Two Lexington food entrepreneurs share their secrets to success

July 19, 2015

When I first wrote about Ilias Pappas and Lesme Romero several years ago, they had a lot in common. Both were 30-something immigrants, former chefs and new food entrepreneurs with a passion to succeed.

Since then, their businesses have grown well beyond expectations. Both recently opened new restaurants and have more projects in mind.

So I thought this would be a good time to check back with them and ask what advice they have for other food entrepreneurs. As it turns out, their advice has a lot in common, too.

Many people dream of opening a restaurant or food business. But it is a lot harder than it looks. Many open and most of them close, despite their owners’ passion and hard work. How have these guys succeeded when so many others have failed?

First, a little about them.

Ilias Pappas of Athenian Grill started with a food truck and how owns two restaurants, a catering business and manages two Kroger food kiosks and will soon be opening the cafe at Ashland, The Henry Clay Estate. Photo by Tom Eblen

Ilias Pappas of Athenian Grill started with a food truck and how owns two restaurants, a catering business and manages two Kroger food kiosks and will soon be opening the cafe at Ashland, The Henry Clay Estate. Photo by Tom Eblen

Pappas, 35, came to Lexington from Lamia, Greece, to attend college. After transferring to Florida International University, he worked in several Miami restaurants. His aunt and uncle, George and Louiza Ouraniou, lived in Lexington, and they made and sold Greek food on the side.

When his uncle was killed in a car wreck in 2011, Pappas moved back to Lexington to help his aunt. The next year, he started the Athenian Grill food cart, serving homemade Greek specialties at local brewpubs and Thursday Night Live.

Pappas was part of Lexington’s first wave of food trucks. I wrote about him in May 2013, when he became one of the first to transition his cart into a sit-down restaurant. He opened Athenian Grill in what was originally a two-car garage at 313 South Ashland Ave., and it has flourished.

On May 13, Pappas added a much larger Athenian Grill restaurant at 115 North Locust Hill Drive. He bought La Petite Creperie to open kiosks at two new Kroger stores on Euclid Avenue and, this week, in Versailles.

He continues to do a lot of catering, as well as an occasional food truck gig for the brewpubs that helped him get started. He now has about 30 employees, most of them full-time.

In addition, Pappas has agreed to open a 600-square-foot Greek rotisserie food stand late next year in the Summit shopping center under construction at Nicholasville Road and Man O’ War Boulevard. And he said he has been approached by franchisers interested in taking his concepts to other cities in the region.

Lesme Romero began Lexington Pasta with his business partner, Reinaldo Gonzalez, in a former one-car garage on North Limestone Street. After building a large wholesale business in fresh pasta, Romero recently opened Pasta Garage, a fresh fast-food Italian concept they hope to expand. Photo by Tom Eblen

Lesme Romero began Lexington Pasta with his business partner, Reinaldo Gonzalez, in a former one-car garage on North Limestone Street. After building a large wholesale business in fresh pasta, Romero recently opened Pasta Garage, a fresh fast-food Italian concept they hope to expand. Photo by Tom Eblen

Like Pappas, Romero and his business partner, Reinaldo Gonzalez, started their business in a former garage.

Both had grown up in South America with Spanish fathers and Italian mothers. They became friends at college in Cleveland and worked in Italian restaurants there. Gonzales eventually became an industrial engineer in Lexington, while Romero worked in finance in Florida.

Through their shared love of fresh pasta, they saw a business opportunity. They started Lexington Pasta in a small garage at 227 North Limestone in 2009, selling fresh pasta there, at the Lexington Farmers’ Market, in markets and restaurants.

In addition to retail sales, they developed a regional wholesale pasta business and outgrew the garage. So they leased an 8,000-square-food building at 962 Delaware Ave. in 2013 and renovated it into a production kitchen with room for growth.

The low profit margins of wholesale pasta led them to decide to create a restaurant concept. Three weeks ago, Romero, who now manages the business, opened Pasta Garage in the front of the building.

The fast-casual concept serves made-to-order pasta bowls for lunch six days a week. Business has been so good, he already is looking to expand the dining room and add evening and Sunday hours.

Future plans call for Pasta Garages in the Hamburg and Beaumont areas, as well as behind the original Limestone garage, which they plan to convert into an Italian market later this year. They also have been approached by regional franchisers. Lexington Pasta now has five employees.

Pappas and Romero say several things contributed to their success:

Their food concepts were new to Lexington, and their timing was right. They started small and grew in phases by providing high-quality food with fresh ingredients and building relationships with business partners, customers and peers.

Both businesses developed a close partnership with Alt32, a Lexington architecture and design firm that created their restaurant interiors.

Romero and Pappas have become friends and advisers to each other. They also are part of a network of local food entrepreneurs who share ideas and learn from one another.

Both men say they are their own worst critics. They listen to customers and are constantly looking for ways to improve. They value customer relationships more than short-term sales. Those relationships contributed to successful online fundraising drives to help them raise expansion capital.

“Every customer needs to understand you are there for them,” Pappas said, adding that the same goes for employees. “I want to hire people who know that if this business does well, they will do well.”

Both Romero and Pappas work constantly, but they know they can’t do it forever. That is why they hire good people and trust them.

Pappas, who married June 20, said delegating responsibility isn’t just about work-life balance; it is about being smarter in business. “You should not be making important decisions at 1 a.m. when you’re exhausted and beat-up,” he said.

Romero and Pappas said their work is more about self-fulfillment than money. But successful food entrepreneurs must love both food and business — one or the other isn’t enough. And they must stay focused on achieving their vision.

“You will have your ups and downs,” Romero said. “Just make sure you work for what you believe in.”


With market opening, National Provisions fulfills ambitious plan

May 31, 2015
National Provisions owners Andrea Sims and Krim Boughalem, who are married, pose in their new market space, which opened May 21 and completed the buildout of their facility, which also includes a bakery, restaurant and beer hall. Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

National Provisions owners Andrea Sims and Krim Boughalem, who are married, pose in their new market space, which opened May 21 and completed the buildout of their facility, which also includes a bakery, restaurant and beer hall. Photos by Tom Eblen

 

When Krim Boughalem and Andrea Sims opened National Provisions in a former soft-drink bottling plant at the corner of National and Walton avenues in late 2013, it was a gamble.

Would Lexington learn to love — and pay a bit more for — the kind of fresh, European-style food that Boughalem grew up with in France?

The married couple thought so. Their first two Lexington ventures, Wine + Market on Jefferson Street, which they sold, and the Table Three Ten restaurant on Short Street, which they still own, were successful.

But National Provisions was a much bigger play: 16,000 square feet of beautifully renovated space that now includes a bakery, brasserie-style restaurant, Beer Hall, wine shop and a large market with fresh, locally produced food and delicacies flown in from around the world.

The market, the last phase of the project, opened May 21. The couple said that, as with each of the previous phases, business already has exceeded their expectations.

“It’s been pretty constantly busy,” Sims said. “There has been a lot of traffic, and I think it helps that you can see the lighted cases through the window at night.”

The market has fresh produce and specialty cuts of meat. The cheese counter has more than 100 varieties, many imported from Europe. There is a section of charcuterie (prepared meats) and a section of ready-to-eat salads, sandwiches and meals for taking home, which have been especially popular.

There is a case of pastries from the bakery in the next room, and a selection of Kentucky products such as Weisenberger Mill flours and corn meal. A seafood section and oyster bar will be the last part of the market to open, in September.

The center of the market has long, tall marble tables where customers can sit or stand to casually eat food bought at the market counters.

One side door of the market leads to the bakery; another to the brasserie. The back opens into the Beer Hall. “With everything open now, the place really breathes well,” Sims said.

Boughalem, 49, is the food expert, having learned the restaurant business in New York and London. Sims, 46, a Lexington native, trained as an artist in New York and France.

National Provisions’ interior spaces reflect Sims’ sophisticated design skills.

The former industrial building has been transformed into a variety of spaces that are both rustically elegant and comfortable. The idea, Sims said, is to not just serve and sell good food and drink, but to create a memorable experience customers will want to repeat regularly.

“That’s what it’s all about, really,” she said. “You walk in the place and you just want to be there.”

Because National Provisions is located near downtown, just off Winchester Road near where it becomes Midland Avenue, it gets a lot of passing traffic. The couple said their biggest surprise has been the enthusiastic support of residents in the nearby neighborhoods of Mentelle, Bell Court and Kenwick.

“It’s a much more committed clientele than we had at Wine + Market,” Sims said. “People have been so excited each time another thing opened.”

Part of that may be because National Provisions is the flagship of Walker Properties’ mixed-use redevelopment of the National Avenue corridor, which last week was renamed Warehouse Block. It has received a lot of favorable publicity, including in The New York Times, which cited it as a good example of urban redevelopment.

One challenge National Provisions has faced is educating customers that they’re paying more because the food is fresher and of higher quality than they may be accustomed to.

“That is a challenge, but I don’t think it’s because they don’t understand,” Boughalem said. “They’ve just never seen it. That’s not the way American markets work anymore.”

Educating suppliers is a challenge, too. Meat processors aren’t used to the European cuts Boughalem wants. For example, he said, American butchers usually produce about 34 different cuts from a cow; in France, there are 92 cuts.

“People are used to seeing meat wrapped in plastic,” he said. “We’re going to show people what meat should look like. Our goal has always been to expand big enough to have our own full-time butcher and fishmonger.”

Added Sims: “What we’d really like is our own full-time farm.”

National Provisions co-owner Krim Boughalem prepares baked goods in the bakery, National Boulangerie, which was the first section of the complex to open at the corner of National and Walton avenues in December 2013. Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

Boughalem prepares baked goods in the bakery, National Boulangerie.

