Old menus up for sale recall long-gone Lexington restaurants

March 4, 2014

Lexington antiques dealer Betty Hoopes loves her work, which she says is about preserving history and memories. It is not just what we furnished our homes with, but where we went and what we ate.

Over the years, Hoopes has collected mid-20th century restaurant menus, mostly from Lexington but also from New Orleans, Atlanta, New York and other cities she and her clients have visited.

Her first Lexington menu was from Canary Cottage, a popular Main Street restaurant and bar in the 1930s and 1940s. It was literally one of the coolest places in town, at least after the owners installed one of Lexington’s first air conditioners. Hoopes has that menu framed in her home.

Hoopes has donated several dozen menus to the Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation, which will be selling them in the silent auction at its annual Antiques & Garden Show at the Kentucky Horse Park’s Alltech Arena, March 7-9.

Menus“I just collected them because I love the history of Lexington,” Hoopes said. “I want somebody to get them who will keep them.”

My wife, Becky, was organizing items for the auction and brought home the box of menus, which I started looking through. They were an interesting snapshot of what once passed for the high life in Lexington. And, oh, the prices!

The first menus that caught my eye were from La Flame on Winchester Road, which Kilbern A. Cormney opened in 1959. He later owned the Campbell House Inn, and at one time he had so many local clubs that he held 27 liquor licenses, according to his obituary. He died in 2009 at age 93.

La Flame was Lexington’s “first real nightclub,” recalled retired Herald-Leader columnist Don Edwards. In a 2005 column, he wrote that La Flame’s entertainers included “Frank Sinatra Jr., mind readers, magicians, stand-up comics and, yes, classic strip-tease artists.”

The strippers didn’t go on until late at night “so the mayor’s wife wouldn’t get upset — that’s what I promised her,” Cormney told Edwards.

These La Flame menus appear to be from the early 1960s. The cover illustration shows the kind of shapely young woman in a tight skirt that “Mad Man” Don Draper would have been quick to chase. Most La Flame cocktails were 75 cents or 90 cents then, although a Zombi would set you back $1.95. The most expensive entree was the La Flame Sirloin strip steak, at $6. Lobster tails were $3.95 and lamb fries with gravy were $2.95.

The Little Inn at 1144 Winchester Road opened in 1930 as a Prohibition road house just beyond the city limits, which were then at Liberty Road.

“It grew into a crowded, popular place with a free-flowing bar and a jovial reputation,” Edwards wrote in a 1990 column when the building was demolished.

“By 1945, it had a back room filled with nickel slot machines and was known for great steaks and the best blue cheese salad dressing around,” he wrote. “Lots of people would have dinner there, then go dance to Big Band music at the Springhurst Club or Joyland Park.”

Judging by prices on these two menus and three wine lists, they are from the 1970s, when a “man size” prime rib cost $11.95 and a bottle of French wine went for $8.75. The Little Inn moved to Chevy Chase in 1989, but closed a few months later.

There are a couple of menus and a wine list from Levas’ restaurant. For most of its time (1956-1988), this Lexington institution was housed in an 1880s building at Limestone and Vine streets, which was demolished in 2008 for CentrePointe.

These menus appear to be from the 1960s, when a plate of fried oysters or sea scallops cost $6 and filet mignon was $8.95. The Levas family started with a hotdog stand in 1920. They were Greek, so customers could always count on the Grecian salad ($1.75) or lamb souvlaki ($7.50).

Other menus include Stanley Demos’ Coach House, the Imperial House Motel’s restaurant, the Lafayette Club, Old Towne Inn, Bagatelle, Merrick Inn and Bravo Pitino.

Then-Wildcat basketball Coach Rick Pitino opened Bravo Pitino in 1990, but two years later cut his investment and removed his name. It became Bravo’s and closed in 1998, long before Pitino became a Cardinal.


A few Kentucky business highlights; poetry not included

December 29, 2013

By newspaper tradition, each year at this time, business news highlights were recounted in rhyme. Well, maybe I’m dull. Maybe I’m lazy. But to read a whole column in verse makes me crazy.

So here are some things that made news in Kentucky, but none of them will rhyme, so count yourselves lucky:

■ Toyota announced in April that it would build Lexus vehicles in the United States for the first time on a new line at its 6,000-employee Georgetown assembly plant. The company plans to produce 50,000 Lexus ES 350 luxury sedans a year, beginning in 2015, adding 750 more jobs.

■ Kentucky’s hottest commodity in 2013 was bourbon, as more drinkers around the world developed a taste for this state’s native spirit. Especially popular were high-end boutique bourbons: single barrels, small batches and specially finished recipes.

Distillers put up more than 1 million barrels a year for the first time since 1973 and were expanding their facilities in every direction. Nine craft distilleries either were licensed or announced plans to build.

All of this fueled the popularity of tourism along Central Kentucky’s Bourbon Trail. The Evan Williams Bourbon Experience opened in Louisville, while Wild Turkey built a new visitors center that will open in 2014.

Bourbon’s popularity had some distillers worried about supply. Maker’s Mark ignited a customer backlash — and a lot of free publicity — when it announced in February that it would water down its bourbon a little, then quickly changed its mind.

Bourbon also figured into one of Kentucky’s most highly publicized crimes of 2013: the theft of $26,000 worth of coveted Pappy Van Winkle from a warehouse at the Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort.

■ Kentucky farm cash receipts hit a record $6 billion in 2013, just a year after topping $5 billion for the first time. Much of that was the result of the rebounding horse industry. Sales of Thoroughbred yearlings at Keeneland were up 28 percent in September, while sales of bloodstock were up 38 percent in November. Kentucky breeding rebounded for the first time since 2007, the Jockey Club said.

Also in agriculture, the local food movement gained more traction. St. Catharine College in Springfield launched a sustainable agriculture program, joining similar programs at the University of Kentucky and Kentucky State University aimed at training a new kind of Kentucky farmer.

The Lexington Farmers Market expanded its calendar, and chef Ouita Michel, perhaps Central Kentucky’s highest-profile local food entrepreneur, opened her fifth restaurant, Smithtown Seafood, at the Bread Box development on West Sixth Street. Some of Smithtown’s fish and greens are raised in the next room by Food Chain, a sustainable agriculture non-profit.

■ R.J. Corman started a dinner train from Lexington to Versailles in August. Sadly, soon afterward, the Nicholasville railroad magnate and philanthropist died at age 58 following a long battle with cancer.

■ Lexington saw several new stores in 2013, the biggest of which was a 159,000-square-foot Costco warehouse at Hamburg.

The city also got some innovative new restaurants, including National Boulangerie, a French-style bakery; Coba Cocina, a Mexican-inspired restaurant with Las Vegas-style architecture; and Athenian Grill, a former food truck. Alfalfa, the downtown restaurant that was organic before organic was cool, celebrated its 40th year.

But as the year ended, the venerable retailer Sears was having a liquidation sale at Fayette Mall and preparing to leave Lexington after 80 years. Before moving to the new mall in 1971, Sears was on Main Street, where the Chase bank tower now stands.

Miller & Woodward Jewelers, a Lexington institution since 1931, was closing its doors at the end of the year so owner Russell Pattie could retire. And Talbots Outlet, a popular women’s clothing store that moved from Victorian Square to Hamburg, announced that it would be closing in 2014.

■ Lexmark, Lexington’s biggest technology company, spent much of 2013 trying to show that it isn’t just a printer manufacturer anymore. The company is working to reinvent itself as a leader in various kinds of digital data manipulation services.

■ Lexington’s huge hospital industry saw the opening in September of a new $129 million, 300,000-square-foot Eastern State Hospital off Newtown Pike at the Coldstream Research Campus. It was a long-overdue replacement for one of the nation’s oldest mental hospitals, which had been located on Newtown Pike between Fourth Street and Loudon Avenue for nearly 200 years. That site is now the new campus for Bluegrass Community and Technical College.

 


National Provisions gives Lexington food scene a new flair

December 9, 2013

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Owner Andrea Sims works behind the counter at National Boulangerie, a bakery that opened last week at the corner of National and Walton Avenues. Sims, an artist, and her husband, restaurant veteran Krim Boughalem, are renovating the former industrial building into sophisticated space with an open feel.  Photos by Tom Eblen

 

When Andrea Sims moved back to Lexington from New York City with her French husband, Krim Boughalem, they made waves in the local food scene by opening Wine + Market in 2008 and Table Three Ten in 2010.

Their latest venture could be more like a tsunami.

National Boulangerie, a French-inspired bakery, opened last week at the corner of National and Walton avenues. Within six months, they plan to build out the rest of their 16,000-square-foot space with a brasserie restaurant, wine shop, beer garden, grocery and oyster bar under the umbrella name National Provisions.

“Wine + Market was a perfect start for what we want to do, but the space was too small,” Boughalem said. “This is the same thing on a much bigger scale.”

