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.”


Renovating old market helps new owner discover her family history

July 12, 2015
Workers renovated the circa 1894 addition to the Buchignani Meat Market. The builder's great-granddaughter, Mary Ginocchio, recently bought the building across from her Mulberry & Lime shop and is having it renovated for commercial space.  Photos by Tom Eblen

Workers renovated the circa 1894 addition to the Buchignani Meat Market. The builder’s great-granddaughter, Mary Ginocchio, recently bought the building across from her Mulberry & Lime shop and is having it renovated for commercial space. Photos by Tom Eblen

 

Mary Ginocchio recently bought an old commercial building across North Limestone from her house and home furnishings boutique. After a major renovation, she hopes to lease the first floor to restaurants and rent out the two apartments above.

But this project is much more than a real estate investment. It is restoring a key piece of her family’s history.

Ginocchio bought the building for $300,000 in May from Charles Whittington, whose family had owned it since 1986. Whittington operated a used bookstore there for years and lived above the shop.

Ginocchio hopes to spend no more than that on the renovation, which is being led by contractors Dudley Burke and Mica Puscas; Puscas is also finding new homes for tens of thousands of books that were left behind.

“There’s work to be done everywhere,” she said. “But they’ve gotten so much done in just a month. I’m conservative with my money, but I’m getting over it quick.”

Martin Ginocchio and his daughter, Mary, stand in the doorway of what was originally the Buchagnani Meat Market.

Martin Ginocchio and his daughter, Mary, stand in the doorway of what was the Buchagnani Meat Market.

Ginocchio will have an open house from 1 to 4 p.m. July 26 to show off the renovation in progress. The contractors are trying to save as much historic fabric as possible — from pine floors and woodwork to the tin ceiling on the main floor.

The building dates to 1887, when the first section was constructed for Ginocchio’s great- grandfather, Hannibal Buchignani. His meat market had outgrown its previous location on South Broadway. (A large 1880s photo of that shop hangs in Spalding’s Bakery on Winchester Road.)

Buchignani came to the United States from Italy as a child. When he grew up, he decided to move to California. On his way there, he stopped to see a friend in Lexington who persuaded him that this would be a good place to start a business and raise a family.

Buchignani’s grocery prospered. In 1894, he built an addition, part of which housed a bicycle shop. He was one of Lexington’s first bicycle enthusiasts, and Ginocchio said he asked several manufacturers to make a triple bicycle for his sons, Hugo, Leo and John.

“They wouldn’t do it, so he built it himself,” she said. “We still have the frame in the basement.”

Buchignani never lost his childhood desire to live in California. So, in 1905, the family sold its furniture (but kept its Lexington real estate) and moved to San Francisco. They arrived six months before the famous 1906 earthquake devastated the city and left them living in a tent in a park.

According to family lore, one of Buchignani’s sons asked: “Papa, what are we going to do?”

“We’re going to take the first train back to Lexington,” he replied.

Three years after reopening his market, Buchignani bought the mansion across the street when it went up for auction. It was built about 1818 as the home of Matthew Kennedy, Kentucky’s first professional architect.

Ginocchio now lives in the back of the Matthew Kennedy House. She uses the front rooms for her Mulberry & Lime home furnishings shop. The mansion also houses the office of interior designer Anna Marie Lewis, who is helping with the renovation.

Next door is a modest house built in 1813 by Kennedy and his business partner, John Brand. It was moved down Constitution Street years ago to prevent its demolition, and it is now the home of her father, retired architect Martin Ginocchio.

When he was young, his father, Louis Ginocchio, ran The Tavern on South Limestone, where Two Keys Tavern is now. His grandfather died 16 years before he was born in 1931, but Ginocchio recalls many visits to the meat market run by his uncles, John and Hugo, a short trolley ride up Limestone.

“I remember this structure from way back, the smells and everything,” he said. “All the produce was in large, tall baskets. There were cookies in big cans with glass tops. There was a refrigerated room where my uncles would hang whole sides of beef to age.”

At Christmas, the uncles had special Italian candy to give him when he visited.

The Buchignanis’ market shared its building with other businesses over the years, including an ice cream shop, a confectioner, a shoemaker and an electrician. The meat market closed in the 1960s, and the building was sold out of the family.

Buying and renovating the meat market has prompted the Ginocchios to look for old photographs and talk more about their family history, memories and relics. A glass-topped cookie can and tall basket have been around the house forever, but Mary Ginocchio didn’t realize where they came from.

“I didn’t think I would be that attached to the building,” she said. “But I am now.”

If you go

Buchignani Meat Market sneak preview

What: See renovation in progress

When: 1-4 p.m. Sunday, July 26

Where: 215-219 N. Limestone

Cost: Free, but donations accepted for the Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation

More information: (859) 231-0800 or Mulberryandlime.com

A worker in the 1894 addition to the Buchignani Meat Market, which once housed a bicycle shop. Mary Ginocchio, whose great grandfather Hannibal Buchignani built the building, recently bought it and is having it restored for use as commercial space.  Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

A worker in the 1894 addition to the Buchignani Meat Market, which once housed a bicycle shop.

Martin Ginocchio and his daughter, Mary Ginocchio, looked through the remains of a bookstore that operated in the old Buchagnani Meat Market until about 1996. The building's downstairs has been unused since then. Their ancestor, Hannibal Buchignani, built the commercial building about 1887, adding an addition about 1894. Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

Martin Ginocchio and his daughter, Mary Ginocchio, looked through the remains of a bookstore that operated in the old Buchagnani Meat Market.

Martin Ginocchio and his daughter, Mary Ginocchio, looked through the remains of a bookstore that operated in the old Buchagnani Meat Market until about 1996. The building's downstairs has been unused since then. Their ancestor, Hannibal Buchignani, built the commercial building about 1887, adding an addition about 1894. Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

Martin Ginocchio and his daughter, Mary Ginocchio, looked through the remains of a bookstore that operated in the old Buchagnani Meat Market.

Apartments above the Buchignani Meat Market are being remodeled into two rental units, which include natural light from two skylights in the roof.  Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

Apartments above the Buchignani Meat Market are being remodeled into two rental units, which include natural light from two skylights in the roof.

Apartments above the Buchignani Meat Market are being remodeled into two rental units, which include natural light from two skylights in the roof.  Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

Apartments above the Buchignani Meat Market are being remodeled into two rental units.

The two apartments over the old Buchignani Meat Market on North Limestone Street overlook owner Mary Ginocchio's Mulberry & Lime shop. It is housed in the circa 1818 mansion where Kentucky's first professional architect, Matthew Kennedy, lived. Ginocchio's great-grandfather, meat market owner Hannibal Buchignani, bought the house at auction in 1909 and it has been in the family ever since.  Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

The two apartments over the old Buchignani Meat Market on North Limestone Street overlook owner Mary Ginocchio’s Mulberry & Lime shop. It is housed in the circa 1818 mansion where Kentucky’s first professional architect, Matthew Kennedy, lived. Ginocchio’s great-grandfather, meat market owner Hannibal Buchignani, bought the house at auction in 1909 and it has been in the family ever since.

Hannibal Buchignani built the right side of this commercial building on North Limestone Street for his meat market about 1887 and added the left side about 1894. The street-level space has gone unused since a bookstore there closed in 1996. Buchignani's great-granddaughter, Mary Ginocchio, recently bought the building and is renovating it for commercial space.  Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

Hannibal Buchignani built the right side of this commercial building on North Limestone Street for his meat market about 1887 and added the left side about 1894.

The Buchignani Meat Market is shown in this 1921 photo by Lexington real estate agent Asa Chinn, whose documented the city's downtown streetscape that year.  Photo provided

The Buchignani Meat Market is shown in this 1921 photo by Lexington real estate agent Asa Chinn, whose documented the city’s downtown streetscape that year. Photo provided


Like minimum wage increase, new overtime rule long overdue

July 5, 2015

Hard work should pay off. That belief is at the heart of the American dream.

It also is why the U.S. Labor Department’s plan to make more salaried workers eligible for overtime pay is good news for both workers and the overall economy.

Like an increase in the minimum wage, it is long overdue.

Since 1938, federal law has required hourly workers to be paid time-and-a-half for each hour worked beyond 40 hours per week. There is an exception for managers and professionals, who are presumed to get good pay in return for more flexibility and, often, longer work weeks.

But here’s the problem: the salary level at which that exemption kicks in has been increased only once in 40 years.

In 1975, more than 60 percent of salaried workers were eligible for overtime pay. Because of inflation, that figure has fallen to 8 percent, according to a recent analysis by the Economic Policy Institute.

As a result, salaried “managers” who earn as little as $23,660 a year often work many extra hours for no extra pay. Some end up earning less per hour than the hourly employees they manage. This happens most often in retail and service industries, such as fast food.

This antiquated threshold salary of $23,660 is below the poverty line for a family of four, which is now set at $24,250. As a result, some of these managers are eligible for public assistance, which means taxpayers are directly subsidizing business profits. That makes no sense.