National Provisions co-owner Andrea Sims helps a customer select cheese at the new market, which carries more than 100 kinds, many from Europe.. Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

Sims helps a customer select cheese at the new market.

National Provisions began in December 2013 with a bakery. The new market space sells all kinds of food, including the baked goods. Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

National Provisions began in December 2013 with a bakery.

National Provisions co-owner Andrea Sims walks through the Beer Hall in the food complex at National and Walton Avenues, which also includes a restaurant, bakery and now and international fine food market. Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

Sims walks through the Beer Hall.

National Provisions' market, at left, opened May 21, the last piece of the food complex at National and Walton avenues, which also includes a bakery, restaurant and beer hall. In addition to international delicacies, the owners are stocking as much locally produced food as they can. Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

In addition to international delicacies, the market stocks a lot of locally produced food.

National Provisions' market, at left, opened May 21, the last piece of the food complex at National and Walton avenues, which also includes a bakery, restaurant and beer hall. In addition to international delicacies, the owners are stocking as much locally produced food as they can. Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

National Provisions’ market, at left, opened May 21, the last piece of the food complex.


Hunting agate in Estill County ahead of this weekend’s big festival

April 25, 2015

150421Agate-TE0064Cindy Striley of Cincinnati, left, examined a rock she found along Station Camp Creek while hunting for agate. James Flynn, right, who led the hunt, discussed another specimen with Richard and Linda Schlabach of Nashville, Tenn. Back left is Jerry Parton of Mount Pleasant, Iowa. People from more than a dozen states went on agate hunts last week leading up to this weekend’s 25th annual Mountain Mushroom Festival in Irvine. Photo by Tom Eblen 

 

IRVINE — Jerry Parton waded slowly down Station Camp Creek, scanning the rocky bottom beneath shallow riffles.

He carried a plastic bucket in one hand and a three-pronged rake in the other, using it to turn over stones now and then. Parton bent down, picked up one and rolled it in his hand. Then he shook his head.

“It’s just a piece of hamburger,” he said, referring to a round, ridged rock that looks like Kentucky agate but isn’t. “I always have high hopes for those.”

Parton, who lives in Mount Pleasant, Iowa, was part of a record crowd of 150 rock hounds from 13 states who came to Estill County last week for three guided hunts before the Kentucky Agate, Rock Gem & Jewelry Show.

The show is part of the Mountain Mushroom Festival, which began Friday and continues through Sunday. This is the 25th year Irvine has celebrated the tasty morel mushrooms that grow wild in the surrounding hills and the eighth year the festival also has showcased rare Kentucky agate.

Other events include a mushroom market and cooking demonstrations, car and craft shows, a beauty pageant, the Fungus 5k Run and the Speedy Spore River Run. Last year’s festival brought 20,000 people to this town of 2,400.

150421Agate-TE0003“These are things that make us unique, and we want people to see what a nice community we have here,” said Francine Bonny, the festival’s chairwoman. “We’re salt-of-the-earth people.”

Kentucky agate is found only in Estill and parts of five adjacent counties: Madison, Lee, Rockcastle, Jackson and Powell. Spring is the best time to find it. Heavy rains tend to wash chunks out of underground bedrock formations into creek beds freshly cleared of algae.

The General Assembly declared agate the state rock in 2000, even though it is mineral quartz and technically not a rock. (Legislators struggle with science. They also declared coal the state mineral, even though it is a rock and not a mineral.)

Geologists think Kentucky agate was formed as part of the Borden layer during the Mississippian period, about 350 million years ago.

Agate stones appear rather ordinary on the outside. When broken open, they look like translucent glass with irregular, concentric bands combining red, orange, yellow, black and gray. The coloration is caused by various chemical impurities.

Collectors often use rock saws to cut agate into slices. They then polish them for display or use in decorative items such as jewelry or bookends.

Rondle Lee was giving away pieces of unpolished agate last Tuesday morning to people who signed up for one of the festival’s three official hunts. Lee wanted everyone to know what they were looking for, because locals say the stretch of creek on his property contains some of the finest agate in Kentucky.

James Flynn of Irvine, who has been hunting agate for 35 years, led the group on a one-mile hike to the creek, followed by a long wade upstream.

Bright sunshine made it a good day for hunting, Flynn said, because the agate’s coloring would stand out better from limestone and sandstone. Hunters tried to be choosey: whatever they put in their bucket or backpack had to be worth carrying around all day.

“Until about the 1960s, nobody knew this agate was here,” Flynn said. “A lot of people come and hunt now. I’ve gone many a day and not found a piece. Other days, I’ve found a pack full.”

Dan Newbauer of Apple Valley, Minn., came to hunt last April and enjoyed it so much he returned this year. Others, such as Esta Helms of Columbia, Mo., and Richard and Linda Schlabach of Nashville came after hearing about it from other members of their rock hound clubs.

“It’s just a totally different kind of agate,” said hunter Chip Burnett, a retiree from Killeen, Texas, who collects rocks, makes jewelry and has sold his wares at the Irvine show for four years.

“If you want some of this stuff, this is where you have to come,” he said. “But it’s beautiful country with a lot of friendly people.”

Click on each image to see larger photo and read caption:


Heirloom seed sale will help take mind off winter, feed neighbors

February 17, 2015

Looking for ways to cope with a foot of snow, single-digit temperatures and the virtual shutdown of Kentucky? Try sitting back, pouring a cup of coffee and planning your spring garden.

Then, when you have it all planned, make plans go to Woodland Christian Church on Feb. 28 for Glean KY’s seventh annual heirloom seed sale.

seedsaleThe sale is from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the church, 530 East High Street, across from Woodland Park. There will be seeds for a wide variety of vegetables and herbs — most of which you can’t buy at a big-box store.

“There’s a real market for these heirloom seeds, and I think we have just scratched the surface of that,” said Erica Horn, an attorney and accountant who helped start Glean KY and is its volunteer president. “It’s almost like a backyard gardener’s expo.”

Stephanie Wooten, Glean KY’s executive director and its only full-time employee, said the sale will offer information as well as seeds.

“We just finished a really great seed catalog that has all the instructions you need,” she said. “And we hope to have some experts at the sale so that as you are making your purchase, you can ask questions.”

The sale is the biggest annual fundraiser for Glean KY, formerly known as Faith Feeds, which for nearly five years has collected food that might otherwise have gone to waste and made it available to poor people.

Last year, Glean KY’s more than 300 volunteers collected nearly 270,000 pounds of surplus fruit and vegetables. The produce was redistributed through more than 50 Central Kentucky charities and organizations.

“We fill the gap by doing the labor to pick up that excess and get it to folks who distribute it to people who need it,” Horn said.

Glean KY began as Faith Feeds in March 2010. It was the brainchild of John Walker, an avid gardener who grew more food than he and his neighbors could use. He knew that there were many hungry people in Lexington, and he had heard of gleaning organizations elsewhere that tried to match surplus food with need.

photoVolunteers make regular stops at food stores to pick up produce and packaged foods nearing their sales-expiration date. The biggest suppliers include Costco Wholesale, Good Foods Co-op and Whole Foods Market.

During the growing season, volunteers also collect surplus produce from the Lexington and Bluegrass farmers markets, the University of Kentucky’s South Farm and Reed Valley Orchard near Paris.

That food is then taken to agencies including the Catholic Action Center, Nathaniel Mission and First Presbyterian Church that distribute food or meals to people in need.

Horn recalled the day after Thanksgiving last year when she picked up about 25 prepared vegetable trays that Costco had left over.

“I dropped them off at the Catholic Action Center, and when I was leaving the building, I could hear them in the kitchen roaring with excitement,” she said.

“I’ve been privileged to be involved with a lot of groups,” Horn said. “But I’ve never done anything that fulfills me personally as much as this group does.”

Most of Glean KY’s money comes from individual donations, which have grown from $2,000 in 2010 to about $50,000 last year. Other support has come from grants and fundraising events such as the heirloom seed sale.

Last November, the organization bought a van to help transport food with grants from the Honorable Order of Kentucky Colonels and Beaumont Presbyterian Church.

Another successful distribution network for Glean KY food is Christian and Tanya Torp’s home in Lexington’s East End neighborhood. For the past four years, they have picked up surplus from Whole Foods each Friday, and from Bluegrass Farmers Market each Saturday during the growing season.

The food is distributed to 20 to 40 people in their neighborhood, including several elderly and shut-in residents. Christian Torp, a lawyer who is on Glean KY’s board, also teaches classes for his neighbors in canning and food preservation.

The Torps hope to train other volunteers to do the same thing in their own neighborhoods. (Those interested in that or other volunteer opportunities can contact the organization at Gleanky.org.)

“It’s not just a handout thing,” Torp said. “Our point in doing this is to build community. It’s a beautiful representation of being neighbors.”


Lexington starting to see the benefits of urban redevelopment

January 25, 2015

krogerThe new Euclid Avenue Kroger. Photo by Mark Cornelison

 

It was a great week for “infill and redevelopment,” the popular Lexington catchphrase that is easier to say than do.

First, The New York Times made my little neighborhood look positively hip.

A Travel section story told how Walker Properties and other entrepreneurs are transforming National Avenue, a once-seedy collection of industrial buildings, into “the kind of walkable, shoppable district that is not common in a Southern city of this size.”

The Times made special note of National Provisions, a sophisticated food and drink complex that Lexington native Andrea Sims and her French husband, Krim Boughalem, created in a vacant soft-drink bottling plant.

Lexington often gets press for basketball, horses and bourbon. (And donuts; last year, the Times featured another of my neighborhood’s culinary treasures, Spalding’s Bakery.) But seeing the national media hold up this city as a model for urban revitalization may be a first.