The couple’s goal is to replicate aspects of traditional French cuisine and food systems, but give them a distinctly Kentucky flavor. Through volume buying, doing all of their own cooking and managing the synergies of each business to reduce waste, they hope to keep food quality high and prices affordable.

“We would like to make everything from scratch here, with ingredients from local farmers,” Sims said. “We’re trying to get back to the old-fashioned idea of food.”

131203Boulangerie0078Plans include brewing small batches of their own beer for the beer garden. The wine shop will include a tap so customers can bring their own containers to fill. Boughalem also plans to sell seafood wholesale to other restaurants.

“A traditional French brasserie has a theme, the region where it is located,” he said. “Our theme will be the Bluegrass, so we will mix French bread and pastries with biscuits and gravy, chicken and dumplings.”

National Provisions is housed in a turn-of-the-century industrial building the couple has leased long-term from Walker Properties, which is redeveloping National Avenue as mixed-use commercial zone. This building’s previous uses included a bottling plant and tile shop.

“We had noticed the building driving by and just loved it,” Sims said. “When it came available, we had just opened Table Three Ten and weren’t even settled in there. But we went ahead and got it because the building and location were just perfect for us.”

Only minutes from downtown, National Provisions is nestled between the increasingly affluent Bell Court, Mentelle and Kenwick neighborhoods and the busy corridor where Midland Avenue becomes Winchester Road.

Boughalem, 47, who had nearly two decades of restaurant experience in New York and London before moving to Lexington, spent two years scouring eBay and auctions for used restaurant equipment and fixtures.

The couple has assembled a huge commercial kitchen that will be the engine of their enterprise. Brian Surbaugh, executive chef at Table Three Ten, heads a five-person staff that is getting the kitchen up and running.

Sims, 44, redesigned the cavernous building into elegantly casual space with an open floor plan and lots of natural light. Red steel frames of glass will divide the beer garden and wine shop — and give patrons a full view of the kitchen.

The bakery’s exposed ceiling beams have been painted bright red. Counters and tables were made from pink Norwegian marble bought at a bargain price. Sims spent countless hours painting a faux-marble finish on the walls — an old-world skill she learned while studying art in France.

A year after opening Table Three Ten on West Short Street at Cheapside, the couple sold Wine + Market, at the corner of West Second and Jefferson streets, to Renee and Seth Brewer, who also own the nearby Enoteca wine bar. Boughalem and Sims plan to keep Table Three Ten.

National Boulangerie is open 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. every day. Once the restaurant, beer garden and wine shop open, operating hours will extend to midnight.

The market will be the most unusual aspect of the couple’s plan. They expect it to open by late spring, selling fresh local meat and produce, fresh seafood and European cheeses, meats and specialty foods.

Boughalem and Sims think they will find plenty of customers, thanks to the growing popularity of fresh, local food and TV cooking shows that are turning more people into “foodies.”

The market also will offer prepared, ready-to-eat meals, which Boughalem thinks will appeal to people who want gourmet food but lack the time or skill to prepare it. “People are getting used to buying more quality,” he said. “For many, good food is a luxury they can afford.”

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New bakery gives National Avenue an international flavor

December 3, 2013

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Owner Andrea Sims works behind the counter at National Boulangerie, a bakery that opened last week at the corner of National and Walton Avenues. Photos by Tom Eblen

 

131203Boulangerie0100I spent the morning at National Boulangerie, a new French-inspired bakery at Walton and National avenues. It was opened this week by Krim Boughalem and Andrea Sims, the husband-and-wife team that started Wine+Market on West Second Street and sold it to open Table Three Ten restaurant on Short Street near Cheapside.

The bakery is fabulous, but it is just the beginning. The couple have leased and are renovating 16,000 square feet of space in a turn-of-the-century industrial building. Within a few months, they plan to add a brasserie restaurant, wine shop, beer garden and international grocery with an oyster bar. The complex will reflect their experience with food in France and New York, plus a lot of Kentucky influence.

Here is National Boulangerie’s Facebook page. Stop by and try it, and read my column about it in next week’s Business Monday.


Lexington has come a long way in just a few years

December 2, 2013

Lexington changed a lot between the time I went away to college in 1976 and returned in 1998. But I think it has changed even more profoundly since then.

The earlier changes were mostly physical — vast tracks of rural land turned into subdivisions and strip malls. Recent changes have been more about attitudes.

Kris Kimel, president of the Kentucky Science and Technology Corp., talked about some of those attitudes in his interview with Tom Martin. They discussed how Lexington can attract innovative talent for the 21st-century economy.

Kimel understands the power of innovation and ideas better than anyone I know. If you haven’t read the interview yet, grab a highlighter and mark the attitudes he mentions.

Here are some I noted: Self-starter. Creative problem-solving. Imagination. Tolerance for risk and failure. Embracing diversity.

Lexington isn’t as open to new ideas as it needs to be, but it has made considerable progress. This city is less buttoned-down than it was just a few years ago, and that has made it a much more interesting place to live, work and play.

I don’t know why it happened, but I have a few hunches. One is that technology has empowered more people, making it easier for them to innovate and succeed. At the same time, social media has made it easier for them to connect with one another.

Technology has made the structures of Lexington power and influence younger and more diverse. People feel less pressure to conform, less need to seek “permission.” This is especially true in arts and culture, which are leading indicators of social and economic shifts.

131108Mural0025For example, consider the positive buzz created recently when a Brazilian artist was invited to paint a giant, psychedelic Abe Lincoln mural on a big blank wall downtown. It is an amazing piece of art, sure to become a Lexington icon.

Had that happened a decade or two ago, many of Lexington’s powers-that-be would have scoffed. Most likely, such a mural would never have happened at all.

The mere suggestion of it would have spawned high-level discussions where caution would have outweighed creativity. If anything at all resulted, it would have been a “safe” mural that would neither offend nor inspire anyone — perhaps a pretty field of horses, none of which would be blue.

A Lexington Tattoo Project in the 1990s? No way.

Lexington’s economic creativity can be found in low-rent office space all over town. For example, there are dozens of innovative technology companies such as Cirrus Mio, Medmovie and Float Money, plus biotech firms whose market niches are as hard to understand as their names are to pronounce. There are two tech startup incubators on Main Street, Awesome Inc. and Base 163.

Of course, all innovation isn’t high-tech. Sometimes, it’s simply looking around at what makes a place unique and wonderful and finding new ways to develop and market it. Alltech gets it. So do chef Ouita Michel and the “Kentucky for Kentucky” guys. The once-stodgy bourbon industry has become a hotbed of innovation, and business is booming as a result.

Here’s one of my favorite examples of new Lexington creativity:

Four young entrepreneurs wanted to start a craft brewery. But they didn’t just want to sell beer; they wanted to build community. Their West Sixth Brewery has been wildly successful by breaking all of the old “rules.”

Rather than locate in an affluent suburb, they bought an abandoned 1920s bread factory in a transitional northside neighborhood. An old-style developer would have bulldozed the factory and built a faux-fancy brewpub. Instead, these guys hired Lexington developer Holly Wiedemann, a master at turning old buildings into cool, functional spaces.

The once-abandoned factory, now called The Bread Box, houses West Sixth’s brewery and pub, plus other tenants including artist studios, a nonprofit bicycle shop, a coffee-roaster, a women’s roller derby team and a seafood restaurant.

Smithtown Seafood gets some of its fish from Food Chain, an urban agriculture nonprofit that raises them in tanks in the next room. Brewery waste is fed to the fish and fish waste fertilizes greens grown under artificial lights and served in the restaurant. Win, win, win.

The Bread Box is an example of innovative talent in action, and it creates the kind of community where innovative, talented people can see there is opportunity to realize their own dreams.  


New Shorty’s owner sees opportunity in downtown Lexington

November 25, 2013

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Bob Estes, the owner of Parlay Social nightclub who plans to reopen Shorty’s Urban Market by Christmas, also is planning a fourth-story addition to his Southern Mutual Trust Building at cheapside for a restaurant. From the restaurant’s future patio dining area, he enjoys the view of downtown Lexington. Photos by Tom Eblen

 

When the bar leasing the first floor of Bob Estes’ downtown building closed three years ago, he took a chance that he could reopen the space as a Prohibition-theme nightclub.

Thanks to his diverse business background and the experience his fiancée, Joy Breeding, had in hospitality management, Parlay Social has done well, recently adding lunch service on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays.

Now they hope to build on that success by making more contributions to the revitalization of the Cheapside district behind the old Fayette County Courthouse.

Estes and Breeding are working to reopen Shorty’s Urban Market, 163 West Short Street, which opened in May 2011 but closed two months ago. They are doing minor renovations to the market, which they plan to reopen by Christmas.