President Barack Obama last year told the Labor Department to review the overtime rule. That resulted in a proposal, announced last week, to raise the salary threshold for workers exempt from overtime next year to $50,440, returning it to roughly the 1975 level, accounting for inflation.

The new rule calls for that threshold to rise over time with inflation, linking it to the 40th percentile of income, which is where it was when the Fair Labor Standards Act became law in 1938.

The White House says the rule change would increase pay for nearly 5 million workers in the first year, 56 percent of whom are women and 53 percent of whom have a college degree.

The president’s action, which does not require the approval of Congress, has drawn howls from business interests and the politicians who receive their campaign contributions and loyally push their agendas.

As with almost every regulation Obama has proposed to help average workers, expand health insurance coverage and clean up the environment, these politicians argue that it will “kill jobs” and hurt the economy. In fact, the opposite is true.

Under this rule, if businesses don’t want to pay overtime to low-salaried managers, they can hire more hourly workers at straight time. That also would give those managers more time for a second job to supplement their income or spend time with their families, as they choose.

Opponents argue that businesses can’t afford to pay workers more, that this isn’t a good time. Have you ever known them to say anything else?

The United States has had 63 straight months of job growth, with businesses creating more than 12.5 million jobs. The Labor Department reported Friday that 223,000 jobs were created in June and the unemployment level fell to a seven-year low of 5.3 percent.

But the problem is that, for nearly four decades, wages have not kept pace with improvements in worker productivity. They haven’t even come close. Middle-class pay has stagnated and been eroded by inflation.

Meanwhile, stock prices are near all-time highs. Executive compensation has soared into the stratosphere. And corporate profits have roughly doubled over the past three decades, rising from 6 percent to 12 percent of gross domestic product.

A recent study found that 90 percent of income growth since 2009 has gone to the richest 10 percent of families.

Why has recovery from an economic crash caused mostly by financial speculation been so slow and uneven? Here is a big reason: consumer spending is the largest driver of the economy, and most people don’t have much extra money to spend.

Like a minimum wage increase, this would help fix that problem and show average Americans that hard work does pay off.


Third-generation Lexington clothier Carl Meyers expands his shop

June 7, 2015
Carl Meyers, whose family has been a clothing retailer in Lexington since 1920, is expanding his upscale women's wear shop on Clay Street.   Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

Carl Meyers, whose family has been a clothing retailer in Lexington since 1920, is expanding his upscale women’s wear shop on Clay Street. Photo by Tom Eblen

 

Every time Carl Meyers thinks he is retiring from the clothing business, a new opportunity comes up.

That’s what happened five years ago when Meyers, 63, moved back from New York and opened what he planned as a temporary shop at 111 Clay Ave. for the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games.

Instead of closing at the end of the Games, the shop became Carl Meyers Sophisticated Style for Ladies. He just finished doubling the shop’s size and will celebrate with an open house from 4 to 8 p.m. June 11.

“I just can’t seem to stop,” Meyers said. “I’ve always had retail in me.”

His grandfather, Emanuel Meyers, was one of 11 sons of a Louisville vest tailor. In 1920, he and his brother Edward moved to Lexington to sell World War I Army surplus from a store on North Mill Street.

Much of their business was selling surplus khaki pants and boots to horse farmers. Through that, they got to know a lot of saddle horse people and eventually began making and selling custom riding apparel.

From 1938 to 1967, Meyers’ was on West Main Street beside Purcell’s department store. Carl Meyers’ parents, Marvin and Sydelle, burnished the brand with fine men’s and women’s clothing. In 1967, the store moved further east on Main Street, to the corner of what is now Martin Luther King Boulevard.

“They had just terrific taste,” Meyers said. “My mother ran the designer department and my father was the menswear guy.”

From childhood, Meyers seemed destined to be a retailer.

“I was ‘selling’ out of my mother’s attic when I was like 6 years old,” he said. “I had a little store with a little cash register up there. All of our friends would come up and ‘buy’ something.”

A few years later, Meyers started hanging around the riding apparel tailors at the Main Street store, learning about sewing, patterns and suit construction. After earning a fine arts degree at Boston University, Meyers joined the business.

“Then downtown kind of went bust,” he said, as retailers went out of business or moved to the new suburban shopping malls.

Meyers’ opened stores in Fayette and Lexington malls, but the changing business landscape doomed them. The downtown store closed in 1982 and the mall stores followed two years later.

Carl Meyers then refocused on custom riding apparel from a shop he ran for two decades on Walton Avenue, later moving to Romany Road. His flair for adding style to traditional riding “habits” earned him an international clientele.

In 2007, Meyers decided to mostly retire. He moved to New York for three years to oversee the riding apparel factory and enjoy big-city life.

“When I was in New York, I worked with a lot of young designers who would come in and get their samples made through me,” he said. “I really enjoyed it a lot, but I wasn’t making a whole lot of money.”

He started a short-lived menswear line with Crittenden Rawlings, a Kentuckian who had been president of Oxxford Clothes, a prestigious men’s suit label. (Rawlings now has his own menswear line, which he sells at his store in Midway and at more than 40 other retailers around the country.)

Meyers eventually sold the factory to his former employees and moved back to Lexington to help care for his elderly mother, who died in 2013.

“I thought I had retired,” he said, but the store he opened for the Equestrian Games attracted a following. “The women I was dealing with liked what we were doing.”

Meyers soon started adding dresses to his sportswear lines. With the expansion, he will carry more designer clothing and add shoes and furs.

Clothing trends keep getting more casual. “But when people get dressed up today, they really want to do it right, like for Derby and other occasions,” he said. “That’s where we’re finding the growth in the business.”

At this point, Meyers has no plans to retire again. In fact, with his non-compete agreement up soon, he is thinking about getting back into riding apparel — so long as he doesn’t have to travel the horse show circuit again.

“I signed a five-year lease with another five year option, so we’ll see how it goes,” he said. “And there’s an upstairs here.”

 

Meyers' clothing store was at this Main Street location in Lexington from 1938 to 1967. Photo provided

Meyers’ clothing store was at this Main Street location in Lexington from 1938 to 1967.


New workshop offers tools, space for entrepreneurs and tinkerers

June 2, 2015
Rob Savard, left, Doug Clarke and Ben Van Den Broeck on Saturday will open Kre8now Makerspace in the Distillery District, a monthly membership workshop with tools and space for people who like to make things.  Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

Rob Savard, left, Doug Clarke and Ben Van Den Broeck on Saturday will open Kre8now Makerspace in the Distillery District. Photo by Tom Eblen

 

People who like to make things often share a common problem: They never have enough tools or a big enough workshop.

Kre8Now Makerspace, which has its grand opening 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday at 903 Manchester Street, has a solution.

For $35 a month, members will have access to every tool in the 12,000-square-foot workshop they can demonstrate competency to safely use, from sewing machines and saws to 3-D printers and welding equipment.

“It’s like a gym membership for your creativeness,” said Doug Clarke, one of three partners in the business. “We want to have a creative community where people can learn new skills and get hands-on experience through collaboration.”

Kre8Now also offers individual work and storage space next to the shared shop at $1 per square foot. The business also has a shared lounge and a classroom.

“We’re going to be teaching classes for both members and the general public in anything and everything that has to do with making,” said Clarke, a welder, machinist and former project engineer.

The partners see the space as both a place for tinkerers to hang out and for people to start businesses. They have about 40 members so far, about one-fourth of their goal.

While the space is still coming together, there is a complete wood shop, a metal shop with welding and steel-cutting equipment, a shop for building and using 3-D printers, a costume-making shop, a shop for making drone aircraft, and a variety of tools for other uses.

Many of the tools so far belong to Clarke and his two partners, Rob Savard and Ben Van Den Broeck. They all ended up in this venture because, well, they needed more tools and workshop space.

“I had my own machine shop for the better part of two decades, but I was at the point where I was going to have to invest a small fortune to expand it,” said Savard, who makes prototypes for others in addition to his personal projects.

“I also have a background in woodworking,” he added. “So my wife is expecting some furniture out of this.”

Savard thinks Kre8Now’s success will depend a lot on fostering a creative community. “It’s good to come in and see what other folks are doing and get inspired,” he said.

Van Den Broeck said he was a visual effects artist for the Cartoon Network for seven years, where he learned to use 3-D printers for prototyping cartoon characters that might work as toys. He then started a 3-D printing business, making objects for various corporate clients. Now he makes 3-D printers for various uses.

The three partners began the business with 1,800 square feet in the Old Pepper Distillery complex, another piece of Manchester Street property owned by Distillery District developer Barry McNees.

As membership increased, they outgrew the space and rented their new space from McNees. It is a former wholesale food warehouse that also houses photographer Mary Rezny and The Grand Reserve, an events venue.

“I’ve spent a lot of money bringing this place up,” Clarke said. “But it’s a great location. I see a lot of potential in the Distillery District.”

The Grand Reserve and Rezny have bought their space from McNees, who is now trying to sell the former 1860s bourbon warehouse next door that used to be Buster’s night club.

McNees and his partners bought up a lot of vacant industrial property along Manchester Street nearly a decade ago, hoping to create a mixed-use entertainment district just west of Rupp Arena.

