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'I cannot do that again:' Famous Tomato owner remembers losing family business in '08 recession

The Famous Tomato in Speedway is still offering fresh produce, salads and soup amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.
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Posted at 2:59 PM, Apr 08, 2020
and last updated 2020-04-09 13:40:32-04

INDIANAPOLIS — As the coronavirus recession looms, small businesses across the nation are reeling even more.

The United States' economy is on pace to suffer another historic collapse, as millions of jobs have been lost and unemployment spikes to soaring heights.

For many, the 2008 recession is still looming in their minds. That's certainly the case for The Famous Tomato owner, Mike Ray.

"We lost a family-owned, 39-year-old business during the last recession, just out of the fact that no banks or anybody would work with us ... to keep up, to keep us afloat, ya know, for just six more months," Ray said. "I can not do that again."

The Famous Tomato is a small fresh produce market on the west side of Indianapolis, in Speedway.

"I do have really fresh produce that I get in every day. Because I'm a good store and I have really fresh stuff — and people want that," Ray said.

The small, family-owned business has been a staple in the community for years, offering a fresh salad and soup bar, and sells old-fashioned soda and unique sauces.

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The Ray family has owned businesses in the community for decades, including the "Old Farm Market" in Avon, which the Ray family lost about 12 years ago during the recession.

"Back then, it was not just the economy, but we also had two years of major droughts, back-to-back," Ray said. "That was the only time our business was down in 39 years."

Unfortunately, it couldn't survive the 2008 recession.

"It was a shame. It was terrible because I grew up there as a kid with my mom and dad," Mike said. "That was our retirement."

Ray said he and his family struggled to attain a Small Business Administration loan, and when they did, it still wasn't enough. He watched many small businesses fold around him.

"I need to try to survive," Ray said. "I need to try and take in enough to pay the bills and keep the business alive. And if I can do that, I'm going to do it."

After more than a decade of economic growth, Ray, much like others, still has the last recession fresh in his mind.

Although Ray says he was not prepared for a global pandemic to hit, he was equipped to handle the stress and finances.

"It's a lot of little things. We're small enough that we can change and compromise quickly. So that's what we did," Ray said.


Posted by The Famous Tomato on Friday, April 3, 2020

"I mean, I'm not financially desperate at this point — nothing like last time. Last time was just devastating. This time, no, I'm not near as desperate," Ray said. "I'm better prepared financially, but small businesses ... all your money goes back into inventory to keep the store running. It's not like you have thousands and thousands of dollars in the bank."

Keeping The Famous Tomato alive is vital for not only the Ray family, but also their employees, suppliers, and community.

"I wanted to keep my employees working. And there's no way being a small business I could pay them if we were closed," Ray said.

Even though Ray decided to keep his store open, he said he questioned it many times.

"I'm very conscious about the health issue, and we've done so much to try to avoid anything like that," Ray said.

At this time, only employees are allowed in The Famous Tomato storefront. Customers can still buy from the soup bar, salad bar and produce assortment, only Ray's team has to bring it out to your car.

The Famous Tomato is one of few places in Indianapolis that residents can still get locally grown, fresh produce almost daily.

Markets like The Famous Tomato, and farmers' markets, handle fresh food every day, and Mike says there is a difference.

"You either want really fresh stuff — and it's probably going to cost ya a little more — or do you want less expensive stuff that been sitting in a warehouse for a week? There is a big difference," Ray said.

The Ray family also owns "The Famous Soda and Candy Company" in Speedway, and that is temporarily closed. Ray did not feel it was an essential business at this time.

The Famous Tomato
5002 West 10th Street
Monday - Saturday: 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., carryout only

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