They also are remaking the former Shorty’s wine shop next door into a cocktail bar and taproom featuring locally brewed beers. If business is good enough, they can use second-floor office space for additional food and beverage service.

Next year, they have more ambitious plans: add a fourth floor onto the historic Southern Mutual Trust Building, where Parlay Social is located at 149 West Short Street, and open a rooftop restaurant with an expansive view of downtown.

“It has been interesting to learn the hospitality industry,” Estes said. “It’s not easy, but I say a lot of times that this is not rocket science; I know what rocket science is.”

131121BobEstes-TE0085Indeed, he does. The 52-year-old Lexington native and Eastern Kentucky University graduate spent most of his career in the aerospace industry, working in satellite launch operations for companies such as Boeing, Lockheed and McDonnell Douglas.

Estes was a mission controller for payloads carried on several NASA Space Shuttle and Space Station missions. During ebbs in the space program, Estes worked at a variety of other jobs. He built homes and spent time as Circuit Court Clerk in Jessamine County, appointed to fill his mother’s vacancy when his father became ill.

Estes was working as an aerospace consultant when he bought the Southern Mutual Trust Building in 2008, both as an investment and so he could convert the third floor into a low-maintenance condo where he could live when he wasn’t traveling.

He changed career paths after falling in love with Breeding and downtown living.

The city’s Courthouse Area Design Review Board last year approved Estes’ proposed design for adding a fourth floor to the Southern Mutual Trust Building. But it will be a big job — including cutting into his third-floor condo so the elevator shaft can be extended upward.

“Can you imagine eating up here on a nice evening with this view of downtown?” Estes said as we stood on his roof.

131121BobEstes-TE0078Estes, who is president of the Cheapside Entertainment District Association, thinks there is a lot of opportunity downtown for entrepreneurs with a disciplined business approach and good customer service.

“I’m big on processes and standard operating procedures,” he said. “I learned that in the space program.”

Estes said he has received a lot of support in reopening Shorty’s from city officials, the building’s landlord, Brian Hanna, and the market’s original investors, led by Lee Ann Ingram of Nashville. Estes said Ingram left him a beautifully renovated building to work with. So how does he plan to succeed where others failed?

“We’re going to focus on quality, but watch the price point,” he said. “I don’t want to make it such a boutique place that I eliminate customers.”

Estes plans to stock a lot of Kentucky Proud products, especially things such as Sunrise Bakery bread and Lexington Pasta. He is talking with Lexington Farmers Market about its growers supplying produce for the market and its deli. Estes also plans to offer take-home dinners.

“I’m really trying to find some great cooks,” he said. “I’m looking for a grandmother type who’s used to cooking for a big family and knows how to spice food.”

Cheapside’s bars and restaurants have done well for several years, and Estes said he thinks downtown is ready for retail.

“I’m getting the feeling out there that there’s a village of people who want Shorty’s to be successful,” Estes said. “In my lifetime, there’s never been a more exciting time to be downtown.”

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John Egerton chronicled the South, from civil rights to barbecue

November 23, 2013

For a young Southern journalist getting started in the 1980s, there was no better role model and mentor than John Egerton, who died unexpectedly last Thursday at his home in Nashville. He was 78.

I got to know John while I was covering Tennessee for The Associated Press. When I started traveling the upper South for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, he became a friend and valuable resource.

As a freelance journalist since 1971, John’s award-winning books and hundreds of magazine and newspaper articles chronicled in-depth so many things that fascinated me about Southern history, culture, politics and food.

I often called John for information and advice, which he modestly dispensed in a soft drawl. And I knew that if he was in town whenever I came to Nashville, he would take me to some memorable hole-in-the-wall for a delicious breakfast or lunch.

JohnEgerton-webJohn was born in Atlanta but his family soon moved to Cadiz, Ky.. He graduated from the University of Kentucky, which inducted him into its Journalism Hall of Fame and Hall of Distinguished Alumni. UK Libraries honored him last April with its Award for Intellectual Achievement.

I first knew John through two of his early books, A Mind to Stay Here (1970) and The Americanization of Dixie: The Southernization of America (1974). When we met he had just published Generations: An American Family (1983), the engrossing story of nine generations of Kentucky’s Ledford family.

The book that made Egerton famous was Southern Food, a combination cookbook, travel guide and social history that was named the 1987 book of the year by the International Association of Culinary Professionals.

John had spent more than a year eating his way across the South without adding much weight to his tall, lanky frame or, he said, raising his cholesterol. His book chronicled the evolution and role of food in Southern culture, including the substantial contribution of black culture.

I wrote one of the first articles about the book, for the Journal-Constitution. We met for the interview at Hap Townes, a long-gone Nashville “meat and three” where musicians, executives and factory workers sat elbow-to-elbow enjoying house specialties that included stewed raisins.

“If I had been braver, I would have called the book The Stomach of the South; I think W.J. Cash would have understood,” he told me, referring to the author of the 1941 classic, The Mind of the South.

John followed Southern Food with, Side Orders: Small Helpings of Southern Cookery and Culture (1990). He helped start the Southern Foodways Alliance, and he edited the first volume of Cornbread Nation 1: The Best of Southern Food Writing (2002). But John was always amused at his fame as a food writer, claiming his only culinary expertise was eating.

He published several other books: a history of Nashville, an exploration of Tennessee’s 19th century utopian communities and a collection of his magazine essays that explored the South’s complexity.

His masterpiece was the 700-page book Speak Now Against The Day: The Generation Before The Civil Rights Movement in the South (1994). It drew on his nearly three decades of reporting on Southern race relations, beginning in 1965 for the magazine Southern Education Report. It won the Robert F. Kennedy Book Award, and it deserved a Pulitzer Prize.

John’s soft voice, gentle humor and modest demeanor masked a moral compass that compelled him to speak out against things he believed were wrong.

When the Tennessee Valley Authority condemned his Trigg County farm and others in the 1960s to build the Land Between the Lakes outdoor recreation area, John became the lead plaintiff in a federal court battle. With Justice William O. Douglas dissenting, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear his appeal.

In 2006, John wrote a book of political satire, Ali Dubyiah and the Forty Thieves. He described it, only half seriously, as his only work of fiction.

John’s most popular writing celebrated what was good about the South, but his biggest contribution as a journalist and historian was his examination of what held the region back: race, class, poverty, inequity and corruption. He was a masterful storyteller who had the courage to not only report facts, but explain what those facts added up to.

 


Chef’s tour highlights growth in Kentucky’s local food culture

October 29, 2013

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Chef Ouita Michel, left, talks with Jean and Leo Keene, who since 1988 have operated Blue Moon Farm in Madison County, which specializes in garlics. Michel said she has bought garlic from them for her restaurants for years. Michel led a tour of the Lexington Farmers Market on Saturday that included Claire Carpenter, second from left. Photos by Tom Eblen 

 

Ouita Michel doesn’t get to the Lexington Farmers Market much anymore.

Since the acclaimed chef and restaurant entrepreneur became one of the largest buyers of Kentucky vegetables, fruits and meats, her employees do most of the shopping, and many of the 50 local producers she buys from deliver.

The five restaurants she and husband Chris Michel have created since 2001 — Holly Hill Inn, Wallace Station Deli and Midway School Bakery in Woodford County, and Windy Corner Market and Smithtown Seafood in Lexington — have bought more than $1 million in Kentucky agricultural products.

Michel credits the flavor and quality of Kentucky food for her restaurants’ success. And that success has helped fuel a local-food renaissance that began in the 1970s with farmers markets and pioneer restaurants such as Alfalfa and Dudley’s.

The Fayette Alliance, a land-use advocacy group, recently asked Michel to give a tour of the Lexington Farmers Market. Michel said it was a good opportunity for her to meet new producers she might want to buy from — and she did meet some.

Many people are now willing to pay a little more for healthier, better-tasting food grown with fewer chemicals. They also like the idea of their money going to local farmers rather than giant corporations.

Kentucky’s local food economy began taking off in 2004, when the tobacco quota buyout program helped finance crop diversification. The state’s Kentucky Proud program then helped market those products.

Whenever possible, Michel said, her restaurants buy local food. For example, the lettuce and tomatoes for Windy Corner’s salads are grown 100 yards up the road at Berries on Bryan Station, a small, family-owned organic farm that also grows okra for Ramsey’s restaurants.

131026OuitaMichel0072About a dozen people showed up Saturday to take Michel’s tour. She walked them from stall to stall, looking for lesser-known vegetables, such as Hubbard squash and Jerusalem artichoke, and explaining how she likes to prepare them.

Michel introduced the group to several of her suppliers, including Eileen O’Donohue of Kentucky Lamb in Washington County, and Ann and Mac Stone of Elmwood Stock Farm in Scott County, the state’s largest certified organic farm.

“There is a seasonality to local food,” Michel said, and new techniques such as hoop houses have extended vegetable growing seasons in Kentucky.