The news got even better Thursday, when Kroger opened its new Euclid Avenue store. It is the best-looking Kroger I have ever seen, and a departure from the suburban big-box model that dominates the grocery industry.

Tailored to its increasingly urban setting, the building welcomes pedestrians and cyclists as well as people arriving in cars. With limited space for a parking lot, Kroger hid more parking on the roof, easily accessible via escalators and elevators.

Although it is almost three times larger than the suburban-style box it replaced, the building minimizes its mass and respects the street. There is a lot of glass, chrome and natural light. The walls have murals by local artists. The extensive grocery selection includes two locally owned restaurant food carts, another first for Kroger.

Neither National Avenue nor the new Kroger happened by accident. They were the result of good planning, hard work, community engagement and leadership by city officials and businesspeople.

Much like the owners of the Bread Box on West Sixth Street, developer Greg Walker has a community-focused vision for National Avenue, and he has found local business and non-profit tenants who share that vision.

Walker worked with city planners on mixed-use zoning that emulates the way cities used to be. You know, before mid-20th century planning philosophies sucked the life out of cities, making them better places for cars than people.

National Avenue’s success also has been made possible by renewal of the nearby Mentelle, Kenwick and Bell Court neighborhoods. They had fallen out of fashion and into decline after Lexington’s suburban building boom began in the 1950s.

Recently, though, these neighborhoods have become hot properties. They’re likely to get hotter, especially since Niche.com, a national online ranking company, last week named Ashland Elementary as the best public primary school in Kentucky.

People once again appreciate these neighborhoods’ walkability and close proximity to downtown, the style and craftsmanship of their old houses and the sociability of front porches, small parks and neighborhood stores and restaurants.

The new Kroger responds well to its neighborhood, which has been getting denser both because of the popularity of in-town living and growth of the nearby University of Kentucky campus.

But without good leadership and community engagement, the new store wouldn’t have turned out nearly as well.

When the grocer first announced plans to replace the Euclid Avenue store, nearby residents pushed back against a “Fort Kroger” big box. Mayor Jim Gray made it clear that a well-designed, urban-style store would be required. As Kroger spokesman Tim McGurk put it, “Mayor Gray gave us good advice throughout the process.”

Gray put Kroger in touch with Lexington architect Graham Pohl, who worked with the company to significantly improve the new store’s design. The effort has paid off, both for the city and for Kroger.

“Based on customer reaction, I can see us repeating” such things as the murals and food carts at other Kroger stores, McGurk said. “It really puts a sense of the local community in the store.”

Lexington leaders like to talk about infill and redevelopment because they see it as the best way to preserve precious farmland. But it is more than that.

Yes, infill and redevelopment can be harder, more complicated and more expensive than green-field suburban development. It often requires creative zoning and financing. It takes leadership and risk. It demands a commitment to excellence, as well as communication with existing neighborhood residents who may fear increasing population density, traffic or simply change.

But these two examples, and others in places such as North Limestone Street, Davis Bottom and Alexandria Drive, show that infill and redevelopment is not just the right thing to do. It can be the best thing to do.


Shop struggles with constant downtown construction projects

November 30, 2014

141124Failte0013At her first location, Liza Hendley Betz’s Fáilte Irish Imports faced the long Limestone reconstruction project. Now in the red building with McCarthy’s Irish Bar, it is surrounded by CentrePointe excavation and renovation of the 21C Museum Hotel. Photos by Tom Eblen

 

As she prepares to celebrate the 13th anniversary of opening Fáilte Irish Imports, Dublin native Liza Hendley Betz feels as if the luck of the Irish has been replaced by the curse of downtown redevelopment.

For the first eight years after she opened her shop in 2001, Hendley’s business prospered on South Limestone, just off the corner of High Street.

Betz’s bread and butter was selling Irish bread and butter — plus sausages, Bewley’s tea, Batchelor’s canned beans, Cadbury’s sweets and other comfort food from home to the Emerald Isle’s large expatriate community in Central Kentucky. She also did a good business in Irish tweeds, Celtic jewelry and souvenirs.

Then, with two weeks’ warning, South Limestone was shut down for 11 months for a major street reconstruction project.

141124Failte0043Her business struggled, but she was able to move in early 2010 to her dream location: beside McCarthy’s Irish Bar on South Upper Street. But the old red-and-green building also was across the street from the stalled CentrePointe project, which was then a grassy field.

“This is where I always wanted to be,” Betz said of the close proximity to McCarthy’s, a social center for the Irish community where she used to serve drinks.

As for CentrePointe, she figured, “I’ll deal with it when it happens. It can’t be any worse than what happened before.”

Or could it? Last December, all of the street parking across from her shop was closed after CentrePointe’s developer got city permission to begin blasting and excavation.

The street was a noisy, dusty mess for most of this year as the CentrePointe block was converted into a 40-foot limestone pit. Then everything stopped. Developer Dudley Webb is now trying to raise money to build an underground garage.

To make matters worse, the block of North Upper Street above Fáilte has been closed for months so the old First National Bank Building can be renovated into 21C Museum Hotel.

“This used to be a busy intersection,” she said. “You can go out here now and do a dance in the middle of the street. It’s hard these days to keep a business going with all this around you.”

Betz has rented a single parking space beside her shop, which has made it more convenient for customers to stop in for quick purchases.

Like many retailers, Fáilte’s prime season is between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, not just for gift items but because Irish Americans want food from home for their holiday celebrations.

On Dec. 12, the shop will celebrate its 13th anniversary with a 10 percent off sale, plus a party with Guinness beer, souvenir glasses and Irish music next door at McCarthy’s between 7 and 9 p.m.

Betz said she needs a big December, although her holiday season will extend to St. Patrick’s Day on March 17. She recently became a United States citizen, so she also is thinking about something special for next July 4 — if she can keep the doors open that long.

“It’s the worst time we’ve ever had,” said Betz, whose husband is a horse veterinarian. She minds the shop while caring for their two small children.

Like any good entrepreneur, Betz has been looking for ways to broaden her business beyond food and gifts. She has organized annual tours of Ireland, and she’s looking to use her Irish expertise to grow the travel business. She also is thinking about clearing some space in the tiny shop for a couple of tables to serve tea.

“I know I need to change things up a bit,” she said. “But I’m afraid to put money into anything right now.”

Betz also knows that, in the long run, she will have a great location when 21C opens and whatever ends up being built at CentrePointe is finished. But, as the famous saying goes, people don’t eat in the long run.

“I’m in the middle of downtown,” she said. “Who would think this is a bad location?”


New program allows restaurant patrons to feed hungry neighbors

November 26, 2014

Megan Moore was having lunch with friends from work last year at a new north Lexington restaurant when she noticed neighborhood residents walking by. She realized that many of them probably couldn’t afford her meal.

“I just couldn’t shake the fact that I love that these local restaurants have come into our neighborhoods,” Moore said. “And wouldn’t it be cool if people in this neighborhood could actually eat here?”

On her way out, Moore bought a gift certificate and asked restaurant employees to use it to feed anyone who walked in looking hungry but couldn’t pay. She did the same thing a few days later at North Lime Coffee & Donuts, near her home in the Castlewood neighborhood.

Moore, training and development director at KVC Behavioral HealthCare Kentucky, started wondering how she could make it easier for others to do the same thing.

So a few months later, when she was accepted into Leadership Lexington, an annual development program run by Commerce Lexington, she suggested a service project built around a concept she called Nourish Your Neighborhood. Others liked the idea, and it became one of four service projects undertaken by this year’s class.

141124Nourish0001Moore and her 12 project team members launched Nourish Your Neighborhood on Nov. 21 at Thai & Mighty Noodle Bowls, a restaurant owned by team member Toa Green. Thai & Mighty donated 20 percent of that day’s sales, raising more than $400 to get the project started.

Team members hope to recruit other restaurants to join in time for the next Nourish Your Neighborhood day on Dec. 16. More information, go to Nourishyourneighborhood.com.

“Our hope is to have different avenues for restaurants to participate, depending on what they want to do,” she said.

Here is how Moore hopes the program will work: Participating restaurants will come up with a way for them or their customers to donate money, most of which will be used to buy gift cards to that restaurant. The gift cards will be distributed to families in need as identified by the family resource centers in local public schools.

North Lime Coffee & Donuts also signed on. It has created a special doughnut and is donating half the proceeds from its sale to Nourishing Your Neighborhood.

Anyone can make tax-deductible donations to the program through the non-profit Blue Grass Community Foundation: Bluegrass.kimbia.com/leadershiplex.

“It’s basically restaurants creating the opportunity for patrons to donate and then connecting with people in the neighborhood who are in need,” Moore said. “And for me, it’s also about supporting our local restaurants.”

The group has made arrangements with Lexington Traditional Magnet School to be a partner and plans to enlist other Fayette County public schools.

Moore thinks the program could be especially valuable when schools are out for snow days, because many poor children rely on schools for two good meals a day. If they had a gift card to a restaurant within walking distance of their house, it could make a big difference.

The team also plans to partner with and give some of the money to other local organizations working to feed hungry people.

“There are so many incredible organizations in Lexington that are making a huge difference: God’s Pantry, Seedleaf, local churches,” she said. “We aren’t trying to take that over. Nourish Your Neighborhood is just a way to join in that effort and help them.”

The team members will graduate from Leadership Lexington in June, but they already are planning to form a permanent organization with nonprofit status to continue the work.

“We hope to make this a lasting, sustainable effort that could be translated to any community anywhere,” Moore said.

“I believe that in Lexington we have a very kind, generous, benevolent community.” There are people in our community who do really awesome things for other people. This is about connecting those people with people in need.”