The turnaround has been slow, mostly because of the area’s antiquated public infrastructure,. But it has become more viable and popular in the past couple of years as businesses such as Barrel House Distillery and Ethereal Brewing opened.

“What’s happening now is what I hoped would happen in the first couple of years,” McNees said. “But at least it’s happening.”


Workshop offers businesses ideas for saving green by going green

March 15, 2015

Businesses are taking more interest in environmental sustainability, and not just because it is popular with customers and good for the planet. It also can help their bottom line.

Bluegrass Greensource, a non-profit organization that works to promote sustainability in 18 Central Kentucky counties, expects a good crowd March 20 for its sixth annual awareness workshop, Go Green, Save Green.

“The workshop is designed to give you ways to save money,” said Schuyler Warren, the Lexington-based organization’s outreach specialist. “It’s not just about doing it because it’s the right thing to do. It’s a smart business decision.”

BGGreenPosterThe full-day workshop, which about 100 people attended last year, features speakers on a variety of topics, such as improving energy efficiency, storm water management, recycling and waste reduction and sustainable construction and landscaping.

It will include information about grants available to help cover the cost of some sustainability efforts.

Because the workshop is sponsored by Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government, the cost of attending is only $25 for adults and $5 for students, which includes a “zero waste” breakfast and lunch from Dupree Catering and a drink ticket for a social event afterward at Blue Stallion Brewery. (Day-of registration is $40.)

For registration and more information, go to: Bggreensource.org.

“This workshop is a great way to get inspired,” Warren said. “You can get some ideas, and then we can work with you to implement those things.”

The focus of this year’s workshop is energy efficiency, where the costs of improvements can be recouped through lower utility bills. There also will be a presentation by people who have been working on some remarkable energy-saving projects as part of West Liberty’s reconstruction from a devastating tornado three years ago.

Other speakers will focus on less-obvious topics, such as how companies can make it easier for employees to bicycle to work. That reduces traffic, pollution and oil consumption for society, but it also can help businesses cut absenteeism and health care costs by helping employees become more physically fit.

The workshop will be at the new campus of Bluegrass Community and Technical College on Newtown Pike. Included are tours of BCTC’s LEED-certified classroom building and nearby Lexmark facilities.

Last year’s workshop inspired Good Foods Co-op on Southland Drive to plan a renovation of its parking lot this summer to incorporate permeable paving, said Rob Walker, a store manager.

The new paving should help solve the parking lot’s storm water drainage issues, Walker said, as well as help protect Wolf Run Creek, which runs behind the store and has been the focus of extensive neighborhood efforts to improve water quality.

“That’s going to be a great improvement,” he said, adding that the store also is looking at money-saving strategies with energy-efficient lighting he learned about. “It’s an excellent workshop.”

Katie Pentecost, a landscape architect with Integrated Engineering, said last year’s workshop gave her new information about sustainability grants, which some of her clients have been able to get for their construction projects.

“I got way more out of it than I ever thought I would,” she said.

The workshop is part of a city-sponsored program called Live Green Lexington, which includes free year-around consulting services in Fayette County provided by Bluegrass Greensource.

But Bluegrass Greensource doesn’t just work with businesses, and it doesn’t just work in Fayette County.

For example, the organization has a series of workshops from April to June for residents of Clark, Scott, Woodford, Jessamine, Madison and Bourbon counties to help them learn how to install low-maintenance “rain gardens” to handle storm water runoff. The workshops are free, and residents of those counties may be eligible for $250 grants to purchase native plants for their rain gardens.

“The goal is to put a lot of options on your radar,” Warren said. “Things change so fast. I’m a sustainability professional, and every year there are a couple of new things for me that I didn’t know about.”


New Lexington firm hopes to be link between makers, machines

February 8, 2015

MakeTimeThe MakeTime staff in Lexington. From left: Rick Spencer, Dima Strakovsky, Kasey Hall, founder and CEO Drura Parrish, Steve Adams and Brian Brooks. Photo by Tom Eblen

Suppose your company wants to make something, but you don’t have the equipment. Perhaps you can’t afford to buy it, or the quantity of goods you want to make wouldn’t justify the investment.

On the other hand, suppose your company has manufacturing equipment and staff, but they have blocks of idle time. Would you like to convert downtime into revenue?

That’s the idea behind MakeTime, a new Lexington company that has developed an online platform for matching manufacturers with excess capacity to customers willing to buy it. It is essentially a marketplace for by-the-hour machine time.

“The whole gist is to democratize manufacturing and the whole process of making things,” said Drura Parrish, the company’s Founder and CEO.

“Firms aren’t driving innovation anymore; people are,” he said. “There has to be a next step beyond prototyping so people can at least jump in and try out their ideas.”

MakeTime launched in November, and Parrish expects the company to arrange $2 million worth of gross transactions during its first year.

MakeTime has 14 full-time employees — half of whom are computer programmers in Ukraine; the rest work in Lexington — and Parrish expects to hire 11 more in the coming year.

So far, he said, MakeTime has signed up 80 manufacturing companies with $2 billion worth of capacity and is getting about 10 inquiries a day for buying their services.

I first met Parrish, 38, when he was teaching architecture and digital fabrication at the University of Kentucky’s College of Design. He came there with the former dean, Michael Speaks, from the Southern California Institute of Architecture.

Parrish then started a company, which was recently dissolved, that worked with artists to turn their designs into objects for museum installations around the world. Much of that work was done in an old industrial building on East Third Street, where Parrish also operated a contemporary art gallery called Land of Tomorrow, one purported translation of the Native American word for Kentucky.

Although trained in art and design, Parrish comes from a third-generation manufacturing family in Henderson. His grandfather was a tenant farmer who got into the lumber business, creating what is now Scott Industries.

Parrish said he started doing a sort of pre-Internet version of MakeTime when he was in graduate school.

“I noticed there were a bunch of people with a bunch of machines that sat idle at times, and a bunch of people who wanted to make things and thought they needed to buy equipment,” he said. “I became the literal marketplace. I bought up capacity time and started marketing it.”

Parrish and Dima Strakovsky, who had been a partner in Land of Tomorrow, started developing MakeTime’s online platform, where manufacturers can list their available capacity, clients can list their needs, and they can be quickly matched for jobs. MakeTime’s revenues come from a fee of 15 percent of the transaction amount, paid by the seller.

“Our DNA is still design and art,” Parrish said, noting that many of the company’s employees have design backgrounds, so are trained to be problem-solvers.

Parrish said Lexington is an ideal location for the company, although he couldn’t find enough local software programmers and ended up going overseas for help.

“Within a four-hour ring of Lexington you have just about every manufacturer in the country,” he said. “We’re committed to staying here. The only problem is with programmers.”

Parrish said he has had a lot of help getting started from the Kentucky Science and Technology Corp. and state and local economic development organizations.

But while MakeTime had a couple of Kentucky “angel” investors, much of its startup capital came from New York. Parrish said the shallow pool of local investment capital, and the conservative nature of many local investors, is limiting the ability of entrepreneurs to flourish here.

“It can be hard to believe in the people who are near you,” Parrish said. “But it’s a matter of getting the right resources to grow. The risk of loss is often small, and the potential return is great.”


The Breakout Games offers ‘escapism’ for fun, teambuilding

January 18, 2015

15013BreakoutGames-TE0161Breakout Games players Matt Hogg, left, Jon Wicks, center, and Zach Milford figured out a clue while trying to solve a series of puzzles that would allow them to “escape” from the Derby Room as part of a simulation game.  The games are designed to be fun and promote teamwork and problem-solving skills.  Photos by Tom Eblen 

 

With a storyline straight out of a low-budget movie, you and a few friends, family members or colleagues are locked in a room — and maybe even handcuffed and blindfolded.

Can you find clues, solve puzzles and work together well enough to figure out how to escape? And can you do it in 60 minutes, with a digital wall clock ticking down each second?

That’s the premise behind The Breakout Games, a new entertainment business that opened last month in a rented industrial building at 306 North Ashland Ave. For $20 each, the company promises an hour of fun, team-building and mental challenge. (More information: Breakoutlexington.com.)

The company has rooms with two themes from which teams try to break out. One is called the Kidnapping, in which players, blindfolded and handcuffed to a bed frame, must figure out how to free themselves, turn on the lights and decipher a series of codes that will open the door.

The other game is the Derby Heist, in which players try to figure out how to recover the Kentucky Derby trophy, rose blanket and $2 million purse from the home of a crooked veterinarian. A third room, called Casino Royale, will open soon.

Two groups of local entrepreneurs started the business after seeing similar attractions in other U.S. cities, Europe and Asia. When they discovered they were getting ready to open competing facilities, they pooled their resources.

“We decided it would be a fun business to try,” said Jeremiah Sizemore, who with some of the partners also owns Orange Leaf yogurt stores in Lexington. “We’ve always been interested in bringing new things to Kentucky.”

Last week, I stopped by to watch two teams play the Breakout Games.

“It was awesome!” said Matt Hogg, who knows a thing or two about role-playing. He spent several years as a costumed football and basketball mascot for the University of Kentucky and the Washington Wizards.