Michel develops menus around seasonally available produce. Her restaurants also try to use almost all of the local cattle, chickens and lambs they buy, not just choice cuts.

“We need to eat all of the animal to make it work economically,” she said. “It’s also better for the farmers, and it’s just a more responsible thing to do.”

Michel’s newest restaurant is Smithtown Seafood, next to West Sixth Brewing in the Bread Box building at West Sixth and Jefferson streets. It serves fish and greens grown in an adjoining room by the urban-agriculture non-profit organization FoodChain, which uses a process called aquaponics. Brewery waste is fed to the fish, whose waste fertilizes greens grown under lamps.

“I know the Magic Beans people are here today, and I want to talk with them about buying their coffee for Smithtown,” Michel said at the beginning of her tour. Magic Beans roasts its coffee in a back room of the Bread Box building.

The University of Kentucky has played an important role in developing the local-food economy through its sustainable agriculture and food science programs, Michel said. So have processing plants such as Marksbury Farm Market in Lancaster.

Kentucky needs more commercial kitchen space and contract packaging plants, so farmers can process more of what they grow into high-profit, value-added products such as jellies and sauces, Michel said.

“We could produce a lot of artisanal pork products that could be shipped around the world, like Spanish ham is,” she said. “It’s just a matter of taking these well-known cultural foods that we’ve had in Kentucky for 200 years and developing and promoting them to a wider market.”

State and local officials who make economic development investment decisions too often overlook agriculture while focusing on trendy areas such as high technology, Michel said.

“If we could make some strategic investments in our food economy, we could have tremendous returns,” she said. “Economic development does not just mean guys in a room staring at computers.”

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Former Disney exec highlights value of natural beauty in cities

October 27, 2013

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Katy Moss Warner, center, who once led the American Horticulture Society, was in Lexington last week to promote the economic and aesthetic benefits to city landscape beautification. At a workshop with Lexington leaders Thursday, she talked with Kay Cannon, left, and Ellen Karpf. Photo by Tom Eblen

 

Beautiful landscapes enrich a city — well-tended flowers, trees, gardens and lawns. But when money is tight, it is easy to see them as frills, as costs to be cut.

What is the value of beauty? What is the cost of ugly?

The answer to both questions, says Katy Moss Warner, former president of the American Horticulture Society, is a lot.

Warner spent last week touring Lexington, speaking and meeting with people as an unpaid guest of Friends of the Arboretum and the Fayette County Master Gardeners.

Warner has a degree in landscape architecture and was a Loeb Fellow at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design. But she said she learned the economic value of beautiful landscapes during the 24 years she spent supervising a staff of 700 as director of horticulture and environmental initiatives at Walt Disney World in Florida.

Disney spends millions each year on advertising and new attractions to lure new visitors. Warner said she struggled to prove the economic return on investing in landscape until visitor surveys revealed some interesting facts: 75 percent of Disney World’s visitors were repeat customers. Why did they keep returning?

“Atmosphere,” she said. “The beauty of the landscape. This is helpful information not just for Walt Disney World but for cities. If cities are beautiful, people will come back. Horticulture can drive revenue.”

At a lecture Wednesday, Warner said many people have “plant blindness” — they often don’t notice the plants around them or realize their value. We move so fast in our daily lives that we fail to notice “the subtle music that truly is the beauty of nature.”

Many cities think plants are nice, but not necessary. Study after study shows they are wrong, she said.

When a city’s public and private spaces are clean and well-landscaped, people tend to be happier, healthier and care more about their neighbors and community. Urban tree canopies reduce energy costs and calm traffic. Indoor plants filter pollution and make people feel better. Good landscaping increases property values.

In places that are ugly, barren or junky, where there is a lot of noise and artificial light pollution, crime goes up and private investment goes down. People understand, consciously or subconsciously, that they don’t want to be there.

“Schools are probably the most derelict landscapes we have,” Warner said. “We design them like prisons.”

But schools are a perfect place to teach children the importance of natural beauty with school vegetable and flower gardens, and planting trees as legacies.

Studies have shown that gardens make good learning environments, especially for students who struggle in structured classrooms. Warner said the most popular attraction at Disney’s Epcot is the vegetable and hydroponic gardens at the Land Pavilion.

Warner is a board member and volunteer for the non-profit organization America in Bloom, which helps cities learn beautification strategies from one another. At a Thursday workshop, she made a pitch for Lexington to participate.

The workshop at the University of Kentucky was attended by Vice Mayor Linda Gorton; three more Urban County Council members; Sally Hamilton, the city’s chief administrative officer; and more than 40 leaders in Lexington’s landscape, horticulture and sustainable agriculture movements. Earlier in the week, Warner met with Mayor Jim Gray.

This was Warner’s first visit to Lexington. She remarked on what a clean city it is for its size, in both affluent and not-so-affluent neighborhoods. She also was impressed by local food and recycling programs, and by good examples of historic preservation and adaptive reuse of old buildings.

In an interview afterward, I asked Warner what she would do to improve Lexington. Her observations were perceptive, especially considering she had spent only three days looking around.

“I think it’s a shame that so much of the historic fabric has been lost downtown, but those spaces offer an opportunity to bring back character through horticulture,” she said, adding that she thinks the Town Branch Commons plan is brilliant. “That could really be a signature for the city.”

Warner thinks Lexington also has a lot of opportunity for beautification by planting native plants, community gardens, installing rooftop greenhouses and by protecting existing assets such as the majestic, centuries-old trees that dot the landscape.

Lexington seems to have fewer walking paths and biking trails than other cities its size, Warner said, so there is an opportunity to create more of them to get people outside and closer to the landscape.

“As a community you also seem to have amazing talent, an amazing spirit, an amazing history,” she said. “I do believe that it takes the whole community to make the community beautiful.”


Wendell Berry partners with college on sustainable farm program

October 1, 2013

130920BerryAg0094Jonas Hurley, right, owner of River Run Farm & Pottery in Washington County, shows students in St. Catharine College’s new Berry Farming Program his array of solar panels, which provide about 60 percent of his farm’s power and should pay for themselves within a dozen years. In the center is the Berry program’s director, Leah Bayens. Photos by Tom Eblen 

 

SPRINGFIELD — Agriculture economists have been sounding a death knell for the American family farm for decades. Since World War II, farming has been all about machinery, chemicals and the idea of “get big or get out.”

More recently, though, the sustainable-agriculture movement has shown an alternative path. It is based on creating new markets and innovative farming techniques rooted in the wisdom of nature.

The movement has been fueled by consumers who want fresher, tastier produce and meat that isn’t sprayed with chemicals and pumped full of hormones. Many consumers are willing to pay more for better quality.

Sustainably produced local food nourishes communities as well as bodies. Many farm families want to stay on their land, finding that the rewards are worth the hard work. They also want to make sure the land isn’t poisoned and eroded, so future generations can keep farming.

With its fertile soil, temperate climate and central location, Kentucky would seem to be a great place to capitalize on this trend. Plus, Kentucky is the home of writer Wendell Berry, one of the global gurus of sustainable agriculture.

This fall, St. Catharine College, a Catholic school founded by the Dominican Sisters in Washington County, started offering bachelor’s degrees in farming and ecological agrarianism.

St. Catharine’s Berry Farming Program incorporates Berry’s sustainability philosophies and was developed in conjunction with his family’s Berry Center in the Henry County town of New Castle.

(Berry’s alma mater, The University of Kentucky, where he taught English for many years, has developed a respected sustainable agriculture program. But Berry had a very public breakup with UK in December 2009, when he withdrew his papers after the university named the new basketball players’ dormitory Wildcat Coal Lodge in return for millions of dollars in coal industry donations.)

Assistant Professor Leah Bayens developed St. Catharine’s four-year Berry Farming Program, which combines interdisciplinary study in agriculture, ecology, business, marketing and community leadership with hands-on farm internships.

The-Unsettling-of-America (1)Bayens launched the program this fall with four students in the introductory class, which uses as a supplementary text Berry’s landmark 1977 book, The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture, which helped spark the sustainability movement.

Three international students will join the program in January, thanks to scholarships from Eleanor Bingham Miller, whose Louisville family once owned The Courier-Journal. Bayens will choose those students from the more than 60 applicants from sub-Saharan Africa, the Indian subcontinent and Latin America, where sustainable agriculture is desperately needed.

The Berry Farming Program’s first four students represent an interesting mix of the sons and daughters of Kentucky farm families.

Freshman Marshall Berry is Wendell Berry’s grandson, and he is trying to figure out whether he wants to make a career of farming, as his father, Den Berry, did. Does he feel any family pressure? Maybe a little, he said.

“I know I want to live and work on a farm,” said freshman Winifred Chevront, who grew up on a Taylor County farm. “I think this could help me achieve my goals.”