Chevy Chase entrepreneurs plan Small Business Saturday event

November 23, 2014

141120ChevyChase-TE0044High Street Fly, a clothing boutique, is one of several new shops in Chevy Chase. Below, Danielle Montague, owner of MonTea specialty tea shop, helped organize the area’s Small Business Saturday event on Nov. 29. Photos by Tom Eblen

 

The holiday shopping frenzy begins this week, and local business owners want you to remember Small Business Saturday between Black Friday and Cyber Monday.

This day is about supporting locally owned businesses so more of your money stays in your community. It is about finding goods and services you never find in big-box stores. And it is about helping to keep your town unique and interesting, rather than letting it become just another generic link in the national retail chains.

One of Central Kentucky’s biggest Small Business Saturday events Nov. 29 is being planned by the Chevy Chase Business Owners Association. While some of its activities will last all day, most will be between 4 p.m. and 7 p.m.

Participating shops will have refreshments and a “candy-cane pull” for discount coupons at other neighborhood stores. The association also is working with American Express, which offers a special discount through its Small Business Saturday program. (More information: Americanexpress.com.)

141119ChevyChase-TE0021Chevy Chase merchants are organizing a coat drive for Lexington Rescue Mission and a store window-decorating contest in which customers can vote. Free carriage rides will be offered in front of John’s New Classic Shoes on South Ashland Avenue.

“Santa will be making visits, and we’re working on carolers,” said Danielle Montague, an association leader and owner of MonTea, a specialty tea shop.

Chevy Chase was built between the 1920s and 1960s on land that had been part of statesman Henry Clay’s Ashland estate. Developer Henry Clay Simpson named the area for the Maryland golf club, where he was a member. One of Lexington’s first “suburban” shopping districts was built to serve the neighborhood.

“We were the original Hamburg,” Montague said with a smile. “We have just about everything here, and it’s walkable.”

The Chevy Chase business district has had a tough year, with months of reconstruction on Euclid Avenue and controversy over a rowdy bar the city shut down in September. But there has been a lot of good news, too.

The business district has been gaining popularity, as a variety of stores, including The Morris Book Shop, Worlds Apart and Donut Days, came in from the suburbs to join longtime businesses such as Farmer’s Jewelers and Chevy Chase Hardware. Several new stores have opened this year, including two in the past few weeks.

Ann-Michael Rawlings, who has operated Calypso Boutique in the Woodland Triangle for seven years, was at Morris buying a book this summer when she noticed the space beside Chevy Chase Hardware was for rent.

She quickly negotiated a lease, renovated it and opened her second boutique, High Street Fly, which specializes in local-themed T-shirts and vintage cowboy boots.

“I love the convenience of the neighborhood,” Rawlings said. “With the hardware store next door, even a lot of guys come in.”

Online retailer C.C. Prep Clothing & Accessories is owned by Atlantans, but when they chose Lexington as the location for their second store (after Charlottesville, Va.), they wanted to be in Chevy Chase.

“We didn’t really look anywhere else,” said manager Amanda Caldwell, who opened the store Nov. 14. “It’s great to be in an area where they support small businesses.”

Melissa Mautz has certainly found that to be true since opening the Pet Wants store in February. It sells fresh, regionally made dog and cat food, GMO-free chicken feed and American-made pet accessories.

“I knew I wanted to be in Chevy Chase, and business has been awesome,” she said. “We like being a part of this community.”

But like most retailers, Chevy Chase’s business owners know that the holiday season can make or break their year. “We rely heavily on it,” Montague said. “You can make your entire year’s rent in a month.”

Gary Doernberg, who opened Corner Wines five years ago in a tiny space that originally was a 1930s gas station, agrees. His shop specializes in low-priced wine lots from top vineyards, and this is high season for entertaining and gift-giving. But he has found Chevy Chase to be a great place to do business year-around.

“I’ve always loved this location,” Doernberg said. “I’ve been in the wine business, wholesale or retail, for 40 years. This is not the most money I’ve ever made, but it’s the most fun I’ve ever had.”

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Montessori school renovates 1840s home with a rich history

November 15, 2014

141110Montessori0099Calleigh Kolasa, 13, left, Maya Pemble, 12, top right, and Gus Glasscock, 13, trim blackberry bushes outside Providence Montessori Middle School, now located in an 1840s house that for 119 years was the Florence Crittenton Home for unwed mothers. The school uses agriculture to teach everything from science to entrepreneurship. Photos by Tom Eblen

When the House of Mercy opened in 1894, the secluded old home at 519 West Fourth Street seemed like a good place to help “fallen” women. It was in an out-of-the-way part of town, near what was then called the Eastern Kentucky Lunatic Asylum.

What became the Florence Crittenton Home did a lot to help pregnant girls and young mothers with infants for 119 years until last November, when changing state social-work policies forced it to close for lack of funds.

Over the past couple of years, that out-of-the-way neighborhood has been experiencing a rebirth, with a heavy emphasis on education.

The former site of what is now called Eastern State Hospital is becoming the campus of Bluegrass Community and Technical College. Transylvania University has turned an old industrial strip into an athletics complex.

So it is fitting that the old House of Mercy, a handsome brick home that dates to around the 1840s, has been beautifully transformed for a new life as Providence Montessori Middle School.

The school recently completed an extensive renovation, accomplished quickly so fall-term classes could begin. The result will be on display from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday during a public open house. The presidents of Transylvania and BCTC are scheduled to attend.

“This summer was a blur,” said Vivian Langefeld, the Montessori school’s director. “We worked day and night.”

Despite a higher offer from Transylvania, the Florence Crittenton Home board last March sold the 2.5-acre property to the Montessori school for $400,100 — well below market value — to make sure the historic structure wasn’t demolished.

With a combination of donations, fundraising and loans, the school did an extensive renovation led by Matthew Brooks, a principal in the Lexington architecture firm Alt32, and Chip Crawford and Drew McLellan of Crawford Builders. Their work recently earned a Community Preservation Award from the Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation.

“It would have been a shame to have lost this place,” Langefeld said.

In addition to the tight schedule, Brooks said the biggest challenge was opening up space and light in the building, which had been added to three times since the late 1800s, without compromising structural integrity. The school’s requirement for big, open spaces was much different from the many small rooms the Crittenton Home needed.

Old carpets were pulled up and hardwood floors, including many of the original poplar planks, were restored. Original fireplaces were kept and structural brick was exposed on many interior walls to add to the charm.

Alt32’s staff also designed and built the school’s furniture and lockers from birch plywood, using a high-tech router capable of precisely replicating intricate shapes.

Brooks had a special interest in the project: his daughter will be a student there next year. He said the light-filled space now reminds him of Lexington’s original Montessori school in the St. Peter Claver Catholic Church Parish Hall down the street, where he attended kindergarten in 1972. (In another bit of neighborhood improvement, the church is now restoring and building an addition to that hall.)

In Montessori schools, children learn by doing in an environment with a lot of freedom and self-direction. This school, which has 38 students in 7th and 8th grades, uses small-scale urban agriculture as a vehicle for teaching everything from science to entrepreneurship.

Langefeld said the next step will be to fill the campus grounds with vegetable gardens, rain gardens, berry bushes and fruit trees. Chicken coops and beehives will be added in the spring so students can care for them and sell the eggs and honey.

“We do an entrepreneurial program where they all learn about supply and demand, profit and loss and so forth,” she said.

The house came with a good commercial kitchen, which students use for baking products to sell and fixing their own lunch once a week. A large room on the back will be turned into a shop with woodworking tools.

The school also hopes to develop cooperative programs with Transylvania and BCTC, and to engage residents and businesses in the surrounding neighborhood.

“Montessori’s vision for the adolescent was a non-institutional setting,” Langefeld said. “So this is perfect for that kind of environment, where it feels like they are more a part of a community.”

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New book: diabetes epidemic should be treated like one

November 11, 2014

Diabetes is often called an epidemic, and no wonder. Over the past half-century, the disease has exploded.

In 1958, fewer than 1 in 100 Americans had diabetes; now, it is 1 in 11. Virtually all of the increase has been in obesity-related Type 2 diabetes, which can cause complications such as blindness, kidney failure and the need for limb amputations.

The problem is especially serious in Kentucky. The Centers for Disease Control reported in 2012 that the number of diabetes cases rose 158 percent in Kentucky over 15 years, outpacing every other state except Oklahoma.

A flu epidemic of this magnitude would create public alarm and swift official response. Ebola? If there were even a couple of cases in Kentucky, politicians and health officials would be running around like their hair was on fire.

141111DiabetesBook0002But diabetes — a slow-moving, chronic disease — is not being treated like an epidemic. That must change, two Lexington health policy experts argue in a new book, The Great Diabetes Epidemic: A Manifesto for Control and Prevention (Butler Books, $24.95)

The authors are Dr. Gilbert Friedell, former director of the Markey Cancer Center at the University of Kentucky and founder of the Friedell Committee, a statewide health care policy organization; and Isaac Joyner, a public health policy analyst who has worked on a variety of issues in Kentucky, Texas and the Carolinas.

They will speak about the book and sign copies at 5 p.m. Friday, which is World Diabetes Day, at The Morris Book, 882 E. High Street. They also are scheduled to testify Nov. 18 in Washington before the Congressional Caucus on Diabetes.

The authors say a major public health response is needed to stop diabetes’ rapid growth, deadly consequences and huge cost. Their book outlines specific steps that individuals, communities and the government could take.

“If we continue to treat diabetes on a one-patient-at-a-time basis, we can’t deal with an epidemic,” Friedell said. “Unless you take a public health approach to an epidemic, it doesn’t work.”

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Gilbert Friedell

At its current rate, the authors say 40 percent of Americans alive today — and half of people of color — will eventually develop diabetes. The first step in changing that, they say, is widespread, routine screening.

