Smith adds her culinary touch to airport eatery

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Their previous ventures may have been worlds apart, but two of Putnam County's most successful entrepreneurs are joining forces for a local project the public can really sink its teeth into.

Art Evans -- founder, owner and president of Dixie Chopper -- is teaming up with Gail Smith -- founder, owner and culinary wizard at Almost Home -- in creating a new restaurant at the Putnam County Airport.

Smith has taken over operations at The Final Approach Bistro this month, remodeling the restaurant inside the Dixie Chopper Business Center at the airport.

Both Evans and Smith are excited about the opportunity to bring an elite dining experience to the airport.

"Bringing in a world-class restaurant to the airport can only enhance Putnam County's image," Evans said. "We have made two or three attempts to make a restaurant go, and even though the aviation community has supported us well, we have never been able to consistently capture the local community."

Smith brings 16 years of captivating local taste buds with award-winning efforts on the north side of the square. She not only has overcome the odds against making a restaurant work downtown but has actually expanded her facilities, menu and hours in the process.

Rest assured, Smith will continue to operate Almost Home, she stressed.

"Look for exciting things for this restaurant," she urged, stressing that she will "knock it up a notch" while offering some Almost Home favorites at the airport site.

"We'll enhance it and offer a little more," Smith promised. "We probably won't fry (food) as much, add some pasta and a different presentation. We'll still continue their prime rib night (Saturday), people seem to enjoy that."

A new decor features different lighting and carpeting, a relocated serving station, remodeled dining area and bar and even a cockpit mural for the wall. Smith said she may even try live music on Friday or Saturday evenings at The Final Approach Bistro. And some kind of future outdoor dining isn't out of the question.

"So overall it will be my touch with a different presentation and some really good food," she simplified.

The Final Approach will be open Tuesday-Saturday for lunch, Friday and Saturday for dinner and Saturday morning for the airport's successful fly-in breakfast buffet. During the winter months, plans are to be closed Sunday and Monday, although that could change once nicer weather arrives.

Evans admits being intrigued by how Smith has succeeded on the square despite "being basically landlocked."

"Gail has been in the restaurant business for 16 years," he said, "and she has probably turned away as much business as she's done because of the lack of facilities there."

Smith noted that she has been "maxed out" at 60 diners in the Almost Home banquet room. So being able to cater parties for up to 300 in the hangar at the Dixie Chopper Business Center was admittedly an attractive option.

"Right now if I hadn't been so busy with (catering) all the parties," we would have been able to pull it together a little faster," Smith said of the restaurant makeover. "You can't rush it."

While Evans has gained notoriety in revolutionizing the lawn mower industry and being named 2005 Indiana Entrepreneur of the Year, Smith has won acclaim at the Taste of Indiana event by twice winning the Peoples' Choice Award and Best Dessert honors.

Just as Smith believes in Almost Home enhancing the downtown, Evans believes the airport and its amenities are vital to the total community.

"The airport is the most valuable piece of property in the county," he said. "It's the single best economic jewel we have. There aren't many airports in Indiana with a 5,000-foot runway and a GPS system. We are Putnam County's ambassador to the world."

Proof of that in the past year has included stops by former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and a delegation of Chinese industrialists who used the airport while visiting the area. As many as 75-80 pilots have landed for the weekly Saturday fly-ins. And on average 35-40 planes stop to refuel on the weekend.

Now local residents can refuel in another way -- visiting The Final Approach Bistro.

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