Pamela Mudd, a junior who transferred here after studying food science at UK, comes from a large Washington County farming family.

“I want to get some new ideas for keeping our family farm in the family,” she said.

Jacob Settle, a junior, comes from a Washington County farm family and has built a regionally successful freezer-beef business with his brother, Jordan. Rising Sons Beef sells locally bred, born and raised beef that is free of antibiotics, steroids and hormones.

Bayens has taken her class on several field trips to see area farms. Last month, I joined them on a tour of Jonas and Julie Hurley’s River Run Farm & Pottery near Springfield.

The Hurleys raise sorghum and vegetables, hogs, chickens, goats, turkeys, ducks and sheep. They also have a dairy cow and a llama. They produce almost all of the food they and their two young sons eat, selling the surplus at a local farmer’s market. Jonas Hurley also sells his pottery and teaches classes.

A few months ago, Hurley installed solar panels that produce about 60 percent of his farm’s power. The $14,000 investment should pay for itself within 12 years, he said.

“I want the students to get opportunities to meet, mingle and work side by side with different kinds of farmers so they can see what kinds of creativity and inventiveness are at work,” Bayens said. “There is a lot of opportunity out there for farmers willing to find it.”

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Andy Barr votes to take food from poor, then serves up baloney

September 19, 2013

Today’s George Orwell Award goes to U.S. Rep. Andy Barr, R-Lexington, for the press release reproduced below. For a different view of the situation, read this guest column in today’s Herald-Leader by the Rev. Patrick Delahanty, executive director of the Catholic Conference of Kentucky.

 

Barr

 


Kentucky hunger: taking from poor while giving to rich is shameful

September 17, 2013

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The God’s Pantry warehouse on Jaggie Fox Way. The food bank, which also has warehouses in Winchester and Prestonsburg, distributes food to the needy in 50 counties of Central and Eastern Kentucky. Photos by Tom Eblen 

 

September is Hunger Action Month, and Republicans who control the U.S. House of Representatives are marking the occasion by trying to take food from the mouths of poor children, low-wage workers and elderly people.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia is leading an effort to cut $40 billion over the next decade from SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps.

Since the 2008 financial crisis led to a deep recession, the SNAP program has doubled in size, to $80 billion. That money has largely gone to help feed individuals and families who have been unemployed or under-employed.

While Wall Street and corporate America have recovered just fine, many poor and middle-income people continue to struggle. Still, Republican leaders think it’s time to economize by going after the $4.50 average daily SNAP benefit that goes to millions of poor people, including 875,000 Kentuckians.

GOP leaders claim the SNAP program is rife with abuse, yet they have produced little evidence of that beyond isolated media reports of someone buying steak or lobster with food stamps or continuing to claim benefits after cashing a big lottery ticket.

House Republicans seem less concerned about the tens of billions of dollars now wasted on agriculture subsidy programs that largely benefit agribusiness companies and wealthy farmers, including some members of Congress. While the House farm bill this summer left out SNAP funding and cut land conservation efforts, agriculture subsidies for the wealthy were actually increased.

One example of this hypocrisy is U.S. Rep. Stephen Fincher, a Tennessee Republican and Tea Party favorite who has been a vocal advocate for cutting SNAP. Since 1999, Fincher has collected nearly $3.5 million in government farm subsidies. Other members of his cotton-farming family have received millions more.

The food bank directors and social workers who deal with hunger face-to-face every day have been unanimous in their condemnation of Cantor’s plan, according to news reports.

To get a feel for the local situation, I visited Lexington-based God’s Pantry, a non-profit that supplies food to people in 50 Kentucky counties through a network of warehouses and 300 affiliate churches and charities.

God’s Pantry CEO Marian Guinn said there is no way private charities can begin to make up for drastic cuts in government benefits in this still-recovering economy. Republican criticisms of SNAP are overblown, she said.

“You can always pull out examples of abuse in any situation or any program,” Guinn said. “But we see (SNAP) as a really effective way to get needed resources, but not all the resources that a family needs for their food.”

God’s Pantry gathers food from government commodity programs, plus donations from groceries and the food industry, and buys fresh produce with donations from the public. (Charity Navigator, a charity watchdog group, has consistently given God’s Pantry top ratings for money-management and efficiency.)

God’s Pantry provides food to more than 211,000 people — nearly one in seven — in its 50-county service area each year, Guinn said. Census data shows that about 310,000 people in the region live in poverty.

Statewide, the government estimates that about 715,000 people are “food insecure.” If Congress makes substantial cuts in SNAP, that number will explode.

Guinn said a typical God’s Pantry client is a white woman in her early 40s with one or two children who works part-time and earns $1,000 or less a month. Client households tend to have low levels of education and often are dealing with health problems. Forty-one percent of client households have children, and 18 percent have elderly people.

“Many of these are people who before the recession were living middle-class or lower middle-class lives,” she said.

God’s Pantry clients must be referred by social-service agencies to make sure they have a genuine need.

“The sentiment in Washington is really concerning to us,” said Guinn.

“Because federal programs are very important for us, there certainly are lots of opportunities for advocacy,” Guinn added.

“Advocacy” is a polite way of putting it. I will be more blunt: Call or write your congressman today. Tell him that if he votes to take food away from the poor while shoveling public money to the wealthy, he should be ashamed.

 

How to Help

God’s Pantry

To donate to or volunteer call (859) 255-6592 or go to: Godspantry.org

Greater Lexington CROP-Hunger Walk

3 p.m., Sept. 29, at Second Presbyterian Church, 460 E. Main St. The 3.2-mile walk seeks to raise $30,000 for hunger-relief efforts, with 75 percent going Church World Service and 25 percent to God’s Pantry. Information: Lexcropwalk.blogspot.com.

Contact your Congressman

Rep. Andy Barr of Lexington, (202) 225-4706, Barr.house.gov

Rep. Hal Rogers of Somerset, (202) 225-4601, Halrogers.house.gov

Rep. Thomas Massie of Vanceburg, (202) 225-3465, Massie.house.gov

 

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Smiley Pete’s Crave festival a bid to expand its business model

September 16, 2013

Covering the local culture scene has long been an important part of the business model for alternative publications. But many are now finding they can make more money by actively nurturing that culture scene.

The classic example is a music festival the Austin Chronicle started in 1987. It attracted only 700 people the first year, but South by Southwest is now the world’s largest multi-venue music festival. It and affiliated SXSW digital media conferences have an annual economic impact on Texas’ capital city region of $190 million.

Other small publications in cities such as Toronto; Portland, Ore.; and San Jose, Calif., also have found success by organizing festivals. So why not Lexington?

cravelogoThat’s the thinking behind the first Crave Lexington food and music festival, Sept. 21 and 22 at the MoonDance at Midnight Pass amphitheater at Beaumont. It is being organized by Smiley Pete Publishing, which produces the community magazines Chevy Chaser, Southsider and Business Lexington.

The festival includes a diverse array of local food and drink vendors, demonstrations of cooking and food preparation and concerts by a variety of musicians and bands.

“We see opportunity,” said Chuck Creacy, who with business partner Chris Eddie started the Chevy Chaser 16 years ago next month. “It has worked in other markets. Whether Lexington is big enough is a question. But people in this town love to eat and drink outdoors, that’s for sure.”

Crave is the biggest event Robbie Morgan has organized since she joined Smiley Pete two years ago as director of events and sponsorships.

“Part of the reason they brought me on was to expand our reach in the community,” said Morgan, an Anderson County native who moved back to Kentucky from Toronto five years ago.

Morgan has organized several small-business development seminars under the Business Lexington flag. And she created Tadoo Lounge, a series of free, early evening events the first Thursday of each month at Smiley Pete’s Old Vine Street offices that featured local musicians, food and drink.

The Tadoo Lounge events, which were designed to introduce a different slice of Lexington to the growing late-night local club scene, made enough money to pay the bands, Morgan said.

Crave Lexington’s goal this year is to establish a brand, show people a good time, break even and offer guidance for profits in the future.

In conceiving Crave, Morgan wanted to bring together the diversity of Lexington cooks and musicians for a family-friendly event. Special emphasis was given to exposing people to local resources they might not know about.

The venue — the MoonDance amphitheater — was a practical choice because of its good facilities. But she also noted that while downtown may be the hot entertainment spot these days, much of Lexington’s increasing ethnic and cultural diversity has settled in the suburbs.

On the food front, that meant a range of options. On the low end, Crave has assembled local food trucks with items costing as little as $1. On the high end, there is a 10-course, five-hour dinner Saturday night featuring Kentucky Proud food and drink prepared by local chefs including Ouita Michel, Jonathan Lundy, Toa Green, Rona Roberts and Jeremy Ashby. Tickets are $175 each.

“We have all this culture; how do you create opportunities to bring everybody to the same kitchen?” Morgan said, explaining the concept behind Crave. “Kitchens are where the best parties happen.”