“You have to find cases early, which means you have to screen people who seem well,” Friedell said. “The symptoms of diabetes come on maybe 10 years after the disease starts. But nobody knows they have the disease. We’re wasting 10 years that we could be doing something good for people.”

More than one-fourth of the people who have diabetes have not been tested or diagnosed, according to CDC studies. That means that while 370,000 Kentuckians know they have diabetes, another 137,000 may have it and not know it.

In addition to that, officials estimates that 233,000 Kentuckians have a condition called prediabetes, which means they will eventually develop the disease if they don’t take steps to stop it.

Health officials now recommend diabetes screening for people with high blood pressure, or anyone over the age of 45. Friedell and Joyner think everyone over age 20 should be screened.

One big problem with fighting diabetes is that it is viewed as an individual problem, rather than a societal problem. That despite the fact that the federal government alone spends $90 billion fighting the disease, mostly for treatment.

Isaac Joyner

Isaac Joyner

“There’s a tendency to blame the victim,” Friedell said. “If you don’t eat right and exercise and if you’re fat you’re going to get diabetes. That attitude doesn’t help. We need individuals to change their behavior, but it’s easier to do when the whole community says diabetes is our problem. It’s the way that we make change.”

Friedell and Joyner want the government and communities to invest more money and effort in proven programs for preventing or minimizing the damage of diabetes. It also would require changing insurance company reimbursement policies. But the long-term payoff would be huge.

“Your investment up front has a return that’s perhaps eight times,” Friedell said. “But you have to accept that it’s going to be over a few years.”

The biggest issue, though, is public awareness — and urgency.

“There has to be a sense of urgency, and there is no sense of urgency about diabetes,” Friedell said. “We need to do something to get the public involved, and the public has to feel that it’s important.”


Taste-testing a way to make truly local, crusty Kentucky bread

November 3, 2014

141028Wheat0016Jim Betts, front, owner of Bluegrass Baking Co., works with David Van Sanford of the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture to test baguettes made with five varieties of wheat they raised in Lexington that usually don’t grow well in Kentucky. Betts checks the aroma, while Van Sanford pulls a slice apart to check texture and taste. Photos by Tom Eblen 

 

Why have the French always eaten baguettes, while Kentuckians preferred biscuits? The answer may have more to do with climate than culture.

Kentucky’s wet winters are more conducive to growing the low-protein “soft” wheat used for soft breads, biscuits and cookies than high-protein “hard” wheat, which works best for crusty breads.

But Jim Betts, who owns Bluegrass Baking Co. on Clays Mill Road, has noticed a couple of trends in recent years: his customers are buying more crusty, chewy breads, and they want more of their food to be locally grown.

“We’re trying to source as many locally produced products as we can,” Betts said, adding that a couple of organic farmers in Central Kentucky have told him they want to grow new varieties of wheat if they can find a market for them.

141028Wheat0068So Betts began talking with experts at the University of Kentucky’s College of Agriculture to see if it might be possible to find varieties of high-protein wheat that would grow well here.

He also wanted to know if there would be noticeable differences in taste between organically grown Kentucky flour and the nearly one ton of North Dakota flour he buys each week from ConAgra Foods.

Betts worked with Mark Williams, a horticulture professor who teaches sustainable agriculture, and David Van Sanford, a wheat breeder in UK’s Department of Plant and Soil Sciences.

A year ago, they planted four varieties of wheat they thought might work, including one developed in North Carolina for wet Southern climates. One was grown at UK’s Waveland research farm in south Lexington, the rest at the Spindletop research farm north of town.

“Of course, we chose the worst winter in 20 years,” Betts said. “But we got some flour out of it.”

That flour was given to Andy Brown, Bluegrass Baking’s chief baker, who used it to make baguettes.

Last Tuesday, Betts brought Williams and Van Sanford together to do a blind taste test of the four baguettes, along with one of his store’s regular baguettes and a “ringer” made from UK-produced soft wheat. They were joined by Bob Perry, a UK professor who teaches gastronomy and dietetics.

Betts and the UK professors sliced up each baguette so they could smell, taste and pick it apart. They evaluated each on the color of its crust and the aroma and texture of the “crumb” inside.

When wheat is mixed with yeast, water and salt to make bread, the fermentation releases gasses that form bubbles in the bread — and produce that wonderful smell. The higher the flour protein, the bigger the bubbles, the larger the loaf and the chewier the bread.

Betts likens this “gluten strength” to a balloon: “The stronger the balloon, the bigger it can get.” The problem with low-protein flour is that it “cannot hold the tension you need to make a good, crunchy loaf.”

The men agreed that some of the wheat varieties made better baguettes than others, but all were good. The “ringer” loaf wasn’t as good as the others, but it wasn’t bad.

Having demonstrated that high-protein wheat can be grown in Kentucky, Williams said the next challenge is to refine farming practices to maximize consistency, quality and yield.

Van Sanford said about 500,000 acres of wheat is now grown in the state, mostly in Western Kentucky, but almost all of it is low-protein varieties. Growing high-protein wheat for local consumption would require more than planting different seeds. Farmers would need storage and milling facilities — and customers.

Central Kentucky once had dozens of flour mills, which survive only in the names of the roads that led to them. Weisenberger Mill in Midway is the last one operating.

But here’s the big question: Can high-protein wheat be grown economically enough for Kentucky farmers, millers and bakers to all make a profit at a bread price Kentucky consumers would be willing to pay?

Betts thinks so. He says many Bluegrass Baking Co. customers realize that fresh, local food tastes better, and the more they can keep their money in the local economy, the better it is for everyone.

Creating this new niche market for Kentucky farmers would be a challenge, but I give it better odds than convincing Frenchmen to eat biscuits.

141028Wheat0037Betts, left, talks with Van Sanford, center, and Bob Perry of the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture as they evaluate baguettes made with five varieties of wheat UK grew.

 


UK seminar will focus on challenges of local food economy

September 22, 2014

Creating strong local food economies has become a trend, if not a fad, all over the country. But the prospects in Kentucky seem more promising than in many places.

Kentucky’s fertile soil, temperate climate, abundant water, central location and dispersed population have made the state an agriculture powerhouse for more than two centuries.

Since the collapse of the tobacco economy, more Kentuckians have been exploring ways to recreate and reinvent local food systems like those that prevailed before World War II.

But local food is not just an issue of local economics and self-sufficiency.

It is often more nutritious than food grown in huge quantities and shipped great distances. That’s a big issue as America struggles with an obesity epidemic, lifestyle diseases such as diabetes and soaring health care costs. And local food also just tastes better.

But there are big challenges, from processing facilities to distribution networks. The biggest challenge is this: how can locally grown food be both profitable for farmers and affordable for consumers, especially those with low incomes?

Those questions are at the heart of this year’s Lafayette Seminar in Public Issues, an annual program sponsored by the University of Kentucky’s Gaines Center for the Humanities. The seminar will explore these issues in three programs over the next three weeks, all of which are free and open to the public.

The seminar’s keynote speaker at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Lyric Theatre is Robert Egger, who has spent 25 years feeding and providing food-related job training to poor people in Washington, D.C. and Los Angeles. His talk is called, “Revealing the Power of Food.”

As a young nightclub manager, Egger volunteered at what he found to be a well-intentioned but inefficient soup kitchen for homeless people in Washington, D.C. The experience prompted him to start D.C. Central Kitchen in January 1989 by getting a refrigerated van, picking up food left over from President George H.W. Bush’s inauguration and delivering it to local shelters.

The non-profit organization uses food donated by hospitality businesses and farms to feed hungry people and train poor people for food-related jobs. During 24 years as president of D.C. Central Kitchen, Egger helped start more than 60 similar community kitchens around the country.

Egger recently moved to Los Angeles to start LA Kitchen, which recovers fresh fruit and vegetables for use in a culinary arts job training program for men and women coming out of foster care or prison. He is author of the 2004 book, Begging for Change: The Dollars and Sense of Making Nonprofits Responsive, Efficient and Rewarding For All.

The seminar’s second session, at 5:30 p.m. on Oct. 1 at the Lyric Theatre, is a panel discussion called “Whose Farm to Whose Table?” It focuses on increasing access to local food in Central Kentucky’s underserved communities.

Panelists are community garden activist Jim Embry; Mac Stone, co-owner of Elmwood Stock Farm and a founder of the Kentucky Proud program; Karyn Moskowitz of New Roots Inc. and the Fresh Stop Project; and Ashton Potter Wright, Lexington government’s new local food coordinator. The panel will be moderated by Lexington food blogger and cookbook author Rona Roberts.

The final session, at 5:30 p.m. on Oct. 9 at UK’s W.T. Young Library, is a panel discussion moderated by former UK Agriculture dean Scott Smith. It will explore challenges of getting local food into universities, schools, businesses and other large institutions.

Panelists are Sarah Fritschner, Louisville’s local food coordinator; John-Mark Hack, executive director of the Midway-based Local Food Association; UK agriculture professor Lee Meyer; and Tony Parnigoni, Aramark Corp.’s regional vice president.

The topic is especially timely given UK’s controversial move to outsource its dining services to Aramark, the giant food corporation that is putting up $70 million to build new campus dining facilities.

Amid pressure from local food advocates, Aramark agreed to contribute $5 million to a new local food institute at UK and to purchase millions of dollars worth of food from Kentucky farmers.

“There has been a lot of buzz about local food and enhancing access to local food and capitalizing on the agricultural economy of the Bluegrass,” said Phil Harling, a UK history professor who recently became director of the Gaines Center. “We’re trying to bring together a bunch of different strands.”

If you go

  • UK’s Lafayette Seminar this year focuses on local food. All sessions are free and open to the public.

