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.”

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

 


Kentucky Mudworks has succeeded by thinking outside the wheel

April 22, 2013

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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

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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.”


Holidays a good time to give thanks for local businesses

November 26, 2012

Let us now give thanks for Kentucky’s locally owned businesses.

Yes, I know Thanksgiving was last week. But the holiday season is a good time to acknowledge, appreciate and patronize Kentucky companies and those special mom-and-pop shops.

I was reminded of this Wednesday when our younger daughter came home from New York City for the holiday. Shannon wanted to be met with fresh doughnuts from Spalding’s Bakery.

On her way in from Louisville, where a friend picked her up at the airport, she was stopping at Rebecca Ruth Candies outside Frankfort to get bourbon balls. They would be dessert after we went for lunch at Bourbon n’ Toulouse.

Late that afternoon, Shannon wanted me to take her to West Sixth Brewing Co. Another day, I said, we need to go to Country Boy Brewing. But if there isn’t time this trip, there’s usually Kentucky Ale in the refrigerator. Thanks to Lexington’s many fine new brewers, plus places such as The Beer Trappe and Lexington Beerworks, there’s no excuse for drinking commodity beer.

That discussion led to plans for Saturday morning breakfast from North Lime Coffee & Donuts. That new business was just getting ready to open the last time Shannon was in town, and the owners gave us samples from their test run.

Lexington has so many great places to eat, it’s no wonder I have to put in a couple of thousand miles a year on my bicycles to keep from getting fatter than I am.

I live within a short walk or bike ride of Spalding’s and Magee’s bakeries. When I drive to Versailles, my car seems to steer itself into Doughdaddy’s. And I can never go to Danville without picking up a bag of gingerbread men from Burke’s Bakery.

I rise before dawn a couple of mornings each week from late spring until mid-fall for a 25-mile bike ride with friends, followed by a country-ham biscuit and coffee at Windy Corner Market. No ride to Midway is complete without lunch at Wallace Station, just as Rick’s White Light Diner is a must-stop on a ride to Frankfort.

Other lunch favorites include Mr. Kabab, Stella’s Deli, Natasha’s, Charlie’s Seafood (home of Lexington’s biggest and best fried fish sandwich), Ramsey’s and Bangkok House. Most of the owners know me; some even recognize my voice when I call in takeout orders.

Nobody makes a better $3 sandwich than Wilson’s Grocery & Meats. And I’m constantly finding great new food trucks. (Lexington needs to make it easier to patronize food trucks; they don’t so much compete with restaurants as create a more dynamic food scene that attracts more patrons to all eating establishments.)

When it comes to dinner, Lexington has so many great restaurants it takes us forever to make the rounds to them all: Grey Goose, Dudley’s, Nick Ryan’s, Joe Bologna’s, Pazzo’s, Table Three Ten, Portofino, Goodfellas, Jonathan’s, Mary Lou’s BBQ, Yamamoto, Rincon, Mi Pequeña Hacienda, Billy’s Bar-B-Q and Sal’s Chophouse. I’m sure I’m leaving out a dozen others.

In the grander scheme of eating and drinking, Kentucky is blessed with many local farms, vineyards, bourbon distilleries and country ham processors. Plus local farmers markets and retailers such as Good Foods, Corner Wine, Liquor Barn, Wines on Vine and Wine + Market.

Aside from food, local businesses offer Kentuckians goods and services that the big national chains can’t match.

While renovating an old house this past year, I became a regular at every home-improvement store in town. But I finally discovered that if Chevy Chase Hardware doesn’t have it, I probably don’t need it.

I take my dry cleaning to Sonny’s in Chevy Chase, alterations to the Button Hole. My cars have kept running thanks to Lowell’s, Georgia’s Service Center and B&W Automotive. Then I think about all of the local book stores, florists, repair shops, contractors and tradesmen too numerous to mention that I have patronized in recent years.

I’m sure you have a similar list of local businesses for which you are thankful. If you want to share them, leave a comment.

Happy holidays.