On the music side, Morgan lined up 10 acts for the Crave stage, with an emphasis on local talent many people don’t know about. One example: the Pandya Family, a group of Indian musicians who Morgan said has played before 10,000 people in Chicago but has never done a show in Lexington, where they live.

Morgan said 10 percent of the proceeds from Crave will be donated to Food Chain, a Lexington non-profit focused on urban food production and preparation.

“This is a new role for local publications,” Creacy said. “But Chris and I decided sometime back that we wanted to move our business toward doing things that make Lexington the kind of place where we want to live.”

If you go

Crave Lexington

What: Inaugural food and music festival featuring local food and drink vendors, demonstrations of cooking and food preparation and concerts by Vandaveer, 23 String Band, Pandya Family, Kelly Richey and others. Organized by Smiley Pete Publishing.

When: 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Sept. 21; 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Sept. 22

Where: MoonDance at Midnight Pass amphitheater, 1152 Monarch St. at Beaumont Cir.

Admission: Free, but there is a charge for food and drink tickets. Some meal events also require tickets.

Learn more: Cravelexington.com


Things will be hopping Friday night on Bryan Avenue

August 13, 2013

Looking for something to do Friday night?  The North Limestone Cultural Development Corp., which calls itself the NoLi CDC for short, is having the first of what it plans as a series of “Night Market” events Friday from 7 p.m. until midnight on that cut-through piece of Bryan Avenue between Limestone and Loudon avenues. The event is free and open to the public.

Devine Carama Wind Sync and other local music acts will perform between 7 p.m. and 10 p.m., after which the Lexington Film League will show the film, Koyaanisqatsi. There will be food from Bradford BBQ, ice cream from Crank & Boom and beer from West Sixth Brewery.

NoLi CDC describes the Night Market as, “A collaborative community pop-up event inspired by the concept of temporary urbanization. This process involves changing the dynamics of a specific space to further engage the community and foster relationships between local creatives and the public.”

Whatever. Sounds like fun. I’m going.

 


New gardener restoring Shaker tradition of sustainable agriculture

July 23, 2013

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Zach Davis, 22, picks string beans in his garden at Shaker Village at Pleasant Hill. The garden is providing about 30 percent of the vegetables that will be used this year in Shaker Village’s restaurant. Photos by Tom Eblen

 

HARRODSBURG — When Zachary Davis was hired in November to grow vegetables at Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill, he took stock of what he had to work with: an antique hoe and a 200-year-old garden plot.

Actually, he had a lot more than that. Davis, 22, had a degree in sustainable agriculture and a good understanding of faith-based land stewardship. He also had bosses who saw his garden as a way to make the Shakers’ legacy relevant today.

“We want to demonstrate their principles of sustainability and how to use and care for the land, but we want to do it in a 21st-century way,” said Maynard Crossland, Shaker Village’s executive director, who was hired two years ago to bring new life and financial stability to the nonprofit property.

Most people don’t know much about the Shakers who settled in Mercer County in 1806, except that they belonged to a Christian sect that lived communally, made elegantly simple furniture and buildings, and didn’t believe in sex.

130710ShakerGarden0023The Shakers also were masters of what we now call sustainable agriculture, raising food to feed themselves and sell to neighbors, and running a large seed business before the Civil War. They were innovators and inventors, equipping their large dormitorylike homes with what were then the most modern labor-saving devices.

After decades of decline, the Shaker community disbanded in 1910. Since the 1960s, 33 Shaker buildings and 22 miles of dry stone fences on 3,000 acres have been restored and operated as a tourist attraction.

David Larson, operations vice president, has focused on improving Shaker Village’s famous restaurant. The veteran chef wanted to serve more fresh, locally grown food. So, he thought, what could be more local than a garden within sight of the dining room windows?

In recent years, the garden had largely been a living history exhibit, with a few heirloom vegetable varieties grown Shaker-style, Larson said.

“If the Shakers were here today, they wouldn’t be doing heirloom varieties,” he said. “They would be at the forefront of organic farming.”

Larson wanted to hire a skilled organic gardener, and someone who understood the Shakers’ spiritual attachment to the land and could explain it to visitors. “I called a friend at UK and he said, ‘I’ve got your man,’” Larson said. “Zach gets it.”

Davis, a Lexington native who comes from a long line of insurance salesmen, had struggled with whether to go into the Episcopal ministry or become an organic farmer. At age 12, he said he read Fatal Harvest: The Tragedy of Industrial Agriculture, a 2002 collection of essays by Wendell Berry and others.

“I got really fired up about how broken our food system is,” Davis said. “The best way to address that, for me, was to get dirt under my fingernails.”

Davis graduated last year from the University of Kentucky’s new sustainable agriculture program. He also was a fellow at UK’s Gaines Center for the Humanities. He is engaged to Emma Sleeth, an Asbury University graduate, author of the book It’s Easy Being Green and daughter of Matthew and Nancy Sleeth, founders of Lexington-based Blessed Earth, a Christian educational non-profit organization.

Davis said he couldn’t imagine a better way to begin his career than by helping Shaker Village rediscover and build on its rich heritage of sustainable agriculture.

After purchasing a greenhouse for seedlings and a tilling machine, Davis and UK classmate Polly Symons cultivated just under one acre. They are raising about 50 varieties of 25 vegetables, keeping the restaurant well supplied and distributing the surplus to employees on “dividend days.” Davis gives public tours of the garden at 3 p.m. Monday through Saturday.

When I visited Shaker Village recently, Larson was bragging about the quality of Davis’ lettuce, squash, cucumbers, peas and beans, and eager for his eight varieties of tomatoes to ripen. The restaurant’s menu is adjusted each week, depending on what the garden is producing.

“The garden has been a resounding success this summer,” Larson said. “We had to rethink the way we did things, and we wanted a young person who had a whole new set of eyes for this place. We certainly found that in Zach.”

Larson said he has bigger ideas for the restaurant next year, including a healthy children’s menu and a kitchen composting system.

Davis is planning an expanded garden. He wants to add vegetables based on what the restaurant needs “and what I think the Shakers would be doing now if they were here,” he said. “Tourists like to see the time warp, but the Shakers were much more ingenious than that.”

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Kroger on Euclid a chance for Lexington to do urban infill right

July 20, 2013

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A recent rendering of the design for the exterior of the new Kroger store on Euclid Avenue, incorporating ideas from architect Graham Pohl.  Photo provided

 

The design of a new grocery is usually of little interest beyond its neighborhood. But the Kroger reconstruction on Euclid Avenue offers some important lessons for Lexington as the city focuses more on urban infill and redevelopment.

Kroger has had this Chevy Chase grocery for decades, a suburban-style box behind a wrap-around parking lot. As the neighborhoods surrounding it have become more dense, the store has become more crowded.

While new, small markets such as Town Branch and Shorty’s have filled an important niche, this Kroger is the only supermarket close to Lexington’s increasingly popular intown neighborhoods. Residents there want more shopping options without having to drive to the suburbs.

Kroger plans to spend $19 million building a new store on the site, plus four adjacent quarter-acre lots it acquired. The grocery’s size will increase from 38,000 square feet to 65,000, although some of that new space will be basement storage. In addition to a surface lot, there will be a ramp and parking on the roof.

A larger store requires a zoning change, which has been approved by the Planning Commission and will go before Council on Aug. 13.

Kroger’s initial design was uninspiring — a plain, suburban-style box oriented toward a parking lot rather than the street, as are most buildings in that neighborhood, most of which was developed during the first four decades of the 20th century.

Architect Graham Pohl of the firm Pohl Rosa Pohl offered to donate his services to Kroger to help improve the exterior design to make it more compatible. He also wanted the store to be more pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly, since that is the way many of Kroger’s customers get there.

“My passion is good design, and I wanted a building that responded to the urban setting and looked like it had been designed, not a building that looked like an afterthought,” said Pohl, who has lived and worked in the neighborhood — and shopped at that Kroger — since 1980.

Pohl said Kroger has been very receptive to his ideas for improving the store’s design. “I have seen a real effort on their part to do the right thing,” he said.

Pohl attributes much of that to city leadership. Mayor Jim Gray has made it clear to Kroger and other developers that infill projects must be well-designed and appropriate to their surroundings.

That is the first important lesson: When city officials and residents make it clear that mediocre design is no longer good enough for Lexington, developers will respond. If a city wants design excellence, it must insist on it.

Pohl, who said he was paid nothing for his work, showed me recent versions of the Kroger design that are dramatically better than the initial ones, in both function and appearance. If Kroger follows through, the store will be better-looking, more compatible with the neighborhood and a more pleasant place to shop.

FortKrogerBut some of the store’s neighbors still aren’t happy, and they are opposing the zoning change. Driving through the neighborhood last Thursday, I saw three yellow yard signs that said, “No to Fort Kroger.”

