that large corporations employ armies of lawyers, accountants and others to navigate the bureaucratic maze. “When you're independent, every department wants to get involved and coordinating things can be difficult,” he said.

Take the aforementioned bathroom, for example. Because Mahara decided to replace the existing facility, the remodeled room had to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. That meant the toilet was a fraction of an inch too close to the wall and had to be moved. The bathroom also had to be larger than before, reducing the size of the humidor, where cigars are stored.

The second-floor apartment – which may be leased to a still-to-be-formed corporation of cigar aficionados – has to have a separate entrance not connected to the activity downstairs. So an exterior staircase has been built, and the interior stairwell must be walled off. A locked door won't do.

“And children will be allowed to come in, but if they want to use the bathroom they'll have to walk around the house to the back entrance because they can't go through the bar,” Mahara said. That means the kids may come in contact with cigars in the beer garden, since smoking won't be allowed in front or inside on the first floor.

The irony is that Mahara probably could have avoided some of the requirements had he simply made fewer improvements to the house. But how would that have benefited anyone?

In addition to DeBrand's, Rudy's will offer Hoosier wines (led by Fremont-based Satek) and beer (anchored by Big Woods Brewing Co. of Nashville). Hours could be 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. but may change on game days.

Unlike the old Esquire, Rudy's will not be simply a cigar club. It will offer wine tasting and special events hosted by microbreweries and wineries, and Mahara expects many customers to be women who would simply like to relax in the lounge with a glass of wine and a bit of chocolate.

Despite the delay and added expense, Mahara's timing could still be right. The city is considering paying about $2 million for 2.7 acres to the north, which could be developed into homes or businesses that would provide even more potential customers.

Lest you think that upstairs apartment represents nothing more than a clever way to get around the city's no-smoking law, Mahara correctly pointed out that nothing will happen at Rudy's that can't also happen at the city's nearby Harrison Square project, where private apartments were built above offices, bars and other businesses.

And if it's any consolation to Mahara, that project opened even farther behind schedule than his apparently will.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Kevin Leininger at kleininger@news-sentinel.com, or call him at 461-8355.