The restaurant industry is known for being tough and often unpredictable. Margins are tight. Hours are long. The ebbs and flows of the economy are felt deeply. Even popular restaurants are often here one day and gone the next.
Making it in the industry, with all its hurdles, truly is a labor of love. Those who want to do it well have to commit to a fast-paced world where food is more than a meal, it’s a love language. And regulars are more than customers, they’re your friends—and your lifeline.
Club Soda is a shining example of a unique dining institution that has stood the test of time. Where most restaurants don’t live to see their 10-year anniversary, Club Soda is celebrating 24 years and counting. And their roots are part of their strength: they pioneered the Fort Wayne dining scene before it was cool, and gave folks a reason to go Downtown.
That’s not to say they haven’t dealt with challenges, though. In 2007, they were forced to reinvent their cigar and martini bar in the face of a smoking ban. In 2009, they lost one of their founding partners, Jim Cornell. In 2020, they had to stay afloat when the world shut down during the COVID pandemic. And nowadays, they find themselves smack dab in the middle of a construction zone—which is great for the future of the area, but can make foot traffic difficult.
But through it all, they keep bouncing back. Decades pass, and locals still flock to Club Soda to celebrate special occasions, when they’re overdue for a date night, or when they’re in the mood for jazz and a martini. What’s the real secret to their staying power? On top of the grit that every small business needs, owners Doug Kline, Doug Ulmer, Noelle Robinson, Dr. William Berghoff, and Dr. Louis Knoble, attribute Club Soda’s success to the quality and the culture.
“The genesis of Club Soda happened when we were commiserating that there wasn’t a place in Fort Wayne to get a decent steak and martini. At the time, we felt like we needed to go to Chicago or Indianapolis to get the experience we were looking for,” says Doug Ulmer.
From there, the concept was born—an ode to the classic mid-century steak, cigar, and martini bar, complete with a Rat Pack vibe, courtesy of their old partner and marketing expert, Jason Smith, who has since passed away. It paired perfectly with the historic building (previously an old textile retailer built in the early 1900s), which helped transport visitors back to the Golden Age. Originally they played around with a few ideas—like swing dancing—but fine dining, jazz, and martinis stuck. And they’ve been known for providing a high-caliber experience ever since.
If the nostalgic jazz-and-martini club atmosphere is the heart of Club Soda, then its people are the soul. Noelle Robinson, Club Soda’s general manager, prides herself on treating her employees like family. It’s the reason some employees have stuck around for 20 years—a rarity in the industry and testament to their work culture.
“It’s a special kind of connection we have with our people that makes it enjoyable to come to work. I mean, let’s face it: working in a restaurant is hard. You’re on your feet, and it’s long hours,” says Robinson. “But I try to make it a place where people want to be, and to offer support when people need it. My main focus is making sure my staff’s work experience is something like how I would want my work experience to be every day.”
That special connection spreads from management to employees, and makes its way to customers. At Club Soda, you feel well taken care of, like a friend. It’s somewhere you can go to expect excellence—from the food and cocktails, to the service, and of course, the live music.
All things considered, it’s easy to understand the longevity of Club Soda. Here’s to 24 successful years in the biz, and many more to come. Cheers!
Fun Facts About Club Soda:
- Club Soda first opened its doors in 1999, taking over the old Indiana Textile Co. building.
- It has the second-most private select bourbon barrels for independent restaurants in Indiana.
- They’re open for lunch (starting at 11am until dinner service), with free wifi for business meetings.
- Club Soda offers live, cover-free entertainment on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday.
- Their team offers catering and assists with planning parties, receptions, and rehearsal dinners.
- Even though their parking lot is under construction, they still offer free parking. Access their parking map.
Molly Conner is a Fort Wayne native and freelance writer. Having lived in Downtown Fort Wayne throughout her twenties, she loves watching her stomping grounds grow. With her love of storytelling and community in tow, she’s eager to tell Downtown Fort Wayne’s story piece-by-piece—exploring the people, spaces, and organizations that make it thrive.