Opponents say the new store is too big for the site and will create traffic congestion. Pohl thinks some of their fears are exaggerated, but he said city officials should continue to work with Kroger to address several issues. Those include outdoor lighting, pedestrian and cyclist safety, the addition of a bus shelter and limits on when delivery trucks can idle at the loading docks.

City officials should work with Kroger on sensible compromises to make this bigger grocery succeed. Still, it is unlikely every neighbor will be satisfied.

We say it all the time in Lexington, to the point that it has become a cliché: we need to grow up, not out, if we want to preserve our unique rural landscape from more suburban sprawl.

That kind of growth means more infill and redevelopment, and that often means increasing population density. People in Lexington have never been comfortable with increasing density, but that must change.

The Euclid Avenue Kroger project is an excellent opportunity for Lexington to learn more about good urban design and increasing density, and to figure out how to do it right.

 


Equus Run Vineyards’ success has been about much more than wine

June 17, 2013

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Cynthia Bohn started Equus Run Vineyards in Woodford County 15 years ago as a retirement business for when she was ready to end her 30-year career with IBM as a computer engineer and marketing executive. The business now makes 15 varieties of wine and has a successful event business at the 48-acre winery. Photos by Tom Eblen

 

MIDWAY — Cynthia Bohn lived all over the country, as well as in England and the Netherlands, during her 30-year career as an IBM computer engineer and executive. Collecting wine became her hobby.

So, when she began planning for a retirement career, Bohn thought it might be fun to start a winery in Kentucky, where she had grown up in Louisville and on a Hart County tobacco farm.

“It was like a hobby that became a passion that became a business,” said Bohn, whose Equus Run Vineyards just celebrated 15 years in business and is about to launch a major expansion.

Although Kentucky had the nation’s first commercial winery in 1799, there were only three wineries operating in the bourbon state when Bohn started planning her business in the mid-1990s. Now, Kentucky has 67 operating wineries, with more on the way.

“It’s a very viable business model if you run it as a business,” she said.

Bohn said that after three flat years during and after the Great Recession, her revenues were up 17 percent in 2012 and 23 percent this year.

Equus Run now produces about 9,100 cases a year of 15 varieties of wine. The grapes come from her own eight acres of vineyards, and from contract growers in Western Kentucky, Indiana, Ohio and California.

“There’s no way I could grow everything I need,” she said, noting that some grape varieties don’t do well in Kentucky’s soil and climate. Plus, having growers elsewhere is “sort of like an insurance policy” against unpredictable Kentucky weather, she said.

But Bohn has discovered that it takes more than grapes and good wine to make a successful winery of her size.

“The key thing with us is we diversified,” Bohn said as we sat on a deck outside her tasting room overlooking her vineyards — and gardens and sculptures and a putting green and an amphitheater. Coming soon: bike trails.

“We are in the hospitality and tourism industry; we just happen to sell wine,” she said. “It’s all about the experience. It’s about a day in the Bluegrass. It’s about a lifestyle, not just wine.”

In addition to the recreation facilities and places for hosting weddings, receptions and corporate events, Equus Run schedules programs where visitors can enjoy art, music and even learn to fly fish.

An equine artists’ group will be coming to the winery this summer to paint. Several “foodie” events are scheduled, including a shrimp boil and a “pizza and pinot” evening. There is a dinner theater series built around murder mysteries.

Several non-profit groups use Equus Run’s facilities for fundraisers. The winery donates the facilities and keeps only the revenues from alcohol sales, Bohn said.

“It’s been a great model,” she said. “It has worked for them and it has worked for us.”

Equus Run’s biggest annual event is this weekend: the 10th annual Francisco’s Farm Arts Festival, produced in conjunction with the Lexington Art League and Midway Renaissance. This is the third year Equus Run has hosted the regionally acclaimed arts festival, which was formerly at Midway College. Bohn expects as many as 10,000 people to attend.

She is looking for more ways to expand Equus Run, which now has 16 employees. She recently bought 10 acres across Moore’s Mill Road to add to her 38-acre property.

Until now, Bohn has been the winery’s sole owner. But she said she is partnering with local investors to build new hospitality venues and wine-production facilities to replace the ones in a former tobacco barn she has outgrown. Other future plans include finding a partner to offer regular food service.

Equus Run is surrounded by several horse farms, and Bohn said she tries to be a good neighbor by doing such things as ending concerts at 9 p.m., rather than the required 11 p.m.

“I love my neighbors; they are wonderful,” she said. “We could have easily been shoved aside. Instead, they embraced us. I think that speaks highly of the community.”

Bohn thinks businesses such as Equus Run can play a valuable role in increasing tourism in the Bluegrass, as well as just making this a more fun and interesting place to live. Personally, it is not only a good retirement business, but a lot of fun.

“You’ve got to love people, and you’ve got to love dealing with Mother Nature and her erratic weather patterns,” said Bohn, who added that tending grapes isn’t nearly as hard work as the tobacco-stripping she did as a teenager. “I very affectionately say I started with dirt and I have now retired with dirt.”

If you go

Francisco’s Farm Arts Festival

When: 10 a.m.-6 p.m. June 22, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. June 23

Where: Equus Run Vineyards, 1280 Moores Mill Rd., Midway

Admission: $10 per vehicle.

More information: Lexingtonartleague.org, Equusrunvineyards.com

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Alltech Symposium offers glimpse of the future of food production

May 27, 2013

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José Ignacio Martínez-Valero, left, shaved ham as Lucas Montero served cheese to attendees at Alltech’s annual international symposium in Lexington on Tuesday. They represent Ibericos COVAP, a line of traditional Spanish gourmet products produced by a farmers’ co-op near Córdoba, Spain. Photo by Tom Eblen

 

I spent some time last week at the Alltech Symposium, Lexington’s biggest annual international event that many people have never heard of.

Alltech, the Nicholasville-based animal health and nutrition company, has put on this flashy educational conference for 29 years as a way to strengthen relationships with its customers in 128 countries.

This year’s symposium attracted about 2,000 people from 72 nations, plus about 400 Alltech employees from around the world.

Honestly, animal nutrition is not something I would normally find very interesting. But I leave this event every year fascinated by innovative ideas.

The symposium looks at the future of food and agribusiness from the perspective of natural systems and processes, which has always been Alltech’s approach. That approach has become fashionable in recent years as consumers worry more and more about chemicals and genetically-modified organisms.

This year’s symposium featured several technologies Alltech is working on, such as producing algae for nutritional supplements.

Two years ago, Alltech bought one of the world’s largest algae-making plants, just off Interstate 64 near Winchester. Pearse Lyons, Alltech’s founder and president, said the plant is now producing 10,000 tons of algae a year and is already too small to meet the company’s needs.

Lyons thinks algae could become more popular than fish oil as a major source of docohexaenoic acid, or DHA, a popular nutritional supplement thought to slow the decline of brain function as people age. With the fish oil market now at about $1 billion, Lyons sees opportunity.

The symposium’s theme this year was “Glimpse the future in 2020.” In addition to algae, presentations and panel discussions focused on such topics as growing antibiotic-free poultry, farming at sea, finding financial rewards in reducing agriculture’s carbon footprint and learning to embrace regulation.

“Enough is enough,” the regulatory session’s thesis statement said. “If we do not regulate ourselves, the FDA or the European Union will regulate us. Learn how to embrace regulation.”

Alltech thinks successful businesses won’t just come from new ideas and technology. There are big opportunities in better marketing and distribution of high-quality traditional foods that offer nutrition and unique tastes.

My favorite booth at the symposium’s World Market trade show this year was Ibéricos COVAP, a farmers’ cooperative near Córdoba, Spain. Farmers there have for centuries been producing gourmet cured ham from free-range Ibérico pigs that grow fat on acorns from the forests of the Sierra Morena mountains.

The co-op already distributes its products in New York and Los Angeles. Now, it sees opportunity in middle America, beginning with Kentucky, where cured country ham has been a delicacy for generations.

“We are looking for big opportunities we think we have in this area,” said the co-op’s director, Emilio de León y Ponce de León.

Based on how symposium attendees were devouring delicious samples of thin-shaved ham and Spanish cheeses, Ibéricos COVAP may have some opportunities.

Alltech used to offer the symposium as a free or low-cost event for customers. In the past, Lyons said, Alltech absorbed the costs. Now, each person pays hundreds of dollars to attend.

This year’s symposium, which cost more than $1 million to produce, may come close to breaking even, Lyons said. In the future, he added, it could become a profit center. That is because Alltech’s customers find value in the symposium’s educational sessions and networking opportunities.

“What we’re striving to have is a real joint venture with customers — a real meeting of the minds that creates a win-win situation,” said Lyons, an Irish-born entrepreneur who moved to Lexington in 1980 and started Alltech in his garage. “There are huge returns for international business people willing to work together.”