Olive oil entrepreneur started over after dramatic rise and fall

November 11, 2012

Stuart Utgaard, president of Stuarto’s Olive Oil Co. Photo by Tom Eblen

 

Since moving to Lexington in 2010 to start Stuarto’s Olive Oil Co., Stuart Utgaard has grown his business from one store in Hamburg to a second in Chevy Chase. Sales are up nearly 60 percent this year, he says, and his startup debt should be repaid within two years.

But this isn’t a typical entrepreneur’s success story. It is more of a comeback tale. Utgaard’s career could best be described by an old saying: The bigger they are, the harder they fall.

Minnesota’s Twin Cities Business magazine once described Utgaard as a master of mergers and acquisitions, that region’s biggest dealmaker in the 1980s and 1990s. Utgaard said he put together 108 deals worth more than $1.7 billion.

Already a multimillionaire, he bought a sporting goods store called Sportsman’s Warehouse in 1996 and built it into a chain of 73 stores in 33 states. Utgaard acquired all the trappings of success: luxury homes, fancy cars, even a Learjet. Then, he lost everything.

“I went from owning a private jet to sleeping in my car in cemeteries and church parking lots with no food,” he said.

How did Utgaard climb so high only to fall so far? It is a long and complicated story, which he can describe in great detail. The dates and numbers are seared into his memory. He even wrote a self-published book about it: The Sportsman’s Warehouse Story.

Here’s a short version: Utgaard built his company on debt. That worked until a new computerized inventory control system failed and made it difficult to track orders, deliveries and customer purchases. That caused sales to plummet as the economy slowed. Sportsman’s Warehouse violated loan covenants at the worst possible time in 2008. When Wall Street’s house of cards began collapsing, credit markets evaporated.

Unable to borrow more money, Utgaard lost his company to his lenders. Because he had personally guaranteed some of the debt, he was forced into personal bankruptcy and lost everything he owned, about $15 million of assets.

Utgaard even lost the Wisconsin farm where his family had operated a chicken hatchery for more than a century. It was there, as a boy, that he first learned about business and hard work, cleaning equipment and boxing chicks for sale.

He went through a messy divorce and was unable to find work as an executive. So the former Ernst & Young regional Entrepreneur of the Year decided to move to Lexington and become an entrepreneur again.

Why Lexington? Utgaard said he had gotten to know developer Patrick Madden when he was negotiating to build Sportsman’s Warehouse store No. 63 in the Hamburg development. Madden was willing to lease Utgaard a small retail space behind that store as a place for him to start over in business.

“When I came here, I literally had $20 in my pocket,” Utgaard said. “But some of my friends were still crazy enough to loan me money after I went bankrupt.”

He thought there was a good retail opportunity in premium olive oil. People are using a lot more olive oil because of its health benefits, but, because of lax international labeling laws, much of it is of low quality, diluted with less-healthy oils.

“This will become a good business and generate a good cash flow,” Utgaard said.

But he doesn’t expect to become America’s olive oil king; he just wants to get back on his feet. Utgaard is doing some business consulting, and he said he might take a corporate job again one of these days.

Utgaard has reflected on the hard lessons he learned at Sportsman’s Warehouse, which he shares in his book and in speeches to university business students.

Among those lessons: have ample cash reserves to carry your business through lean times; don’t personally guarantee business debt; minimize bank borrowing; if you need outside equity, a large number of small shareholders is better than a small number of larger ones; even when things are going well, assume you could lose everything; set up an independent income stream or trust fund to provide for your family if your business fails.

But this was Utgaard’s biggest lesson: Never give up.

“I’ve been blessed with a good mind and business skills, and I’m not afraid to work,” said Utgaard, 67, recalling how Harland Sanders was about his age when he started franchising Kentucky Fried Chicken after his Corbin restaurant failed.

“You have to assume things will get better,” he said. “You have to try.”

 


Lexington entrepreneur hopes to revolutionize consumer credit

September 3, 2012

Shane Hadden spent more than a decade in New York City, figuring out ways for corporate clients of Credit Suisse to lower their borrowing costs. That work gave him some ideas about how to do the same for average consumers.