Hogg and four co-workers from Remix Education, a Lexington educational entertainment company he started, polished their teamwork by playing the Derby Heist. Perhaps because they were used to working together, they broke out with nine minutes to spare — one of the fastest times yet.

“I had done the kidnapping room before, and I loved the difference between the two,” Jon Wicks said. “Just because you’re good at one doesn’t mean you’re good at the other.”

Curt Vernon’s favorite part was “the moment when you figure something out and it clicks. It’s cool because that happens over and over again.”

Across the hall, a group of UK international students ran out of time before escaping from the kidnapping room, but they came close.

“It really makes you work as a team,” said Viabhav Chitkara. “It tests how well you can work as a group with your friends.”

Sizemore said the eight partners have about $50,000 invested in the business so far, and they plan to build more rooms in an adjacent space.

Last weekend, the facility hosted 15 groups, he said, and it has been slow but steady on weekdays. Most teams, of three-to-eight players, have been groups of friends, family members and co-workers using it as a team-building exercise.

“It’s a good fit for different ages,” Sizemore said. “We’ve had 12 and 13-year-olds in there and grandparents, too. Everybody in the group has something to contribute.”

Sizemore said the games are safe. The rooms aren’t really locked, and the handcuffs used in the kidnapping room are easily removed. Staff members watch each game via TV monitors in the control room, looking for any problems.

Teams can ask the control room staff for clues. But after three clues, each additional one costs the team a minute off its allotted hour.

Sizemore said the most successful teams have been those that are aggressive and trust one another to divide the clues and puzzles into small groups, rather than everyone try to work on everything.

The first two game scenarios were developed by two of the business partners, Audra Cryder and Aaron Martinez. Constantly tweaking those scenarios and developing new ones will be key to getting repeat business, Sizemore said.

“We hope it will turn into a successful business someday,” Sizemore said. “But it’s not there yet.”

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Urban-rural divide will challenge Kentucky economy in 2015

January 5, 2015

141231Downtown0113b21C Museum Hotel is expected to open in late 2015 after renovation is completed on the century-old First National Building, right. But the old Fayette County Courthouse, left, will be one of Lexington’s biggest redevelopment challenges. Photo by Tom Eblen 

 

As a recent economic study notes, Kentucky’s economy is really nine very different regional economies that reflect a national trend: urban areas are doing well, but rural areas are struggling.

Lexington and Louisville together accounted for 45 percent of the state’s job growth over the past five years, according to a study by economist Paul Coomes for the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce.

That means Central Kentucky this year should continue to capitalize on several sources of momentum, including manufacturing growth, entrepreneurship and urban redevelopment, as well as Lexington’s growing reputation as a good place to live, work and visit.

The biggest manufacturing news this year is likely to be Toyota’s new Lexus assembly line. When the $531 million Georgetown plant expansion is finished late this year, 600 additional workers will make 50,000 Lexus 350 ES cars a year, in addition to the current Camrys, Avalons and Venzas.

But as manufacturing becomes more automated, the demand for higher-skilled workers increases. “Having a skilled work force is going to be a huge factor” in future growth, said Bob Quick, president of Commerce Lexington.

Central Kentucky continues to see an influx of workers and professionals from elsewhere. That is helping to fuel not only manufacturing, but business and professional services and entrepreneurial efforts, Quick said.

That also is good news for Lexington’s urban redevelopment initiatives, which finally seem to be hitting their stride. While the public’s attention was focused in recent years on the long-stalled CentrePointe project, a lot of good things were happening.

Victorian Square was renovated and rebranded as The Square, breathing new life into the downtown retail-restaurant development. This year will be a test of whether that concept can succeed.

A lot of small-scale urban redevelopment has been happening in places such as the Jefferson Street restaurant corridor, whose latest addition is the Apiary; the East End; National Avenue; South Limestone and North Limestone areas.

This could be a big year for the Newtown Pike corridor between downtown and the new Bluegrass Community and Technical College campus. Developers of Thistle Station, a proposed 16-story apartment building, hope to begin construction this year and open in fall 2016.

While the Rupp Arena and convention center reconstruction have been put on hold, city officials continue to move forward on Town Branch Commons, an innovative plan to create a linear park downtown that could attract new development.

“You’re seeing a deeper bench for the strategy of downtown,” Quick said. “Even when the Rupp piece didn’t work, we didn’t lose our downtown vision.”

Late this year, the 21C Museum Hotel should open after an extensive renovation of Lexington’s first skyscraper, the century-old First National Building.

But 21C is across the street from downtown’s biggest redevelopment challenge: the old Fayette County Courthouse. It was shuttered in 2012 because of lead contamination and structural problems from years of neglect. Officials this year need to come up with a plan for renovating and reusing this landmark.

The Breeder’s Cup at Keeneland Oct. 30-31 could pump $50 million into the local economy. It also should provide an incentive to finish a variety of projects, just as the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games did in 2010.

Kentucky’s biggest trouble spot is Eastern Kentucky, where the coal industry is in permanent decline. Will the Shaping Our Appalachian Region initiative this year create jobs in Eastern Kentucky, or just more talk?

Dave Adkisson, president of the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, said everyone also will be watching to see how Ft. Knox and Ft. Campbell fare as the military downsizes after long, costly wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Adkisson thinks Kentucky exports will remain strong. One of the fastest-growing exports is likely to continue to be bourbon whiskey, which is enjoying global popularity.

But international trade has been both a blessing and curse. The Kentucky Center for Economic Policy estimates that 41,100 jobs have been lost in the state since 2001 because of America’s growing trade deficit with China.

Will Congress and the president finally address China’s currency manipulation and other unfair trade practices? Or will new global export agreements now in the works simply ship more Kentucky jobs overseas?

One of the biggest issues facing every Kentucky region is the lack of real wage and per-capita income growth, which is below the national average and a drag on the economy. House Democrats have talked about raising the state’s minimum wage this year, but business groups and Republicans oppose it.


Alt32 architects find niche making furniture for their buildings

December 8, 2014

141120alt32-TE0023Alt32’s architects designed and used their computer-controlled router to manufacture office furniture and wall panels for the Plantory, a shared workspace facility in the Bread Box building at the corner of West Sixth and Jefferson streets. Photos by Tom Eblen

 

There is a celebrated tradition of architects designing furniture. Think Frank Lloyd Wright’s steel office desks, or Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s chrome-and-leather Barcelona chair.

So when a client told Matthew Brooks and Mike Sparkman, principals of the Lexington architecture firm Alt32, it was planning to order a lot of Ikea desks and file units for office space they were designing, “a light bulb went off,” Brooks said.

“Mike and I both have a passion for making things,” he said, noting that they had rented a woodworking shop downtown a year earlier. “It started out as a place for us to work on our own stuff, for our houses and whatever.”

But the more they worked, the more they thought of ways they could create and fabricate fixtures and furniture for buildings they designed. That experimentation also became a passion for Michael Mead, a colleague who died in September.

141120alt32-TE0011It was all part of a creative evolution that Brooks and Sparkman, both 46, had been going through since they bought Lucas/Schwering Architects, a 25-year-old firm where they had worked for more than a decade. In 2012, they rebranded the firm Alt32, after a computer programming code for creating space.

Last year, the firm was hired to re-imagine a former two-car garage off South Ashland Avenue as a Greek restaurant, Athenian Grill. They used their workshop to recycle wood salvaged from the building for trim and fixtures. That led to other ideas, such as how to design and make furniture from birch plywood.

The big opportunity came as part of their work to design space for the Plantory, a shared office facility that was moving to larger quarters in the Bread Box building at the corner of Jefferson and West Sixth streets.

The Plantory serves mostly small, non-profit organizations, so its renovation was a low-budget project. Still, it was big enough to justify Alt32 buying an expensive CNC (computer numeric control) router.

With a CNC, designers use computer software to create intricate designs that can be cut from a variety of materials.

“It can do forms and shapes and geometries that traditional equipment can’t,” Sparkman said.

Alt32 made 64 desks and other furniture for the Plantory using birch plywood. Each desk was cut from a single sheet. Because the pieces were artfully arranged on the plywood before cutting, they left attractive “waste” sheets that could be used as decorative wall panels and stairway enclosures.

“In this case, the only waste is the sawdust,” Sparkman said.

Future products could include light fixtures, signage and even three-dimensional exterior wall panels made out of metal or plastic, which also can be cut on a CNC.

141112alt32-TE0065A“We’re just dipping our toe into the potential,” Brooks said. “But it’s a different kind of business from what our professional services are.”

The primary business they bought with Lucas/Schwering was designing Kentucky schools. That is still the firm’s bread and butter, and they want it to continue to be.

But they see fabrication, which now produces about 10 percent of their revenue and employs three full-time people in the shop, as a growth area that offers interesting ways to add value to their building designs.

For example, they have already made furniture for one school design. The firm designed interior space for Providence Montessori Middle School, which renovated the circa 1840s Florence Crittenton Home, and designed and built all of the school’s furniture.

