Last fall James Lochard, owner and head chef at Southern Comfort Café, was running an errand in downtown Trafalgar when he spotted a for-sale sign outside the old Indian Creek Elementary School. He suspected a portion of the building was for sale, so out of curiosity he dialed the number and learned that the entire structure, which had been vacant for three years, was for sale or lease. Immediately the wheels in his head started spinning, and when he got back to his restaurant on State Road 135, his mom Kim asked what was on his mind.
Lochard told his mother that the building was for sale, and mentioned the idea of moving his restaurant into the space, which provided more square footage than his location at the time provided.
He was still processing the idea when the real estate broker called him back to offer to take him on a walk-through. The beautiful kitchen and huge cafeteria excited him.
When Lochard saw the massive library space, a second thought struck him – he could remove the bookshelves, creating the perfect open-concept living space for himself, his wife Jennifer, and their children, Brayden (14), Jordan (12), Landon (9) and Ruby (3). Their fifth child, Alexis, is grown. Lochard felt the four upstairs classrooms would make great bedrooms, along with a fifth room that could be converted into a playroom.
“The broker asked what I’d do with all this space, and I told him I’d move my family in,” says Lochard, who also began to envision a space that could accommodate concerts, weddings and other gatherings. “At the other restaurant location we did live music, but we could never do it to the scale we wanted to because we were limited on space and parking. Here, I’d love to get with a promoter and do something like in Brown County or at the Morgan County Fairgrounds.”
The owner was thrilled to sell to someone who wanted to use the building to serve the community.
When Lochard first told his family the plan, they thought he was joking.
“They’re used to me having these crazy, off-the-wall ideas that I don’t ultimately pursue, but once my boys saw the basketball court, they were over the moon,” Lochard says.
The main obstacle Lochard faced when he first purchased the school was the boiler system that was in disrepair, in addition to leaky pipe valves.
“Just getting everything up and running took some time because it wasn’t like a regular furnace or hot-water heater in a home,” Lochard says. “We’re on a massive scale here.”
Indian Creek Elementary was built over three time periods – 1939, 1957 and 1987. This led to three different kinds of plumbing and three different kinds of electricity, all of which had to be retrofitted for use in the restaurant and living quarters. Additionally, the Lochards found themselves with a block building, so there was no option of simply knocking down or putting up a wall.
For a time, Lochard was running the restaurant at his initial location while doing construction on the school to prepare for a January 2020 restaurant opening.
“There were a lot of late nights prior to opening when we were working until 3, 4, or 5 a.m.,” says Lochard, who had learned a great deal from when he originally opened Southern Comfort Café in 2015.
Back then he expected that the business would slowly take off, but on the day he opened, there was a line out the door. He quickly had to adapt in order for the business to survive and thrive.
“I found that being a chef was not just about cooking,” Lochard says. “There were food costs, staffing, scheduling and prepping. I had to know every aspect of the business.”
Now he delights in creating menu items and experimenting with flavors with his mom, who also cooks. Lochard went to culinary school, but first found his passion in the kitchen because he was raised by women who cooked from scratch. Lochard followed suit with his restaurant and now makes everything fresh – never frozen. Favorites at Southern Comfort Café include tenderloin, beef Manhattan, brick-oven pizza, chicken and waffles, and hand-dipped ice cream.
The next phase of construction will include creating a marketplace, similar to the Cracker Barrel concept.
Directly above the restaurant is a wing that includes ten classrooms and an office, along with a separate ventilation system.
“I’ve been approached about making this a school for students with immune deficiency disorders, because they must be homeschooled,” Lochard says. “The rooms are huge, so you could have 20 to 30 students per each of the ten classrooms.”
Since the building is centralized between Edinburgh, Greenwood, Martinsville and Mooresville, it’s a convenient location for many families.
One thing is certain. Lochard has found his calling.
“It’s like they say – when you find something you love to do, you’ll never work a day in your life,” he says. “That’s how I feel.”
Southern Comfort Café is located at 200 West Pearl Street in Trafalgar. For more information, call 317-395-6433 or go to facebook.com/southerncomfortindy.