    5:30 p.m. Sept. 24, Lyric Theatre, 300 E. Third St. Robert Egger, founder of LA Kitchen and DC Central Kitchen, speaks on “Revealing the Power of Food.”

    5:30 p.m. Oct. 1, Lyric Theatre. Panel discussion about expanding access to local food.

    5:30 p.m. Oct. 9, W.T. Young Library, 401 Hilltop Ave. Panel discussion about challenges of getting local food into large institutions.


Ale-8-One president sees a lot of opportunity to grow the brand

August 24, 2014

140818Ale8One-McGeeney-TE0024Ellen McGeeney, president of Ale-8-One Bottling Co., in Winchester. Photos by Tom Eblen  

 

WINCHESTER — As an 8th generation Kentuckian, Ellen McGeeney knew she was taking on something special when she became president of Ale-8-One Bottling Co. But the Louisville native, whose family is from Henderson and Owensboro, didn’t realize just how special.

Her first week on the job, a 20-something Lexington store clerk tearfully told her about his grandmother’s recent death from dementia, and how, in her last months, the only thing that made her smile was Ale-8-One. Then he hugged McGeeney.

And there was the businessman McGeeney met at a networking event a few weeks later. When she introduced herself, he dropped to one knee and kissed her ring.

“There’s a fervency about the brand in Central Kentucky,” she said of Ale-8-One, the ginger-and-citrus soft drink that has been made in Winchester since 1926. “So many people speak about it as if it’s theirs.”

140821Ale8One-TE0083The Rogers family took a big step a year ago when it hired an outsider for the No. 2 spot in the company now run by Fielding Rogers, 33, the great-great nephew of Ale-8-One inventor G.L. Wainscott.

McGeeney, 52, brought a lot to the company besides Kentucky heritage. A Brown University graduate with an MBA from Yale, she was a business consultant for Booz Allen Hamilton and other firms in New York and Boston, specializing in logistics, branding, marketing and online strategies.

Between the births of their second and third children, she and husband Christian Thalacker moved back to Louisville to be closer to her family. She helped start Grasshoppers Distribution LLC, which sold fresh food from local farmers to customers around Louisville, and did strategy work for Rooibee Red Tea.

It was through the Louisville-based beverage company that she met Rogers, who was looking for someone to help him take Ale-8-One to the next level. McGeeney said the job is a perfect fit because it draws on all her skills.

“Literally, this is my dream job,” she said. “I was ready to have a real career again, and I really wanted it to be in Kentucky.”

McGeeney said another big attraction was the Rogers family’s business values. While the family wants growth, she said, it must be steady growth, without peaks and valleys, because Rogers doesn’t ever want to have to lay off any of his 100 employees. “He’s extremely cognizant of the importance of good jobs in this community,” she said.

140821Ale8One-TE0049Wainscott started in the flavored drink business in 1902. He launched RoxaKola in 1906, naming it after his wife. But when Coca-Cola started suing small cola competitors, he realized he needed a special flavor all his own.

Wainscott went to Europe after World War I and bought ginger beer recipes to experiment with. He launched his new drink at the Clark County Fair in 1926 without a name. After a customer remarked that it was “a late one” in the already crowded carbonated drink market, the name Ale-8-One stuck.

Ale-8-One has more caffeine and less carbonation than many soft drinks. Only four people know the secret recipe: Rogers, his brother, sister and father. Rogers now mixes the concentrate himself using his great-great uncle’s handwritten notes.

Ale-8-One distribution is focused on Central Kentucky, where its own delivery fleet covers 27 counties. It is one of the few bottlers in America that still uses some returnable bottles, a popular tradition the company plans to continue.

“I like to say we’re on the bleeding edge of obsolete technology,” McGeeney said. “And we’re very proud of it. We have invested a lot in making sure that that process is extremely safe and high quality.”

Through contracts with other distributors, nonreturnable bottles and cans also go to most of the eastern three-fourths of Kentucky and parts of Ohio and Indiana. McGeeney hopes to gradually expand distribution, at least to all of Kentucky’s 120 counties.

In addition to the original formula, Ale-8-One comes in caffeine-free and diet versions. While the original formula will “never, ever, ever” change, McGeeney said, she sees opportunities for additional beverages. She wouldn’t disclose specifics, but said she would love to do a seasonal beverage made with Kentucky ingredients.

“If you’re at a big company, you can throw a lot of stuff at the wall and see what sticks,” she said. “We can’t do that. We’re David in an industry of Goliaths. We have to do it differently.”

McGeeney said revenue growth has been up in her first year, to about 5 percent. Her goal is annual growth of 5 percent to 10 percent to keep the company financially resilient as the economy rises and falls. Ale-8-One doesn’t disclose revenues or profits, but McGeeney said the balance sheet is strong and future expansion will be self-financed.

“One of the real luxuries of being a private company, from my perspective, is the long-term view,” she said.

This spring, Ale-8-One did its first promotional packaging with a horse-racing theme. Football tailgate packaging will hit store shelves this week. Basketball packaging will follow that.

McGeeney hired a consultant to help refine Ale-8-One’s brand strategy. It revolves around the ideas of Kentucky pride, family ownership and independence. The working slogan: “The best of the Blue Grass in green glass.”

“I think there’s a proud story there,” McGeeney said. “We should be as much of a jewel of Kentucky as bourbon is. My fantasy is to get everybody in Kentucky to feel that way.”

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‘What’s behind the wall’ beside Jefferson Street restaurants?

July 27, 2014

140722Apiary

This rendering shows what the Apiary will look like when finished this fall. The catering company and event space is in the Jefferson Street restaurant district on the site of a special-effects company’s building that burned in July 2008. Photo: EOP Architects. 

 

Nobody paid much attention to the old industrial building on Jefferson Street until July 17, 2008, when a spectacular two-alarm fire gutted Star Light & Magic, a theatrical special effects company.

Jefferson Street is a much busier place now, having blossomed into a popular restaurant district, so a lot of people are watching and wondering about the construction going on there behind an elegant wall of brick, stone and wrought iron.

For nearly two years, the first phase of the project has been a commercial kitchen for Apiary Fine Catering & Events. When finished in October, the facility also will include The Apiary, an event space designed for an urban infill setting.

The Apiary is owned by Cooper Vaughan, 39, a graduate of Transylvania University and Le Cordon Bleu cooking school in London. Before moving back to his hometown in 2006, Vaughan was a chef at Blackberry Farm, the luxury resort in Tennessee.

140710Apiary0010

Cooper Vaughan

Working in partnership with his parents, Neal and Derek Vaughan of Lexington’s G.F. Vaughan Tobacco Co., he hopes to create a unique 15,500-square-foot food and beverage destination. And, as the name implies, Vaughan said he also wants it to be a hive of activity, a gathering place for people interested in food, wine and cooking.

“We want to be a place other chefs can use when they don’t have the facilities,” he said. “That’s the sort of energy we want around here.”

The Vaughans’ vision for the Apiary included special architecture and landscaping, a place with modern lines but a warm, timeless feel. To achieve that, they hired three top-notch local professionals: architect Brent Bruner, garden designer Jon Carloftis and interior designer Matthew Carter.

The Apiary’s biggest venue will be the 2,000 square-foot Orangery room, which has a 10-foot by 30-foot skylight and 18-foot-tall windows designed to match antique French shutters. When finished, the room will contain orange, lemon and pear trees. There also will be a 1,000-square-foot Winter Room, an intimate tasting room beside the kitchen and a French limestone terrace that can accommodate a big tent.

Salvage materials are a big part of the design. Reclaimed brick, wood flooring and beams came from old tobacco warehouses. Stone was salvaged from a farm that belongs to Vaughan’s uncle. Pavers were once part of a barn at Hamburg Place horse farm. Massive pine doors came from Argentina, and two antique stone fountains in the courtyard are from Europe.

The brick and stone courtyard walls are accented with custom wrought iron created by artists Matthew and Karine Maynard of Maynard Studios in Lawrenceburg.

“They wanted it to have a substantial feel that at the same time is modern and fits into an urban setting,” said Bruner, a principal at EOP Architects. “The level of craftsmanship they wanted is not what you see a lot these days.”

Good planning allowed Carloftis to get a head start on the landscaping so it wouldn’t look new when the Apiary opens. It includes a “green” wall of plantings in the courtyard and a well-established pear tree cultivated espalier-style.

140710Apiary0015

Brent Bruner of EOP Architects

Since the kitchen opened, Vaughan has given rent-free office space to Seedleaf, a Lexington nonprofit. Seedleaf works to increase the supply of affordable, nutritious and sustainably produced local food for people at risk of hunger in Central Kentucky. It sponsors community gardens, restaurant composting programs and classes that teach cooking and food-preservation skills.

The outdoor event spaces will include raised-bed vegetable and herb gardens designed by Carloftis and cared for by Seedleaf. Ryan Koch, Seedleaf’s founder and director, said they will both supply Apiary with food and subtly educate guests.

“It will be a unique opportunity to show how beautiful perennial herbs and some vegetables can be and how important local food is,” Koch said. “If we can help Apiary buy less food off the truck and get more out of their yard, I think people enjoying the space will appreciate that.”

The Seedleaf gardens and other landscaping will be irrigated with rainwater collected in a 12,000-gallon underground storage tank.

Vaughan declined to say how much his family is investing in the Apiary.

The designers’ goal with the building and grounds is to create indoor and outdoor spaces that gradually reveal themselves to visitors as they walk through. Vaughan hopes guests will notice something new each time they come.

“One thing we’ve been able to achieve is that not any one element screams,” he said. “A great event always has these elements of surprise. What’s behind the wall?”