Brooks and Sparkman said they have several upcoming projects, including new spaces for Crank & Boom ice cream and Lexington Pasta. They’re working on furniture prototypes that might fit the needs of those clients.

They also have thought of developing a line of ready-to-assemble furniture that could be sold online and flat-packed for shipping, as Ikea does.

Brooks and Sparkman said they want to keep their firm focused on Kentucky, and especially Lexington. Most of their non-school work is local, and they and all of the designers and interns in their firm are graduates of the University of Kentucky’s College of Design. They also want to keep Alt32 small enough to be flexible and creative.

“This has opened our eyes to different opportunities for how to manipulate materials,” Brooks said. “If you look at architecture now, it’s all about how do we manipulate all the materials we now have available.”

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Artists must learn business skills to make a living from their art

November 17, 2014

lackyJohn Lackey at his studio at North Limestone and Sixth streets. Photo by Tom Eblen

 

Lexington is starting to become a city where an artist can earn a living, but it requires almost as much focus on business as art.

Successful artists tell me they have had to learn strategy, salesmanship, client management and finance to earn money from their passion. Most of all, they have had to be flexible entrepreneurs, willing to try new things and see where they lead.

I talked about these issues last week with John Lackey, an independent artist in Lexington for a dozen years. Since 2010, he has operated Homegrown Press Studio & Gallery at the corner of Limestone and Sixth streets.

Lackey is best known for his intricate block prints and colorful acrylic paintings of Kentucky landscapes. They are fanciful scenes from nature, filled with swirling clouds and curly trees that almost seem to dance.

But Lackey does a lot more, both out of passion and necessity. He has done logos and other commercial art for businesses, including Alfalfa restaurant, where he once worked, and North Lime Coffee and Donuts, which shares his studio building. He also has produced more than a dozen concert posters for his favorite band, Wilco.

Lackey, this month, was commissioned by Kroger to paint an outside mural for its new Euclid Avenue store. The five interconnected, 12-by-7-foot panels along Marquis Avenue will depict “the trees with the most personality in Woodland Park, with human activity in the background,” he said.

He also is getting into filmmaking, after years of playing with time-lapse and animation photography. Lackey has an Indiegogo.com campaign that runs through Tuesday to raise money for a full-length movie. It will be set in Lexington’s northside and focus on themes of community and sustainability.

Lackey learned figurative art and print-making at the University of Kentucky, but some of his most useful professional skills were acquired during several years of hiatus between his studies, when he worked at lumber yards and car dealerships.

“I learned a lot that I still use today when I sold cars,” he said, including negotiating skills and how to read customers.

Lackey spent 14 years as a graphic artist for two Lexington TV stations, where he learned more about art and deadlines. He was then able to begin building an independent art career, thanks to an understanding wife with a steady paycheck.

Early on, he realized the work is a lot like being a home-improvement contractor. Customers who commission work have ideas, but often don’t know exactly what they want. That’s where listening skills and artistry come in.

Lackey said that being willing to try new things has helped him both get jobs and stretch artistically.

“At first, I didn’t do a lot of saying no, because I needed the money, and it pushed me out of my comfort zone,” he said. “It’s good if you have different things you like to do in art.”

The Kentucky Arts Council helped Lackey expose his work to potential clients. After being included in a show at the Governor’s Mansion, he was chosen to create the 2011 prizes for the Governor’s Award in the Arts. The council also helped him get a commission for four seasonal landscape paintings that now hang in the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce’s board room in Frankfort.

Many artists advise against doing free work to get exposure. While Lackey generally agrees, he follows his instinct on some projects where the payoff isn’t obvious.

For example, as a Wilco fan, he engaged others on the band’s website and volunteered to do artwork for a charity event. The band liked it and hired him to create concert posters.

The head of the Clyde’s restaurant chain around Washington, D.C., also is a Wilco fan. He saw Lackey’s posters and hired him to do artwork for the restaurants. The Clyde’s work was seen by Virginia-based Potter’s Craft Cider, which hired him to design its logo and labels. Such jobs can be vital income bridges between fine art projects.

Other free artwork has enriched his life, if not his bank account. Lackey has done more than 60 posters for the Holler Poet’s series at Al’s Bar, across East Sixth Street from his studio, where he occasionally reads his own poetry. Each poster became an opportunity to experiment with new techniques that have improved his work.

“For me, one of the benefits of being an artist is not having to do the same thing twice,” he said. “It keeps your brain regenerating.”


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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Logan’s of Lexington celebrates 50 years of family business success

May 26, 2014

Logans

Betty Logan and her sons Steve, left, and Elliot are marking Logan’s of Lexington’s 50th year. Logan’s was founded as a variety store in Midway by Betty’s husband, the late Harlan Logan, in 1964.Photo by Tom Eblen

 

Harlan and Betty Logan grew up in Lewis County, married at 18 and decided to go into business for themselves. Their first venture was a nine-stool diner in downtown in Nicholasville, and the work was exhausting.

Still, they managed to save $10,000 in five years. “We worked so many hours we didn’t have time to spend it,” she said.

The couple used their earnings to buy a variety store in Midway in 1964. There, they had the opposite problem: few customers. “We were very fortunate to hang in there,” she said.

In desperation, Harlan finally decided to refocus the store on fine clothing. It turned out to be a smart move. Logan’s of Lexington menswear is celebrating its 50th year in business and, the family says, doing better than ever.

Harlan Logan died in December at age 74, but most of his family remains involved in the business to some degree. Sons Steve, 46, and Elliot, 43, run the place with help from Betty and her three sisters, Judy, Pearl and Molly.

Elliot’s father-in-law, Wally Schmidt, works in the stock room. Elliot’s wife, Carol, and Steve’s wife, Misty, come in to help when needed.

“We have a very close family,” Elliot said.

Salesman Darrell McCarty has been with Logan’s for 22 years, and Jamie Burch has worked at the store for 14 years.

After Harlan decided to focus on high-end clothing in 1966, he traveled to New York City to get ideas for the store.

“He was always very progressive,” Elliot said. “He had a sixth sense about when a line was going to be hot or when something was going to be in fashion.”

The Midway store started attracting a regional clientele. “We had a lot of midnight sales,” Betty recalled. “We would have the whole town of Midway packed with cars.”

A Versailles warehouse store was added, then franchised stores in Georgetown and Nicholasville. Those closed in the late 1980s, and operations were moved and consolidated in Lexington’s Tates Creek Center in 1992.

“This has been our best location,” said Betty, but its small size prompted the family to drop women’s clothes and focus on menswear.

The store’s most memorable day came in January 2003. Just before Christmas, an elderly woman had come in looking for a shoehorn. Harlan gave her one, free of charge, adding that if her husband ever needed clothing she should bring him in. She did just that a few weeks later. By the time the couple finished shopping about 2:30 a.m., the cash register total was $35,600.

Small clothing stores have struggled in recent years. Men dress up less often for both work and pleasure, and independent retailers have been squeezed by big retail chains.

Lexington’s oldest menswear store, Graves, Cox & Co., began a going-out-of-business sale last week as owner Leonard Cox prepares to retire. His grandfather co-founded the business in 1888. Cox said two Georgia investors plan to open a men’s store in the same location, 325 West Main Street.

The Logan brothers said their business has stayed strong by diversifying and keeping up with trends. “We had a record year last year,” Elliot said. “This year has been even better.”

Although suits, sport coats and accessories are still the foundation of the business, high-end sportswear and “dress casual” clothing has become a growth area.

Steve has worked on marketing to University of Kentucky and Transylvania University students by using social media, attending fraternity events and recruiting a dozen students as campus representatives each semester.

“I’ve told those guys on campus, we were your dad’s store for a long time, but we’ve got a lot of things for you now if you come and take a look,” he said.

The store carries Southern Tide, a popular youth-oriented line of preppy clothing. Twice annual trunk shows pack the store with college men. “It’s great to see the next generation walking through your door,” Steve said.

Looking toward the future, Betty hopes some or all of her four granddaughters will be interested in keeping the business in the family. Steve has three daughters — Tori, Abby and Kailyn — and Elliot has one daughter, Taylor.

“Our days as a men’s store may be numbered,” Elliot said. “The future of Logan’s is probably a ladies’ shop.”


Fourth-generation McMahan Furniture rises from the ashes

March 31, 2014

140319McMahan0023Eugene McMahan, the third generation to operate his family’s business, does most of the wood-turning. Here he makes a finial for a four-poster bed. Photos by Tom Eblen

 

CAMPBELLSVILLE — It was a Friday afternoon and Patrick McMahan had just sprayed lacquer on a few pieces of furniture before heading out for a weekend camping trip. He switched on a fan to clear the fumes, “and the whole room blew up around me.”

“When I ran out, the guys in the back could see fire shooting over my head,” he said. “I could feel it on the back of my neck.”

The fan sucked flames into the attic, where they ignited years of accumulated sawdust. Before the burning ceiling collapsed, McMahan, his father, Eugene, and their employees waded through knee-deep water from firefighters’ hoses to rescue as much as they could of the top-quality furniture their family has been making for four generations.

