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It took a village to reopen, but Tucker's Restaurant is now back thriving in OTR

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Posted at 11:45 AM, Nov 09, 2016
and last updated 2016-11-09 12:17:19-05

CINCINNATI -- After closing for 14 months due to a fire, Over-the-Rhine restaurant Tucker's has made its comeback, with its owners overcoming delays, financial hurdles and even a personal tragedy to finally reopen on Sept. 16.

For more than 35 years, Joe Tucker and his wife, Carla, have worked side-by-side in the Vine Street eatery serving made-from-scratch diner fare. Joe primarily does the cooking and Carla handles everything else: She serves, manages, rings up the customers and sometimes cooks, too.

Joe and Carla Tucker, owners of Tucker's Restaurant in Over-the-Rhine, stand in front of the eatery's new ventilation hood. (Photo by Grace Yek.)

Joe’s parents opened the restaurant in 1957. For decades, the restaurant fed and nurtured the community, making it a home of sorts for many. It’s the kind of place where you’re just as likely to run into the mayor as you are someone looking for a hot meal.

“I give food away all the time,” Joe said. Carla used to tutor the neighborhood kids and even fed them while she was at it. “When they came in, they’d have big grins on their faces,” she recalled. “They’d call me ‘mama.’”

Joe was wistful as he described how the “kids,” who are now closer to 25 years old, still come in, but this time, to tell him and Carla, “If you need anything, we got you.”

That sentiment, in a nutshell, is how the Tuckers got their restaurant back.

It took a village

After the restaurant fire on July 27, 2015, the Tuckers faced the daunting task of rebuilding. Business leaders, restaurateurs and members of the community banded together and volunteered to help the couple get back on their feet.

“Kathleen Norris put together this group of engineers, contractors, lawyers and architects,” Joe said. Norris is a principal at Urban Fast Forward, a consulting and real estate firm specializing in urban real estate, development and retail district revitalization. “She’s been a customer and good friend for a long time,” he added.

Many others joined in to raise funds in a variety of ways, from setting up a GoFundMe page to pop-up dinners to merchandising. The cost of reconstruction totaled $300,000, far exceeding initial estimates. They rebuilt from the basement up, bringing the 146-year-old building up to code.

“It costs $50,000 alone just for the hood,” Joe said, pointing to the shiny new ventilation hood above the griddle.

Joe stands in the prep kitchen where the fire started last year.

It took a lot of scrubbing to remove the smoke damage, but the Tuckers were able to salvage some fixtures, such as the seating booths, bar stools and even the griddle that Joe said he bought in 1990. The new restaurant now features some new technology, namely a computerized point-of-sale system.

“Everything was so old,” Carla said, referring to the manual paper order system they previously used.

Just when the Tuckers were in the final stretch of reopening, fate threw them yet another curve: Carla’s father died.

“He was diagnosed with lung cancer and three weeks later, he was gone,” she said.

Even in his last moments of life, her father's words to the couple were, "You've got to get the restaurant open, guys," Joe recalled.

Community welcomes Tucker's back 

They ended up opening a few days later than planned, and it seemed as though the entire community was ready to rush home to the Tuckers.

“We opened on Friday and we were so slammed. Saturday was even worse,” Carla said. “Sunday we couldn’t even get out of bed until four in the afternoon.”

Since reopening, the restaurant is busier than ever.

“You could get 40 in here,” Joe said, looking around, sizing up the seating capacity. “We’re really busy on weekends. We get about 300 to 400 come through on a Saturday or Sunday.”

The restaurant’s new lease on life seems to also have stirred new aspirations in the Tuckers. Carla, for one, has her sights set on social media, saying simply, “We need to work on that.” With a little help, Joe plans to set up the backyard for outdoor seating next year.

For the Tuckers, the restaurant is the only life they’ve known together. Through good times and bad, they’ve kept it going and somehow managed to take care of others, too. And to this day, they are humbled by how the community has embraced them.

“I just take it one day at a time,” Joe said. He paused for a moment and added, “I always ask, ‘Who can I help today besides myself?’”

Tucker's Restaurant

Address: 1637 Vine St., Over-the-Rhine
Hours: Closed Monday-Tuesday; 7 a.m.-3 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday; 7 a.m.-2 p.m. Sunday.
Information: 513-241-3354; facebook.com/TuckersRestaurantOTR
Popular dishes: Burgers, biscuits and goetta – that’s how Joe Tucker sums up his best-sellers. He comes in at 6 a.m. and bakes the biscuits fresh every day. On weekends, Tucker’s offers specials such as eggs Benedict and shrimp and grits.