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Developing local food economy is focus of new Lexington job

June 16, 2014

As a child growing up in Gratz Park, Ashton Potter Wright often walked downtown to the Lexington Farmers Market with her parents, who were early owners in Good Foods Co-op.

“They instilled in me that it’s important to know where your food comes from and to support local growers and business owners,” she said. “It makes sense to me, and I hope to help make it make sense to other people.”

That will be a big part of Wright’s new job as Lexington’s first local food coordinator.

Wright1Wright, 29, started earlier this month in the pilot position, where she will work with Central Kentucky farmers to help them find markets for their meat and produce. She also will help educate and create more individual and institutional demand for locally produced food.

“With local food, you’re not only helping the economy and the environment, but you’re getting great, healthy, delicious food that’s grown by somebody nearby,” she said. “We’re keeping dollars in the region and improving the health of the region.”

Wright will be part of the city’s Office of Economic Development. The job is funded through private grants, agriculture development funds and $25,000 from the city. Steve Kay, an at-large member of the Urban County Council, worked for several years to create the job.

“It’s exciting, but it’s a bit overwhelming,” Wright said. “There’s so much that can be done and so much that needs to be done.”

Wright brings a strong background to the job. After graduating from Henry Clay High School and Rhodes College in Memphis, she worked at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta and earned a master’s degree in public health from Georgia State University while her husband, Jonathan Wright, went to Emory University’s law school.

Last fall, Wright finished her doctorate in public health at UK and went back to Atlanta for a fellowship at the CDC. She also worked in Lee County, helping create a program where local farmers provided food for schools.

Kay assembled an advisory committee a couple of years ago that includes a who’s who of local food players, including Nancy Cox, the new dean of the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture; chef and restaurant entrepreneur Ouita Michel; youth nutrition activist Anita Courtney and Mac Stone of Elmwood Stock Farm, a national leader in the organic farming movement.

Wright said she will begin by working closely with the advisory committee to assess needs and opportunities, both immediate and long-term.

“Everyone has an opinion about what needs to be done,” she said. “So these first few months are going to be spent listening and understanding.”

There also are good ideas to be gleaned in Louisville, where Sarah Fritschner, a former food editor at the Washington Post and The Courier-Journal, has been the farm-to-table coordinator since 2010.

“There’s a lot to be learned from her and also from cities across the country that are doing similar work,” Wright said, citing Baltimore and Asheville, N.C., as examples.

Wright sees opportunities to educate young people about the importance of healthier eating and local food. Wright previously worked with Courtney on her Tweens Coalition and Better Bites youth nutrition programs, as well as her effort to bring fresh produce to two small markets in low-income Lexington neighborhoods.

Much of Wright’s job will involve connecting local farmers to schools, hospitals and other institutions that could purchase their food. She said public schools already buy some local food, but could do much more if they had the right help.

Eventually, she hopes to develop more infrastructure for the regional food economy. Those include more local meat processing plants, such as Marksbury Farms in Danville, as well as aggregation, processing and distribution facilities for local vegetables and fruits.

Also, the region needs more commercial kitchens where farmers can take what they grow and turn it into value-added products, such as preserves and sauces, and process food for consumption off-season. Wright also is intrigued by the use of Internet technology to connect producers with consumers.

“People have been interested in local food here for years,” she said. “But there are so many people and groups working on it here now that the time feels really right for the next big step.”


As Sav’s owner recovers, family, friends keep restaurant going

June 10, 2014

140610Savs-TE0003Bangaly Savan頎, left, served lunch Tuesday to Steve Baron, owner of CD Central on South Limestone Street. Savan頎 has been running Sav’s Grill & West African Cuisine at the corner of South Limestone and East Maxwell streets since his father, Mamadou Savan頎 burned himself badly while cooking June 3. Photos by Tom Eblen  

 

Mamadou “Sav” Savané learned to cook traditional West African food as a child in Guinea by watching his mother and sisters. The recipes were never written down. They were just in his head, until a few weeks ago.

That’s when the owner of Sav’s Grill & West African Cuisine at 304 South Limestone started recording his recipes and teaching his son, Bangaly, how to cook them. His timing couldn’t have been better.

Savané was preparing a bigger-than-usual batch of peanut chicken stew for the lunch crowd on June 3 when the pot slipped from his hands as he pulled it off the stove, said his wife, Rachel.

savThe boiling liquid spilled all over Savané, causing second-degree burns over half his body and putting him in the University of Kentucky Chandler Hospital’s intensive-care unit for five days. Savané is out of danger and could be released from the hospital as early as Wednesday. But he has a long recovery ahead.

“If this accident were two months ago, the restaurant would have closed, because nobody else could do it,” Rachel Savané said. “Our son, who turns 20 the day after Father’s Day, has stepped into his dad’s shoes, cooking everything, running the restaurant. I’m doing what I can to help, but he’s in charge.”

Other family and friends also have stepped forward to help, both at his restaurant and at her jewelry gallery, Savané Silver, 130 North Broadway.

At Sav’s Grill on Tuesday, Bangaly, his mother and his sister, Diaka, 15, were serving customers with help from employees and Youssouf Komara, who said he has been Savané’s best friend since they were 6 years old in Guinea. Komara traveled from Milwaukee, where he teaches middle school French and owns a restaurant and club.

“He’s a very good guy,” Komara said of Savané. A lot of Lexington people agree.

The business association Local First Lexington, Smiley Pete Publishing and others have organized a fundraiser to help Savané, who has medical insurance, cover additional business expenses. Within hours of launching the campaign Tuesday on Giveforward.com, the Feast of Love for Sav fund had collected more than $22,000.

The fundraiser includes an event 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. Monday at Smiley Pete’s offices, 434 Old Vine Street, with food and beverages from local businesses. Admission is $5.

“Apparently, Sav did the work of four people, seven days a week,” said Chuck Creacy, co-owner of Smiley Pete.

“I visited him in the hospital, and he’s as hurt as anybody I’ve ever seen,” Creacy said. “They’re going to need to hire help, because the worst thing he could do is go back to work before he’s fully recovered. We certainly want to make sure we don’t lose one of our unique local restaurants.”

The Savanés met while Rachel was a Peace Corps volunteer in Guinea in the early 1990s. They came to this country and married in 1993. She made jewelry, and he worked for UPS and the Hyatt Regency Lexington before turning his passion for cooking into a business.

He opened Sav’s Grill in September 2008, weathering both the nation’s financial crisis and the long reconstruction of South Limestone. In July 2012, Savané opened Sav’s Chill nearby to sell a friend’s homemade ice cream.

Savané has been a neighborhood leader and a strong supporter of Local First Lexington, said Steve Baron, the owner of CD Central down the street.

“He’s just one of those terrific, positive people,” Baron said as he stopped at Sav’s Grill for lunch Tuesday. “It’s so sad to see something like that happen.”

Steve Davis, who teaches African history at UK, was one of many regular customers who came in Tuesday for lunch and to sign a big get-well card. He said Savané has spoken to his classes about West African food traditions.

“He is so loved in this community,” said Debra Hensley, an insurance agent and a former Urban County Council member. “He is just a bundle of joy to be around.”

Bangaly Savané, who since graduating from Henry Clay High School in 2012 has worked at the restaurant and has begun studying to be a commercial pilot, said he and his family have been overwhelmed by the community’s support.

“One guy came in and broke down crying in front of me,” he said. “I couldn’t believe it.”

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Alltech’s business strategy is to embrace change, not fight it

May 20, 2014

Alltech1Alltech founder and president Pearse Lyons, left, presented the Humanitarian Award to Lopez Lomong at Alltech’s symposium Monday. Lomong was kidnapped by soldiers in his native Sudan at 6, but eventually became two-time Olympic runner. Photo by Tom Eblen

Nobody likes change — it’s human nature. Kentuckians seem especially averse to it, which is ironic considering our heritage.

Two centuries ago, the pioneering risk-takers who came to Kentucky seeking a better life were on the cutting edge of change in America. But their adventurous spirit was soon replaced by a cautious, conservative mindset.

Too many Kentuckians fear innovation, mistrust higher education, deny science and instinctively oppose new ideas and ways of doing things. That is one reason I attend the Alltech Symposium each May. It is always an eye-opener.

The 30th annual Alltech Symposium, which began Sunday and ends Wednesday, brought 1,700 people from 59 nations to Lexington Center. The theme was “What If?”

The discussions — simultaneously translated into four languages — revolved around a question no less audacious than how a world of 9 billion people will feed itself in the year 2050.

Alltech began in a suburban Lexington garage in 1980. The privately held animal nutrition, food and beverage company now has operations in 128 countries and annual sales of $1 billion. The company’s energetic founder and president, Pearse Lyons, who turns 70 in August, has set a sales goal of $4 billion through growth and acquisition during his lifetime.

Lyons is not a native Kentuckian, but perhaps the next closest thing: an Irishman. Alltech has been wildly successful because Lyons and his wife, Deirdre, have used their complementary skills to create a company that tries to embody the strengths and avoid the shortcomings of both cultures.

“Sometimes I think we’re our own worst enemies,” Lyons said, noting that both Kentuckians and the Irish have often been stereotyped as backward.

Alltech’s often-contrarian approach to business is about problem-solving through science, education, innovation, sustainability, creativity, challenging boundaries and anticipating global needs. “We’ve built a business by walking the road less traveled,” he said.

Alltech’s science is based on natural ingredients and processes. That has been controversial, because many corporate agriculture models rely heavily on artificial chemicals. But the strategy has become a plus with consumers who worry about food safety and nutrition.

Lyons said Alltech’s stand against the routine use of antibiotics in food animals has cost it customers, but is simply common sense in light of scientific evidence of the problems caused by antibiotic abuse. “My mum used to say common sense is the rarest sense out there,” he said.