Eugene McMahan & Son Furniture Co. burned to the ground within 45 minutes on Oct. 15, 2010. But a week and a half later, reconstruction began. Within four months, the largest of Campbellsville’s cherry furniture-makers was back in business.

140319McMahan0001Recovery has been tough because of the sluggish economy and furniture-buying trends. But the McMahans are exploring new products and sales venues, determined to continue the business Eugene’s grandfather and his eight sons started in the early 1940s.

Prized Kentucky antiques were becoming scarce in the 1930s, creating a market for reproduction furniture made of native cherry and walnut. Campbellsville became the center of that industry. At one point, McMahan Furniture had 38 workers. There were six other furniture-makers in town, too, a couple of them from branches of the McMahan family.

“Campbellsville cherry” became popular throughout the region. As textile factories came to small Kentucky towns in the 1960s, many women worked outside the home for the first time.

“They would save up enough money to buy a piece,” said Eugene’s wife, Linda McMahan. “And then they would come back and keep coming back until they got their whole home furnished. That’s mostly how it sold.”

But styles and circumstances change, and the number of Campbellsville cherry furniture shops has dwindled since the 1990s. McMahan Furniture is down to four full-time workers, including Patrick, who does the finishing, and Eugene, who selects the wood and does all of the turning. In addition, Linda keeps the books and Patrick’s wife, Leah, manages the website (Cvillecherry.com) and social media.

“Some people think we closed,” Eugene said. “They say, ‘I heard you all burned down.'”

One effort to rebuild the business is a new line of Shaker reproduction furniture and wooden gift items for Shaker Village at Pleasant Hill. The company also is making furniture to refurbish rooms in some of the village’s early 1800s buildings.

140319McMahan0097The McMahans also hope to cash in on the popularity of mid-century modern furniture from the 1940s-60s. Patrick, 34, understands the trend. His house in Louisville is furnished with mid-century modern, and he and his wife have a business, The Retro Metro, that deals in the originals (Retrometro502.com).

Patrick recently designed several mid-century modern pieces for McMahan Furniture to produce. They look like originals, but the quality is better: solid walnut rather than veneer.

But he knows styles inevitably go in and out of fashion.

“When every TV commercial has mid-century furniture in it, you kind of know it’s on its way out,” he said. “It’s going to reach its peak and something else will turn around. But there’s always going to be a need for traditional.”

The McMahans make a lot of traditional cannonball and four-poster beds, chests of drawers, bookcase desks, drop-leaf tables, corner cupboards, sideboards and sugar chests. Their most popular pieces range in price from $1,100 to $3,500.

But about half their work is custom. People bring in pictures of something they have seen, or they want to copy a family piece they remember from childhood.

“We don’t charge any extra just to make it different,” Patrick said. “We charge you based on what it costs us to make it. If you’re a good furniture-maker, you should be able to sit down in a few minutes and figure out measurements.”

McMahan Furniture’s selling point has always been quality. Every piece is hand-crafted from solid Kentucky cherry and walnut using traditional joinery — mortise and tenon and dovetail joints. Modern lacquers make the wood virtually waterproof.

Linda said a New Orleans customer sent in a picture of her house after Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005.

“It destroyed the house,” she said. “But there was our cannonball bed sitting in the middle of everything. It made it through.”

McMahan Furniture doesn’t take credit cards and doesn’t require deposits for custom work.

“We want to know they’re satisfied before they pay us,” Linda said. “We have never had a cold check in all those years. That says something for the type of people we deal with.”

Eugene just turned 73, but isn’t putting down his wood-turning chisels anytime soon. Patrick wants a career in the company, and for it to be around in case his 5-year-old son, Walt, wants to take over someday. “I’m not going to push him,” he said.

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Some Kentucky business stories to watch in 2014

January 6, 2014

Kentucky’s economy begins 2014 with a vigor not seen since the real estate bubble and Wall Street greed crashed the economy more than five years ago. Still, happy days are hardly here again.

Economist Paul Coomes issued a report for the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce last month that showed uneven recovery across Kentucky, based on the growth of wages and salaries. The state as a whole starts the year about 34,000 jobs (2 percent) below 2007, the year before the collapse.

Lexington and Louisville have been slower to rebound than the state as a whole. Owensboro had the strongest job growth, thanks largely to a major hospital construction project and a downtown riverfront redevelopment project financed by a local tax increase and $40 million in federal money.

Federal spending also was responsible for Hardin, Madison and Christian counties being the state’s leaders in terms of wage and salary growth. They benefitted from nearby military bases and the destruction of chemical weapons at the Bluegrass Army Depot.

Eastern Kentucky’s economy is usually the state’s weakest, and that is especially true heading into 2014. The region has lost 6,000 coal jobs recently because of four big factors: cheaper western coal, even cheaper natural gas, dwindling coal reserves in the mountains and stricter regulations to limit the environmental damage and health effects caused by mining and burning coal.

Overall, private business around Kentucky seems to be coming back to life. Although interest rates remain extremely low, community bankers grumble that regulations intended to rein in the excesses of Wall Street and biggest banks have made it difficult for them to lend money.

David Adkisson, president of the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, said the state’s business community overall is poised to do better in 2014 than in recent years. But there are lingering concerns about the financial impact of health care reform.

“There’s growing optimism, but there’s not enthusiasm yet,” Adkisson said of the state’s business climate, noting that Kentucky’s central location is a plus. “That’s an advantage nobody can take away.”

Business people will be keeping a close watch on the General Assembly session that begins Jan. 7. The state budget will again be the biggest issue, with a lot of attention focused on restoring recent cuts to educational investment. But, as usual, there is likely to be little appetite among lawmakers for comprehensive tax reform to address chronic state funding shortages.

Adkisson said some beneficial tax changes are likely, and Kentucky should reap some savings from recent reforms to prisons and state employee pensions.

Here are some economic stories to watch in 2014:

■ Lexington’s huge medical services industry should see a lot of action as major construction projects progress and the Affordable Care Act expands the availability of health insurance.

University of Kentucky Chandler Medical Center’s $1 billion expansion should see the completion of its 64-bed cardiovascular floor. Baptist Healthcare Lexington, formerly Central Baptist, will be going full tilt on its $230 million renovation and addition, scheduled to be finished in late 2015. Shriners Hospital is moving forward with plans for a new facility near Kentucky Children’s Hospital on the UK campus.

■ The Federation Equestre Internationale will announce this year whether the 2018 World Equestrian Games will be held at the Kentucky Horse Park. That was the site of the 2010 Games, which were successful thanks in large part to the active sponsorship of Alltech, the Nicholasville-based nutrition supplement company. Alltech also is the main sponsor of the 2014 Games, Aug. 23-Sept. 7, in Normandy, France.

With so many excellent competition facilities already in place, Lexington would seem to be in a good position to again host the Games, providing another big boost to Kentucky’s economy.

■ After five years of delays, construction is supposed to begin soon on the huge CentrePointe hotel, apartment, office and retail development in downtown Lexington. Developer Dudley Webb demolished a block of historic buildings for the project in 2008 but couldn’t get financing to build.

The first step in construction will be excavating a huge underground parking garage without breaching the century-old culvert containing Town Branch Creek. Because CentrePointe is getting some tax breaks, the city required Webb to show proof of construction financing and put up $4.4 million to restore the site in case he runs out of money. The goal is to keep CentrePasture from ending up as CentrePit or CentrePond.

■ This year will see more details about proposals for redeveloping Rupp Arena, Lexington Center and the huge surface parking lots surrounding them. And then there is the visionary plan to create Town Branch Commons, a connected greenway along the path of long-buried Town Branch Creek. They are ambitious proposals that will require even more ambitious financing plans.

■ The state Transportation Cabinet is likely to decide by late this year whether to recommend construction of the I-75 connector highway between Nicholasville and Interstate 75 in Madison County. Boosters say the $400-plus million project would be good for business. But opponents call it a special-interest boondoggle, a waste of public money that would cause substantial environmental damage to a section of the scenic Kentucky River Palisades south of Lexington.

■ A lot of excitement was generated Dec. 9 when more than 1,500 people gathered in Pikeville for a public forum launching a bipartisan effort to create new economic development strategies for Eastern Kentucky. Gov. Steve Beshear, a Democrat, and U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, a Republican, are leading the project, called Shaping Our Appalachian Region, or SOAR.

The coming year will show whether the effort called SOAR, or Shaping our Appalachian Region, amounts to a breakthrough or just more empty talk.

■ Another ambitious economic-development effort is the Bluegrass Economic Advancement Movement, or BEAM. Mayors Jim Gray of Lexington and Greg Fischer of Louisville launched it with the goal of attracting more advanced manufacturing jobs to the 22-county region around and between the two cities, which already includes Toyota Motor Manufacturing Co. and many of its suppliers.

In late November, Gray and Fischer unveiled a BEAM strategic plan around the ideas of embracing innovation, increasing Kentucky exports and improving education and workforce development. It’s a sensible vision, but whether Kentucky leaders will find the political will to invest in making it happen remains to be seen.

Staff writers Janet Patton and Cheryl Truman contributed to this report. 


