By Angie Fenton | Photographs By Tony Bennett
Several years ago, Ian Hall was a fledgling restaurateur struggling to pay his bills and nearly ready to walk away from the industry. Today, he owns the most popular restaurant in New Albany, thanks to hard work and a bit of help.
Seated at a table constructed from 140-year-old wood, Ian Hall recounted some of his earliest childhood memories. “My dad oversaw food and beverages in the Hyatt Regency, and I remember rolling silverware and eating French onion soup and escargot. I kind of grew up in the (hospitality industry),” said the successful restaurateur.
Today, Hall is owner of The Exchange Pub + Kitchen in New Albany, an incredibly popular gastropub housed in a historic building originally built in 1875, and is embarking on other ventures that, if his track record is any indication, will enhance the local scene for years to come.
Hall got his start in the industry by working for his father at Standard Country Club. He started bussing tables and washing dishes at Buckhead Moutain Grill when he was 18. His resume also includes working at the now-defunct Have A Nice Day Café, Rocky’s Sub Pub and, eventually, Legends at Horseshoe Southern Indiana when it was Caesars. “During that time, I was traveling a lot competing in bartending competitions,” Hall said. “I started saving some money along the way, and I guess I decided after seven years that I’d had enough of the corporate side of our business. … It just wasn’t my fit. So, I decided if I was going to stay in the business I would try to do it for myself.”
Hall and his wife Nikki took out a home equity loan, combined it with the cash they’d saved up and bought The Main Menu on Grant Line Road in 2007, renaming it Mybar. “After three years of a roller coaster ride … we were struggling to make it, to pay bills. I mentally just lost interest,” he said.
Hall was hired as a bartender at Proof on Main in Louisville. “I needed a job that would actually pay me something because (Mybar) wasn’t paying me anything and was struggling just to pay its own bills,” he said. “I decided that if I’m going to go work at a bar, I wanted to work at the most high profile bar in town.”
The experience at Proof helped Hall further his knowledge about craft cocktails– and more. “Working at Proof kind of got me back to the food side of our business. I could see how food and art and music and cocktails could all intertwine.”
Hall closed Mybar for about six week s and with the help of family and friends, he rebranded the venue, reopening as New Albany Exchange in January 2011. To ensure he had a cash flow, Hall bartended at Proof four nights a week while also running his own full-service restaurant. “It was a really bad location. People didn’t know we were there and GPS couldn’t find us. The first six months were really tough, but we hung on,” Hall said.
But then came a favorable review by renowned Courier-Journal restaurant critic Marty Rosen (who retired in 2014, much to the chagrin of his fans who miss his delicious reviews). “That day, the light bulb came on,” Hall said. “The phone rang off the hook all day. People wanted to make reservations, which was something we’d never even dealt with before. We opened for dinner at 5 p.m., but at 4:30 p.m. cars were just filing into the parking lot. That was the day I actually took a step back and said, ‘We might have something here.’ ”
Soon, Hall met developer Steve Resch, who has been instrumental in the downtown revitalization of New Albany. “I told him I wanted to be a part of what was happening downtown. I saw this great resurgence happening. Couldn’t figure out how we were going to make it happen, but I stayed on (Resch) and I think I finally broke him a little bit,” Hall laughed.
Initially, Hall was interested in a smaller space now occupied by Feast BBQ, since it was similar to the Grant Line Road property, but Resch steered him to the vast space next door, which had been built in 1875 as Shraders Stable and Livery. “I thought it was too big,” said Hall, but Resch disagreed. “It showed his confidence in us and what we were doing. We all knew The Exchange was bigger than what it was on Grant Line Road. … Obviously, it’s much greater than what we had ever projected.”
A Kickstarter campaign netted Hall $15,000 to help with the massive renovations, and Hall financed the project and directly through Resch, before purchasing it outright. “Steve (Resch) gave us an opportunity to do what a bank would not,” he said. “For him to put that trust in us – I saw him putting a lot of money on the line – one, it made me confident and two, it scared me to death.”
In January 2011, Hall opened the doors to The Exchange Pub + Kitchen at 118 W. Main St. The focus on locally-sourced products, scratch ingredients and a carefully-crafted bar program have made The Exchange a Southern Indiana hotspot.
“I think a lot of people don’t understand what goes into a final dish. We do so many things here and source locally,” said Hall. “We have farmers showing up on our back door.”
In addition to its origins, Hall also wants diners to understand how much work goes into creating a memorable dish, from start to finish. “Most people don’t understand how much work the back of the house puts into the final stage,” he said. “That was one reason why I wanted to have an open kitchen. … The back of the house is the heart and soul of our restaurant.”
In addition to expanding The Exchange – Hall recently purchased the parking lot next door and will start construction on an outdoor space in the spring – the Providence High School graduate is also focused on two other new projects.
He’ll open a “fine casual” steak house downtown New Albany in late 2015 and just opened a business called BRAND in the Heib Building on Pearl Street. The acronym stands for Bar Restaurant And Nightlife Development and will act as a consulting firm for aspiring restaurateurs and those who are interested fine tuning their current restaurant. “When I started out, I was looking for a mentor but couldn’t find anyone,” said Hall. “That’s what BRAND will be.”
Hall’s wife, Nikki, who works in the healthcare field, is now involved in all of the endeavors, and their daughters’ love of the restaurants have made it a family affair. Payton, 12, and Madison, 7, “love the fact that we have (The Exchange),” said Hall, but that doesn’t mean they get any special treatment. “If my family comes in and we have a wait, they wait.”
The Exchange Pub + Kitchen is located at 118 W. Main St. in New Albany. To learn more, go to exchangeforfood.com.
Join us! Your Community Bank presents Extol Magazine Launch Party 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. at The Exchange Pub + Kitchen, 118 W. Main St. in New Albany. You’re invited to join us in celebrating our inaugural issue and enjoy a red carpet welcome, complimentary appetizers, drink specials (for those 21+) featuring Old Forester and Grey Goose, a variety of giveaways and live music by Josh Glauber.
“Don’t ever let anyone tell you, you can’t do something. There’s always a way.”