Lyons is equally forthright about the scientific evidence of man’s role in climate change. “The carbon footprint issue is with us to stay,” he said. “Those of us who embrace it will be successful.”

Because he spends so much time traveling around the world, Lyons brings valuable international perspectives to an often insular state. That has made him more open to new ideas, and, he thinks, more cognizant than most Kentuckians of the state’s unrealized economic potential.

Kentucky is already a globally recognized brand, thanks to Kentucky Fried Chicken, the Kentucky Derby and bourbon whiskey. Lyons thinks it is the best state brand in the nation. “The name that resonates, the name that people like, is Kentucky,” he said. “It’s open. It’s warm.”

That has certainly been true for Kentucky Ale, which Alltech began producing in Lexington in 2006 and is now sold in 20 states and four other countries.

Alltech this week unveiled big plans for Eastern Kentucky: a brewery and distillery in Pikeville, whose waste heat and grain byproducts will then be used for raising fish in tanks. Alltech has been studying this at its Nicholasville headquarters.

“The question is this: What are we going to do when we can’t get all those fish from the oceans?” he said. “Where poultry is today, many predict the aquaculture industry will be in five, 10, 15 years, and we propose to be right out there.”

Alltech plans to produce trout, chickens and eggs in Eastern Kentucky and brand them to the region. “We don’t need to be in Kentucky,” Lyons said, noting that 98 percent of Alltech’s revenues come from outside the state. “But Kentucky’s still a great place to do business.”

Alltech embraces big problems, Lyons said, because the flip side of every problem is a business opportunity for solving it.

“I’m a scientist at the end of the day, and scientists look for solutions,” he said. “If we put our heads in the sand, we’re never going to achieve anything.”


Alltech’s 30th symposium attracts 1,698 people from 59 countries

May 19, 2014

One of the city’s most interesting annual conventions gets into full swing today at Lexington Center: the 30th annual Alltech International Symposium.

Nicholasville-based Alltech, which makes food, beverages and animal nutrition supplements, puts on the symposium each year for customers and partners in the 128 nations where it does business. Alltech expects 1,698 attendees representing 59 countries at the event, which began Sunday and continues through Wednesday.

The symposium always has interesting presentations about innovations in the business of agriculture and science. And there is sure to be plenty of talk about Alltech’s title sponsorship of the FEI World Equestrian Games in Normandy, France, Aug. 23-Sept. 7.

The Kentucky Horse Park hosted the last Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games in 2010, and there has been some interest in Lexington bidding for the 2018 Games since facilities are already in place. Is anyone working on that?


Mayer may not become mayor, but he has some good ideas

May 10, 2014

What makes a good mayor? Someone with both good ideas and the political and management skills to make them happen. Jim Gray has demonstrated both qualities during his four-year term.

Gray has two challengers for re-election in the May 20 primary: Anthany Beatty, who became a University of Kentucky vice president after retiring as Lexington’s police chief, and Danny Mayer, an English professor at Bluegrass Community and Technical College who for four years published the community newspaper North of Center.

Beatty has demonstrated good management and political skills, but he doesn’t seem to have many ideas. His campaign website and public statements have offered only vague generalities about city issues and what he would do as mayor.

Mayer has little political or management experience, but he has developed a detailed issues platform. While some of his proposals are controversial, there are good ideas there worth discussing.

The Gray and Beatty campaigns have raised well into six figures. Mayer said he has taken only three contributions totaling $250 and has loaned his campaign a few hundred more. He hasn’t even invested in yard signs, which he admits was a mistake, and is mostly campaigning door-to-door and online.

“A lot of my work has been trying to plan out alternative visions and ideas; I look at it as the end point of what I did with North of Center,” Mayer said. “But rather than just talking about what we are doing wrong, this was a way to flesh out a positive vision for the city.”

DannyMayer

Danny Mayer

Among Mayer’s proposals is a $15 hourly minimum wage for city employees and contractors, as Seattle is considering. He also wants to decriminalize marijuana use, which probably would require state rather than just city action. Both moves, he said, would strengthen low-income neighborhoods by putting more money in families’ pockets and fewer people in jail.

Mayer’s two main proposals are less controversial, and they make so much sense that they should be part of the election conversation whether or not he is the candidate who emerges from the primary to challenge Gray in November.

Mayer said that as mayor he would strategically invest in growing Lexington’s local food economy and developing the city’s “greenways” — abused and neglected urban streams and watersheds whose restoration could improve overall water quality, create recreational opportunities and provide paths for walkers and cyclists.

Lexington developed an extensive Greenways Master Plan in 2001, which was approved by the Planning Commission. But Mayer said too little has been done to implement and expand on that plan.

Under a consent decree with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Lexington must spend hundreds of millions of dollars to correct long-ignored water quality problems caused by suburban development. That provides the perfect opportunity to make the most of our natural greenways, Mayer said.

Greenway development could help connect Lexington’s fragmented trail system, making it easier for suburban residents to get around on foot or bike. Modest infrastructure investments at key connecting points around Lexington could make a big difference, he said.

More walking and biking trails, along with investment in Lextran to expand routes and service hours would reduce traffic congestion and air pollution and increase mobility for low-income residents.

Mayer also said that as mayor he would budget $1 million for investments in local food, which has been growing in popularity. Growth in that sector will be important as climate change and rising transportation costs erode the nation’s industrial agriculture models of the past few decades.

Nutritious local food also fights obesity and other health problems that are contributing to rising health care costs, Mayer noted.

Investment in local food projects would create work for the growing number of UK and BCTC students graduating with sustainable agriculture expertise, as well as lower-skilled people who need jobs. It also would allow non-profit organizations such as Seedleaf and Food Chain to build on work they already are doing.

Some unused city park land could be used for expanding greenway trails or producing food, Mayer said, and the city could do more to promote backyard and community gardens.

“I see that as a 21st century economy,” he said. “These markets and segments are growing, but we haven’t talked about how we could legitimately scale them up. You just need models and an emphasis, like we did with Victory Gardens in the 1940s.”


Irvine festival celebrates wild and tasty morel mushrooms

April 19, 2014

140417MushroomFest0211Jen Collins scans the forest floor for tiny, tasty morel mushrooms in Estill County. The 24th annual Mountain Mushroom Festival in Irvine is April 26-27. Photos by Tom Eblen

 

IRVINE — “I found one!” Jen Collins called out from the top of the ridge. Her fellow mushroom hunters groaned and giggled.

By family tradition, Collins’ older sister, Joan Murphy, is supposed to find the first tasty morel mushroom each spring when they hike into the woods to search for them. But within a few minutes, Murphy had found one, too.

Collins and Murphy are fifth-generation ‘shroom hunters. They have walked these hills each spring since their father, Dennis Stacy, brought them and their five siblings here as teenagers more than 40 years ago. Now, they hunt mushrooms with their children and grandchildren, and many other Estill County families do the same.

“We know when it’s spring we go mushroom hunting,” Collins said. “It’s just a way of life.”

140417MushroomFest0054This local tradition prompted Irvine to start the Mountain Mushroom Festival in 1991. About 20,000 people are expected April 26-27 for the 24th annual festival, which will include a mushroom market and cooking demonstrations.

The festival also incorporates another local specialty: Kentucky agates. The gemstones are found only in Estill and parts of five surrounding counties. There will be public agate hunts along creek beds April 22-24 and an agate, gem and mineral show in town April 22-27.

Festival activities include a pancake breakfast, tractor and car shows, a parade and the annual Fungus 5k race. Festival admission is free. (More information: mountainmushroomfestival.org.)

“We’re trying to educate, and promote our cultural heritage,” said Francine Bonny, the festival’s chairman. “We want to highlight what is unique about our home and share it with visitors.”

Morel, or Morchella, mushrooms are difficult to cultivate, but grow wild in deciduous forests around the world. They can be found across Kentucky and surrounding states. The mushrooms start popping up in late March or early April, when overnight temperatures have warmed and there has been enough rain to dampen the soil.

140417MushroomFest0050A morel looks like a sponge or honeycomb and is hollow. Old-timers called them “dry-land fish” because they taste a little fishy. Hunters must take care not to confuse them with “false morels” — mushrooms that look more like brains than sponges and are poisonous.

Estill County hunters rarely find more than one or two morels growing together. The mushrooms range in color from black to golden and are often only one-to-three inches long. It takes skill and experience to see them poking up among the dead leaves and wildflowers on the forest floor.

The sisters took me mushroom hunting last Thursday, along with Collins’ son, Michael Collins Jr., president of the Estill County Chamber of Commerce, and Bonny, the festival chairman.

We drove up into the hills outside Irvine to their favorite spot, then hiked down one ridge and up another. Every few minutes, each hunter would stop to carefully scan the forest, poking a walking stick at fallen leaves when they thought they saw something — a mushroom or a snake.

When a morel was found, it was picked with a pinch of the stem. Hunters take care to protect the roots so they will produce more mushrooms. They carry picked mushrooms in a net shoulder bag on the theory that loose spores will fall off as they walk, increasing the chances of more mushrooms in the forest in the future.

When the hunters found leaves that looked disturbed, it often meant wild turkey had been there. “Deer and turkey both like mushrooms,” Collins said. “So you have to beat them to ’em.”

After a couple of hours, the hunters had found 28 small morels. That explains why they sell for about $40 a pound at the festival’s mushroom market. I hadn’t found a single one. I’m sure it was because I was too busy taking pictures. That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.

The sisters were kind enough to give me a handful of their morels, plus cooking instructions. When I got home, I cleaned and sliced them in half, soaked them in saltwater, rolled them in cornmeal and a little flour and fried them in butter. Delicious!

The next time I go mushroom hunting, I will leave my cameras at home. I want to focus on dinner.

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