‘Hippie’ restaurant Alfalfa celebrates 40 years of good food

April 23, 2013

Alfalfa1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Artie Howard cooks during Alfalfa’s early days.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

130421Alfalfa1974-Mendes002

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

 


Kentucky Mudworks has succeeded by thinking outside the wheel

April 22, 2013

130416KyMudworks0047

Link Henderson of Kentucky Mudworks makes one of the ceramic pint glasses that will be part of her fundraiser for Seedleaf on April 27 at West Sixth Brewery. A $15 donation to the community garden group will come with a beer in one of her handmade pint glasses. Photo by Tom Eblen 

 

Link Henderson moved here after college in 1997 because her best friend got married, got a teaching job in Lexington and bought a duplex where Henderson could rent the other half.

“I always wanted to own my own business, ever since I was a kid,” said Henderson, who grew up in North Carolina and majored in Latin and ceramics at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa. “I just didn’t know what it was or how it would happen.”

After working as a waitress and baker, Henderson got a job teaching ceramics classes at the city-owned Loudoun House.

When it was closed for a major renovation, she rented studio space in an old carriage house downtown, offered her own classes and made pottery to sell.

As the business grew, she moved to larger quarters on Jefferson Street. One thing led to another, and Kentucky Mudworks LLC is now a full-service ceramics studio, school and store at 825 National Avenue.

130416KyMudworks0085The company will have one of its two annual charity fundraisers April 27 at West Sixth Brewery. Called Pints for Plants, the event benefits Seedleaf, a nonprofit organization that works to provide affordable, nutritious food for people at risk of hunger in Central Kentucky.

Henderson is hand-making more than 300 ceramic pint glasses. Donors get a pint of beer in a glass for a $15 donation to Seedleaf, from 3 p.m. until they are all gone.

Henderson said Kentucky Mudworks’ success has been all about diversification.

“Knowing my market and being willing to have a toe in every facet of the business,” she said.

When Henderson began making pottery and teaching classes, she was frustrated that there was no good place in the region to buy clay. There are fewer than a dozen ceramic clay manufacturers in the country, and mail order is expensive.

“A box of clay is only $30, but it costs $20 to ship it,” she said. “So, if you have a local supplier, it’s a really great thing.”

Henderson started selling clay to potters, schools and universities. Kentucky Mudworks now stocks 80 kinds of clay in its 11,000-square-foot facility, along with kilns, wheels and a full range of pottery materials and supplies.

130416KyMudworks0049When online retailers started taking a bite out of her margins several years ago, Henderson created her own line of tools.

“Instead of trying to compete with 30 or 50 online stores, I wanted to have products in those stores,” she said.

Dirty Girls Pottery Tools now has about 40 distributors in the United States and Canada. Henderson also sells them at her shop and website: Kentuckymudworks.com.

Henderson and her five employees make commissioned pottery, such as trophies and awards. They also offer ceramics classes for adults and children. Kentucky Mudworks recently partnered with Zig Zeigler, a stained-glass artist whose studio is down the street, to offer stained glass classes.

The hardest thing about building the business was financing.

“In the beginning, it was credit cards, which is an absolute no-no,” Henderson said. “But I was 25 and had no collateral.”

As the business grew, she was able to get a conventional loan, which she plans to pay off in September. Henderson owns 90 percent of the business. Eight percent is owned by a friend and investor, and a longtime employee owns 2 percent.

But, for many years, much of Henderson’s capital came from living simply and plowing most of her earnings back into the business.

“I probably lived on 700 bucks a month for I don’t know how long, literally living above the shop,” she said. “Ramen noodles: that’s how I financed my business!

“I didn’t have a family or a mortgage,” added Henderson, 38, who now lives on a farm near Lawrenceburg. “I started when I was so young because I figured if I don’t do it now, I’ll never do it if I have something to lose.”

In addition to constant financial discipline, Henderson said she does a business plan every five years to stay on track.

Kentucky Mudworks has been a lot of work, but it has been worth it, she said.

“I wish more young people would start businesses,” Henderson said. “I was very, very lucky. I found a niche, a hole in the market that I was able to capitalize on.

“But it takes so much more than you think.”

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One entrepreneur hopes to educate, another to be educated

April 1, 2013

130327Quisenberry-TE0081

Rosetta Lucas Quisenberry just published her fifth black history book. Photo by Tom Eblen

 

Not all entrepreneurs are in it for the money. As two very different entrepreneurs from Lexington show, business can be a good way to achieve personal and social goals as well as financial ones.

Rosetta Lucas Quisenberry, a retired Fayette County Public Schools teacher, just published the fifth book in her Black Saga series: Things, People and Places We Must Always Remember.

Like her first four books, this one has a fascinating collection of images of racist postcards, advertisements, coin banks and other ephemera from the 1890s to the 1940s, followed by images from that period that show a more positive reality of black Americans.

Quisenberry was a 24-year-old graduate student at the University of Kentucky in 1975 when she went to Turfland Mall to look at a visiting antique show. She noticed a couple of white women giggling at old postcards.

After they moved on, she walked over to see what was so funny. What she found shocked her: depictions of black people eating watermelon, picking cotton, posing as “alligator bait” and otherwise being made objects of ridicule.

“Nobody had ever told me this material even existed,” she said, adding that she bought every one of the postcards “to take them off the market. I was ashamed of it.”

Collecting such artifacts became an obsession with Quisenberry, who went to antique shows all over the country and accumulated more than 1,000 of them.

After a few years, though, she realized that rather than being hidden and forgotten, these racist relics should be seen and remembered. Only then, she thought, would black and white people understand the depth of past racism and how it continues to affect society in subtle ways.

130401Eblen-Book001Quisenberry photographed a sampling of her collection of negative and positive images and published her first book, A Saga of the Black Man, in 2003. Over the years, she came out with three more similar books, focusing on black women, children and families. The new book ties them all together.

The former teacher would like to see her books used in public school history classes, but she doubts it will happen.

Modern parents might be offended by what were once commonplace examples of racist humor, she said, and school systems themselves were once complicit. For example, the new book’s images include the program from a black-face “minstrel show” put on by students of Lexington’s all-white Picadome Elementary in 1947.

Quisenberry’s books cost $15 each and are available in many Central Kentucky bookstores or directly from her: (859) 299-7258.

Kids for Kids

Logan Gardner, a senior at Henry Clay High School’s Liberal Arts Academy, has known since he was little that he wanted to go into business. He figured one good way to learn about business would be to start one.

130401Eblen-LoganGardner realized that few adults might be willing to do business with a kid. But he saw an opportunity in the charity projects many of his friends were involved with. He created Kids for Kids Youth Social Ventures, a nonprofit organization that would teach him business skills and help his friends jump-start their fundraising efforts.

“Running a charity is similar to running a business,” he said. “It’s a lot of the same skills.”

Gardner, 18, wrote a business plan, filled out the voluminous paperwork to seek nonprofit tax status, created a website (Kidsforkidsysv.org) and set up a presence on social media. Then he partnered with the crowd-funding site Rockethub.com.

Gardner got mentoring along the way from his father, John Gardner, a financial advisor for Wells Fargo Advisors, and Erin Budde, who leads Wells Fargo’s national charity efforts and will soon become executive director of stl250, the group planning St. Louis’ 250th anniversary celebration in 2014.

Kids for Kids’ first project raised $2,000 to help Ellen Hardcastle, 17, a family friend in Nashville, produce a CD of her piano solos. The CDs will be sold to raise almost $5,800 to build a new well for Ulongwe Model School in Malawi.

Kids for Kids’ current project on Rockethub.com is halfway toward its goal of raising $900 by April 17 for Lusi Lukova, a Henry Clay junior, to help the Lexington-based International Book Project ship textbooks to schools in Uganda.

Gardner soon will be turning over Kids for Kids to his brother, Austin, 17, as he heads this fall to the University of Pennsylvania, where he has been accepted into the prestigious Wharton School of Business. Did starting Kids for Kids give him an edge?

“Absolutely,” Gardner said. “I think that’s what got me into Penn.”


Coba Cocina owners banking on ‘wow’ building, food, service, value

March 18, 2013

130310Coba0023Coba Cocina has a huge jellyfish tank and special effects lighting. Photos by Tom Eblen

 

With its golden dome, colorful lighting and huge jellyfish tank, the new Coba Cocina building on Richmond Road has created a lot of buzz.

The public will get its first look — and taste — Monday when Greer Companies opens the 400-seat restaurant, bar and confectionery, which serves Latin-inspired food at moderate prices in a Vegas atmosphere.

“We’re hoping to wow people with the building,” said Lee Greer, president of the Lexington-based company. “The food is the best I’ve ever had. If we can nail the service — we’re aiming for a New Orleans level of service — we’ll have something special.”

Coba Cocina is the prototype for what Greer hopes will become a restaurant chain. In many ways, it is a collection of the favorite things he and his father have seen and tasted in their travels throughout Latin America.

Phil Greer started the commercial real estate development and hospitality company in the late 1980s after many years as a teacher and coach at Tates Creek High School. Greer Companies owns a number of franchised hotels and restaurants, including 35 Cheddar’s in Kentucky and five other states.

