03 Jul Lennie’s and Bloomington Brewing Company, Institutions On The Move in Bloomington
There are many unique things about Jeff Mease and Lennie Busch. Not the least of these things is how they personally directed the trajectory of my pre-adult and adult life through pizza and craft beer. If it weren’t for Pizza Express (became Pizza X in 2008), I never would have survived those years in the dorms at IU. Because of their pizza, I was able to settle into a regular pattern and ended up with a career in Molecular Pathology research and teaching (before writing about beer). If I had felt the need to move out of Teter Quad to get decent food close by, I might have had more of a social life and not ended up with five degrees and a wealth of useless knowledge for trivia nights.
And then later, if not for Jeff and Lennie’s opening of Bloomington Brewing Company (BBC) and Jeff’s work to enlighten the Indiana State Legislature on the needs of Indiana craft beer, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to write about beer for a living and travel the state telling the stories of all the breweries that have come about because of Jeff’s efforts.
But I get ahead of myself. It’s worth the time to tell the story of Jeff Mease, an IU dropout who helped spawn a small Indiana business empire, and let you in on how things are changing right now. It’s a personal story for me, but it’s also a story for Indiana craft beer and how things have developed over the years.
The story starts with a borrowed car and a part-time job. Jeff was dating Lennie in the early 1980s and used her car to deliver pizzas for Domino’s during his sophomore year at IU Bloomington. Domino’s was killing it in those days, Jeff says they were basically to pizza what Ray Kroc was to hamburgers. Hanging out after closing and cleaning up, Jeff and a couple other guys tossed ideas back and forth about how to replicate Domino’s success on a local level – and Pizza Express was born as a concept.
Jeff (just 19 at the time) got his dad to co-sign a loan and soon the pizzas started being delivered out of the Crosstown strip mall on east 10th street (1983). It just so happened that I start studying chemistry and biology at IU Bloomington in the fall of 1982, so most nights and Sunday afternoons (and even Mondays and Tuesday) were spent consuming Pizza Express pizza and leftover Pizza Express. I used to have a routine – study two hours, run a lap around Teter and Wright quads and the 10th Street Library, and then eat a slice of pizza – repeat.
Pizza Express muddled along for a tough couple of years despite my personal best efforts. They were growing, but not blowing up. Jeff and Lennie, by then his wife, opened another store and they started looking for a possible spot for a restaurant, something that the eastside could use but didn’t have. They were looking to do something in the gourmet pizza domain, like what they saw Bazbeaux and Some Guys were doing in Indianapolis. A place in the same strip mall as Pizza Express came open, and they didn’t want a competitor to come in an quash their business, so they took the property three doors down and opened their restaurant in 1989 – Lennie’s.
By the early 90s they created One World Enterprises as a brand entity and management company for the diverse businesses, and that’s when their partnership took a unique turn. Lennie and Jeff divorced, but they became 50/50 partners in all the enterprises, and continued to run the company together – the partnership is as strong now as ever. Lennie has since remarried and she and her husband have a 15 year old daughter who just this year got her first job—At Pizza X, of course.
Jeff told me that during those first years, “Lennie’s was a real joy.” They made food, they built relationships, and Jeff became a board member for the Indiana Restaurant Association. About this same time, the craft beer movement was moving east from California and the Pacific Northwest – Jeff and Lennie saw this as a possible way to engage more patrons.
A defunct copy store next to Lennie’s had been empty for 6-9 months when they decided that they could definitely use more space at Lennie’s, so BBC was born in 1994, with the brew house in the back of the space. It’s also not a coincidence that it was about this time that Jeff was working with the restaurant association (mostly John Livengood) to set up some rules for Indiana craft breweries. It was under their prodding that the barrels/yr. and self-distribution platforms were developed for the state. For all our complaining, Indiana has some decent craft beer laws, and we have, in large part, Jeff Mease to thank for that.
Perhaps it was serendipity, but the growth of Lennie’s, the change in Indiana beer laws, and the birth of BBC all came about within a couple of years of one another. They chose a rather large system at the time (15 barrel), but it paid off as they made beer, sold beer, and grew. It helped that they were in a college town, with people that were more likely to experiment and try something new. Jeff told me, “It wasn’t hard to get people interested in the craft beer we were making. I think BBC turned a lot of people on to craft beer.”
Walter and I made/make frequent trips to Bloomington for games and entertainment after we married in 1991, despite the fact that we apparently had undergrad classes together but never met in Bloomington. After BBC was opened in 1994, Lennie’s became a regular stop for us. This was early in our conversion to craft beer, but we had many a good evening at Lennie’s drinking head brewer Russ Levity’s BBC stuff and learning. I remember one particular evening that we sat speechless drinking beer after the first time we had seen Les Miserables where the stage moves in a circle. We’ve seen it many times since, but the combination of the show, Lennie’s, and BBC made that the most memorable.
Because of their great successes, One World opened the BBC production brewery on the west side of Bloomington in 2009, not unrelated to another of their new businesses. One World Catering needed a kitchen and they need more space for the brewery to expand and start packaging, so the building they chose was big enough for both. Always looking to take on more challenges to serve the community, One World has more recently started the One World KitchenShare (a year round rental kitchen) and Loesch Farm, where they hope to eventually open a farmstead, destination restaurant.
That brings us to the present – the IU Alumni Foundation owns the property where Lennie’s and the original Pizza X were located. They were looking to raze the property and start over, but the complications of two years of construction and a future with even less parking, made remaining in Crosstown unappealing. As happens not nearly often enough, Lennie’s fell into a great situation at 514 E. Kirkwood Avenue (previously home to Finch’s and The Roost) and they are moving there this very week. It even comes with an existing wood-fired pizza oven.
I made a pilgrimage to Lennie’s in its last week at Crosstown to pay my respects and recall some of the time Walter and I spent there after we met in Indy. Lennie’s has always featured the work of local artists, and since the beginning of June, Lennie’s bar became a work of art itself. As a final exhibit in the bar, graffiti artist David Ebbinghouse (Tom Cat Spray) was turned loose and made the very walls of the building the exhibit. The dining room was in on the fun too, as it showcased art from featured artists across the years.
I talked to Jeff for a while and soaked up the history – both ours personally and in general. I had the double brut IPA from BBC and remembered how much I liked it too. Sunday, the 30th was the last day for the original Lennie’s but look for the new location to be open very soon. Even though they won’t be brewing on site, the new location has more of a Lennie’s feel than the new version of the building on 10th street would have had, so the move is actually a good thing – out with the nostalgic old, in with the nostalgic new.
The new Lennie’s will still be the home of BBC, and I’m sure that we will feel as at home at the new Lennie’s as we did at the old. The point is that we need to acknowledge the contributions of Lennie and Jeff to the restaurant scene in Bloomington and the craft beer community in Indiana, and continue to support them as they have supported us for the last 2.5+ decades.
Update: Jeff and the Lennie’s folks had a parade on the 30th from the old location to the new, so all we need now is an official open date and everything can begin again.
banner image credit: Indiana Public Media