Those opportunities are a big reason Alltech has been expanding its business in recent years from animal nutrition supplements to human nutrition supplements and high-quality food and drink.

The privately held company doesn’t release financial figures, but Lyons said sales this year will approach $1 billion. About 30 percent of that revenue came from acquisitions.

Lyons, who turns 69 on Aug. 3, said he expects the company to make many more acquisitions in his quest to achieve annual revenues of $4 billion in his lifetime.


Greek immigrant hopes food truck is path to successful restaurant

May 6, 2013

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At Thursday Night Live, Dave Floyd watches Ilias Pappas of the Athenian Grill food truck prepare his gyros sandwich. Pappas started his business as a food truck last September and plans to transition to a small Greek restaurant in Chevy Chase this summer.  Photos by Tom Eblen

 

Since food trucks and stands started popping up in Lexington a few years ago, they have become popular with customers but created tension with bricks-and-mortar restaurants.

Some restaurant owners have fought efforts to make food trucks more accessible, saying their low overhead makes them unfair competition. So far, the city has only permitted them to operate on private property or at special events.

Council member Shevawn Akers chairs a food truck ordinance work group, which has streamlined the permitting process. Last week, the group came up with a proposal that council should approve. It would allow a pilot project to let food trucks operate in designated downtown parking areas.

What will be interesting to see is how many food truck operators go on to start restaurants.

Ilias Pappas, owner of the Athenian Grill food stand, is well on his way.

Pappas, 33, was born in Lamia, Greece, and emigrated to this country to attend college at Lexington Community College, the University of Kentucky and Florida International University. After working in technology in Miami for a year or two, he returned to his first love: food. He worked in several Miami restaurants.

Pappas is now renovating a former bakery on South Ashland Avenue to be his Greek restaurant and market.

Pappas is now renovating a former bakery on South Ashland Avenue to be his Greek restaurant and market.

Pappas had grown up living over a bakery and eating traditional Greek food prepared by this mother and grandmother. While attending college in Lexington, he had helped his aunt and uncle, George and Louiza Ouraniou, a welder and a chef. They also were caterers and became popular fixtures at community events over the years, serving barbecued lamb and Greek gyros.

Then tragedy struck: George Ouraniou, 71, died in a car wreck in September 2011. Pappas returned to Lexington to help his aunt. Then he moved back for good a few months later.

“I never imagined I would end up living here,” Pappas said of Lexington. “But I realized this was the place I wanted to stay.”

Pappas said his uncle had always dreamed of opening a Greek restaurant, but never did. Pappas had the same dream, and figured a food truck would be an affordable way to start.

Last September, he created Athenian Grill, a food stand serving four types of gyros, Greek salad, spinach pie, Cypriot meatballs, hummus and baklava. With help from several friends, it became a popular fixture outside Country Boys Brewing and West Sixth Brewery and at Thursday Night Live on Cheapside.

“I didn’t have a business plan; I learned on the job,” Pappas said. “The (brewery) owners have been very good to me. The exposure I got as a food trucker provided opportunities for exposure and allowed me to introduce myself to people.”

That has led to catering and event opportunities. But Pappas wants to do much more than he can do now cooking on the street and preparing things in advance in commercial kitchen space he rents in Nicholasville.

“The food truck doesn’t allow me to give people a good exposure to a traditional family-style Greek dining experience,” he said. “It’s very limited what you can do out on the street.”

So Pappas has rented the former Belle’s Bakery building in Chevy Chase — an old two-car garage set back off South Ashland Avenue between Euclid and High streets— and has begun renovations. He hopes to open the restaurant in July.

In addition to a few inside and outside tables, the non-mobile Athenian Grill will have lunch delivery and a Greek market upstairs, which can be booked for small private dinners. In addition to traditional Greek food, Pappas plans to offer some of the flavors he grew to like while working in Miami.

“Ninety percent of the menu will be things you cannot find in Lexington at the moment,” he said.

Pappas is financing the venture with his own savings, plus loans from family and friends. He also has launched a campaign on Kickstarter.com, as much to attract community involvement as financing.

“Because of my food truck, people have given me the chance to take the next step,” Pappas said. “My uncle worked very hard in the food business. I want to dedicate my restaurant to him.”

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‘Hippie’ restaurant Alfalfa celebrates 40 years of good food

April 23, 2013

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 Alfalfa Restaurant moved into the Downtown Arts Center on Main Street a decade ago, decorating its wall with the sign letters from the original location on South Limestone Street. Photo by Tom Eblen

The way restaurants come and go, this one would seem like a long shot. A group of idealistic 20-somethings with little money and no experience wanted to serve wholesome food at reasonable prices.

Short of chairs on opening day in April 1973, they offered free meals to customers who donated them.

“We had an unusual business plan at first: six partners and two menu items,” said Art Howard, one of the original partners. “I wouldn’t recommend that now.”

Alfalfa Restaurant not only survived, it became a local institution that is now one of Lexington’s oldest restaurants. Current and former customers and employees are invited to a 40th anniversary party, 4 to 10 p.m. April 28 at the current location, 141 East Main Street.

“We’ve basically tried to have fun with the place,” said Jake Gibbs, an off-and-on minority owner who started washing dishes as a graduate student in 1979 and now tries to manage Alfalfa as well as a reluctant capitalist can.

“We don’t do a huge business,” Gibbs said. “We roughly break even every year.”

Artie Howard cooks during Alfalfa's early days. Herald-Leader photo.

Artie Howard cooks during Alfalfa’s early days.

Making money was never the main goal. Alfalfa, after all, was started by what the restaurant’s website calls “hippie-type” young people with what was then a novel interest in healthy, locally produced food.

“We were pretty much ahead of our time,” said Howard, who sold his interest in Alfalfa a few years later, became a chef and, since 1995, has owned The Ketch Seafood Grill on Regency Road.

“They bought real vegetables from real local farmers before it was cool,” said Rona Roberts, a regular Alfalfa customer since 1973 who now writes the food blog Savoring Kentucky. “They have a lot of distinctive food; they’ve never given up on making everything themselves.”

When Alfalfa opened at 557 South Limestone, near the University of Kentucky, it was financed with $2,000 that Howard inherited from a grandmother and $100 or $200 kicked in by each of the other five partners, he said.

The restaurant’s name was the result of a desperate brainstorming session as opening day neared. Howard can’t remember who came up with “Alfalfa,” but he said it might have been less a reference to the forage legume than to a character from the 1930s Our Gang comedies, then in TV reruns.

Howard had been interested in starting a bakery, so he became the baker, setting a standard for fresh-baked, whole-grain bread that baker Tom Martin has kept going for the past 35 years.

Partner Leslie Bower, who had trained at Le Cordon Bleu culinary school in France, was the first head cook. (She was murdered in 1979 when she stopped in Georgia to ask directions.)

The restaurant’s most notorious employee was a cook in 1974 known as Lena Paley. Soon after she abruptly left town, Alfalfa employees recognized her on an FBI “wanted” poster as Susan Saxe, an accomplice in a 1970 Boston bank robbery in which a police officer was killed. Captured in 1975, Saxe pleaded guilty to manslaughter and was paroled in 1982.

Jake Gibbs, who manages the restaurant, began as a dishwashing graduate student in 1979.

Jake Gibbs, who manages the restaurant, began as a dishwashing graduate student in 1979.

Alfalfa left its original home a decade ago and moved into the Downtown Arts Center on Main Street. Gibbs said the restaurant is negotiating for another 10-year lease.

All of the original partners left Alfalfa long ago, and there have been several owners over the years who started as employees of the restaurant. They included Marina Ubaldi, Jeff Gitlin and Gibbs, who teaches history at Bluegrass Community and Technical College.

Jim Happ, the main owner since 2004, also is CEO of Labcon North America, a California-based manufacturer of sustainable laboratory materials. He and his wife, Betsey, met while working at Alfalfa. They named their daughter for Helen Alexander, who has been a cook there for 25 years.

Like previous owners, Happ and Gibbs have tried to maintain the quality and variety of Alfalfa’s health-conscious food, as well as the family atmosphere for both customers and employees.

“Alfalfa’s is such a nice family,” said Lexington artist John Lackey. He and his wife, Jenny, both worked at the restaurant, as did their son, Quinn, 21. Their younger son, Dylan, 17, works there now.

“It’s a labor of love,” Lackey said of Alfalfa. “It’s just such a great, interesting collection of people; the right balance of service and insanity.”

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Alfalfa staff members photographed in 1974, the year after the restaurant opened. Among the owners at the time were, left to right, Marina McCulloch (wearing hat), Leslie Bower (front left in dark shirt), Artie Howard (tallest in back,  with beard), Lucia Walls (front right in dark shirt) and Ann “Panny” Hobson (right center).  Photo by Guy Mendes