130314Coba-TE0003After the University of Virginia and a brief career as an investment banker in New York, Lee Greer, 36, came home to work with his father. He immersed himself in the restaurant business and began gathering ideas for creating their own concept.

Many of those ideas found their way into the unique building designed by architect Todd Ott and interior designer Brittney Lavens of Lexington-based CMW Inc.

“It was all just described to us in adjectives,” Ott said of the instructions they received from the Greers. “Phil said, ‘Go away for a month and come back and wow me. If you wow me, you get the job.'”

Ott and Lavens spent the time researching Mesoamerican culture, ancient Incan and Mayan architecture and Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula. Coba is a site of Mayan ruins in the Yucatán.Cocina is Spanish for kitchen.

The Yucatán is famous for cenotes — deep natural pits leading to water-filled caves. Coba Cocina is designed to make customers feel as if they are sitting inside one.

Ott said almost everything in the building is custom-made. There are wavelike panels of precision-cut wood on some walls and translucent wave panels over lighted ceilings.

Six chandeliers, which resemble Dale Chihuly sculptures, each contain 125 pieces of Italian glass hand-blown in Poland. Other lighting is computerized so color schemes can be changed to create different moods.

A column-shaped aquarium, 18 feet tall and six feet in diameter, will contain more than 300 jellyfish. The column rises to a gold dome in the center of the restaurant, giving the illusion of sunlight filtering into a cenote.

The reception desk and bar tops are made of backlit onyx. There are terrazzo and bamboo floors, and walls with enough curves to make a drywall mason cry. There are water walls, glass staircases and large expanses of iridescent tile.

“Some of the most exceptional craftsmanship was done locally,” construction manager Mike Balog said. “We tried to use as much Lexington talent as we could.”

Lee Greer wouldn’t say how much the family-owned company has invested in the building, although he acknowledged it is more than the $4.5 million estimate on the construction permit. Site acquisition and preparation cost an additional $1.2 million.

The building is designed to impress, but Greer knows that what will make customers come back is great food, service and value. That is the responsibility of a team of restaurant industry veterans: development director Larry Kerns, general manager Bahman Fakharpour and Alejandro and Shanyn Velasquez, husband-and-wife chefs from Texas.

130307Carnegie-TE0025Alejandro Velasquez oversees a high-tech kitchen designed to quickly turn fresh ingredients into dishes served with just the right temperature and presentation. Of the restaurant’s 200 employees, 40 work in the kitchen.

“Our food is simple, but it has a lot of flavor,” said Velasquez, a second- generation chef. “It’s been a great brainstorming effort to figure all of this out.”

The menu includes creative adaptations of tacos, fajitas and other traditional Mexican dishes. Among the signature entrees are agave-glazed salmon and barbecued ribs, specialty burgers, Cuban sandwiches, chicken, tilapia and steaks.

Only four entrees are priced at more than $13. At $24, filet mignon is the most expensive item on the menu. The restaurant also serves weekday lunches and Sunday brunch, with no entrees priced at more than $9.

The upstairs Cobar Cantina has a large selection of beer and wine, premium bourbons and tequilas, specialty margaritas and signature cocktails. Cobar also has small-plate “tapas” dishes priced from $4 to $8.

A third concept within the restaurant is Cocoh!, serving gelato, coffees, confections, cakes and other baked goods. Pastry chef Shanyn Velasquez directs this kid-friendly operation.

Lee Greer said he and his team want Coba Cocina to be a unique experience — one that will become so popular in Lexington that it will create a market for expansion and make their big investment pay off.

“Everything I’ve ever done in some form or fashion is in this building,” Greer said. “We knew it would take a lot of investment. We wanted to do it in Lexington, get it right and see where it goes.”

IF YOU GO

Coba Cocina

What: Restaurant serving Latin American-inspired food in a Las Vegas atmosphere. Also has a Latin lounge with signature cocktails and tapas dishes and a confectionery with gelato, premium coffees, fresh baked goods and pastries.

Where: 2041 Richmond Rd., at St. Margaret Dr.

Coba Cocina hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Mon.-Thu.; 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Fri., Sat.; 9:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Sun. (Cobar Cantina stays open one hour later every day except Sunday.)

Cocoh! Confectioner hours: 6:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Mon.-Sat., 7 a.m.-9 p.m. Sun.

Learn more: (859) 523-8484 or Cobacocina.com

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More small Lexington businesses are ‘doing well by doing good’

February 4, 2013

West Sixth Brewery partners, left to right, Ben Self, Joe Kuosman, Robin Sither and Brady Barlow made community improvement part of their business plan. Photos by Tom Eblen

 

As so many businesses become consolidated and conglomerated, the only things that seem to matter are profit, shareholder value and excessive executive compensation. Communities, like employees, become expendable.

But the trend with small, locally owned businesses seems different, at least in Lexington. You don’t have to look far to see it.

Since its creation in 2008, Local First Lexington, a non-profit alliance of locally owned and independently operated businesses, has made community enrichment a priority. And many business people do things on their own, such as insurance agent Debra Hensley, who spends a lot of time on public service and community-building.

These business people are doing great things for Lexington. But they are quick to tell you that their efforts also are good for their businesses. There’s a term for it: “Doing well by doing good.”

Stella’s Kentucky Deli does regular “dining for a cause” nights, donating 15 percent of sales to a local charity. Thai Orchid, Nick Ryan’s Saloon and many other restaurants do similar fund-raising nights and events.

Lexington retailers often donate merchandise or gift certificates for charity auctions, or they sponsor events and non-profit organizations. Some examples: Joseph-Beth Booksellers has book fairs for organizations, giving them as much as 20 percent of sales. The Morris Book Shop sponsors several local non-profits, makes donations and opens its store for events.

“I think you’re seeing a lot more of it,” said Ben Self, one of four partners who opened West Sixth Brewery in April. “I think people are starting to understand that it’s not a one-way street. It’s beneficial all the way around.

“That’s the future of building communities: businesses and non-profits working together for common goals.”

West Sixth Brewery has some of Lexington’s most ambitious community outreach efforts, beginning with the 90,000-square-foot former bread factory the partners bought for their brewery and tasting room.

They rent space in the rambling building to artists, writers and a variety of community-minded businesses and non-profit organizations. Those include Broke Spoke Community Bike Shop, Magic Beans Coffee Roasters, Roller Girls of Central Kentucky, and FoodChain, a sustainable urban agriculture non-profit started by Self’s wife, Rebecca.

“It’s nice to see the synergies and cooperation among the different groups,” said partner Joe Kuosman, noting the Roller Girls have after-hours events at the brewery, where its resident artists’ work is displayed.

“We committed from the very beginning to giving 6 percent of our profits to local charitable organizations,” Self said of the brewery, “and we far exceeded that the first year.”

In addition, the brewery sponsors an event for a different local non-profit each month, donating 6 percent of sales that night. The next one, on Wednesday, benefits the Community Farm Alliance.

The events often bring in people who have never been to West Sixth, but then come back again and again, partner Brady Barlow said.

West Sixth’s partners also set sustainability goals for their business, from rehabilitating an old building with reclaimed wood fixtures to recycling waste, and canning rather than bottling their beer since it’s easier to recycle.

Bourbon n’ Toulouse restaurant owners Will Pieratt, left, and Kevin Heathcoat.

Bourbon n’ Toulouse, a Chevy Chase restaurant that serves good, cheap Cajun food, has made community outreach the core of its marketing strategy since it opened in 2004. Partners Will Pieratt and Kevin Heathcoat give away a lot of gift certificates for charity and frequently sponsor events where as much as 25 percent of that day’s sales go to a non-profit.

The restaurant’s two biggest annual events are Empty Bowls, a partnership with Kentucky Mudworks pottery studio that benefits Moveable Feast, which provides meals to local people living with HIV/AIDS; and one for the Race for the Cure, which benefits research into breast cancer, which killed Heathcoat’s mother.

Other events have focused on disaster relief, such as Bow to the Brow day last March that honored University of Kentucky basketball player Anthony Davis and raised money for Eastern Kentucky tornado recovery.

“Some of our very best customers came here for the first time for a charity event,” Heathcoat said. “We just can’t believe more businesses don’t do this.”

Beyond growing their business, though, Pieratt and Heathcoat think community support is simply the right thing to do.

“We opened on seven credit cards and $10,000 I borrowed from my brother,” Heathcoat said. “If it wasn’t for this neighborhood, we wouldn’t have made it. Our philosophy from day one has been that the community supported us so we have a responsibility to give back.”

Wyn Morris, owner of The Morris Book Shop, feels that sense even more acutely. His father, lawyer Leslie Morris, was among the 49 people killed when Comair Flight 5191 crashed on takeoff from Blue Grass Airport on Aug. 27, 2006.

“Lexington truly came through for all of us,” said Morris, who opened his bookstore two years later and decided to put community engagement at the core of his business plan. “I just realized I hadn’t done much of anything for the community. It was a kind of a wake-up call.”