So, three years ago, the 43-year-old Danville native moved back to Central Kentucky with his wife and three young daughters to create Float Money LLC. After three years of development and testing, the Lexington-based company backed by local investors launches this month in Kentucky and two other states. Here is how it works:

Float members use the company’s Web site to make purchases, either from online retailers such as Amazon or by buying gift cards to local merchants and chains such as Meijer, Macy’s, Kmart, CVS and Speedway. Merchants pay a commission on those sales, which is how Float makes its money.

In return for their purchases, Float members build up a line of credit they can borrow from without any interest or fees, Hadden said. The more of their spending Float members do through the Web site, and the better their standard FICO credit score, the higher their line of credit grows over time. Credit lines range from a few hundred dollars to $20,000.

The idea is to give consumers a no-cost borrowing alternative to credit cards. But people who use credit cards to earn rewards, such as airline points or cash back, can still use them to buy through Float.

Float members can draw on their credit line at any time for any purpose, essentially taking out 10-month personal loans that must be repaid at the rate of 10 percent per month, Hadden said.

Like any loan, repaying the line of credit is a legal obligation. But what happens if a loan isn’t repaid on time? Credit that members earn with future purchases through Float goes to pay off their loan rather than increasing their line.

“Even if you owe money, you’re still going to need to spend money on essentials,” Hadden said. “Those future purchases are an asset you have, and we’re unlocking it.”

Float has signed more than 1,000 merchants so far to participate in the system, Hadden said. About 300 initial members have been testing the system since last November. Floatmoney.com is now accepting new members.

Hadden thinks Float will be popular, because a lot of people get in trouble with credit cards, whose high interest rates can rapidly compound debt on unpaid monthly balances. Americans now have more than $2.5 billion in outstanding consumer credit, about $866 million of which is with credit cards and other forms of revolving credit, according to Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia.

Hadden’s concept isn’t really new: It is essentially the old-fashioned kind of credit that small stores once gave regular customers, or the no-interest loans retailers still give customers to make major purchases, such as a new car, furniture or appliances.

What’s different is that the Internet now provides a way to combine the buying power of huge numbers of customers. As Float adds members and merchants, it hopes to use that buying power to get higher commissions for itself and discounts for members.

Hadden said he isn’t aware of any other companies with the same business model: the ability to create absolutely free, general-purpose credit in return for making everyday purchases.

Float isn’t a bank; legally, it is a state-regulated finance company. The company plans to expand nationwide as it is licensed and recruits local retailers in each state. In addition to Kentucky and neighboring Ohio, Float is launching in Massachusetts because its own lender, Developer Finance Corp., is based there.

Given the size of the consumer credit market, Hadden is optimistic about Float’s long-term growth potential. He plans to keep the business based in Lexington.

Hadden said the company’s other investors include: W.T. Young LLC; Cheddars restaurant owner Lee Greer; Internet entrepreneur and West Sixth Brewing partner Ben Self; and Donald Mullineaux, a longtime banking and finance professor at the University of Kentucky.

“I thought it was a novel idea that addresses a significant need,” Mullineaux said, noting that credit card interest rates are very high even though bank rates are at historic lows. “When I first heard about it, my initial response was, ‘What’s the catch?’ There’s not one.”


Lessons from two of Kentucky’s top entrepreneurs

May 28, 2012

More than 400 local business leaders packed a Lexington Center ballroom last Tuesday to hear lectures encouraging entrepreneurship in Kentucky from two of the state’s most successful entrepreneurs.

Jim Host, the founder of Host Communications and now chief executive of iHigh.com, and Pearse Lyons, founder and president of Alltech, told their personal stories, talked about why Kentucky needs more entrepreneurs and offered their personal tips for success.

I know how much business people love lists of success tips, so I will share those later. First, though, I want to discuss why, beyond their obvious success, Host and Lyons are worth your attention.

Both are classic, hard-charging entrepreneurs. They are keen observers of business and society. Not only do they embrace change, they try to anticipate and drive it. They know that people always want better ways to satisfy their needs and desires, and in that space are great business opportunities. They know how to make things happen.

Jim Host

Host is a home-grown success story. He moved to Ashland as a boy and has spent most of his life in Kentucky, including serving in state government and running unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor early in his career.

Host created world-class companies in travel, sports marketing and communications. Now he is trying to create the future of television. Host never felt he needed to move elsewhere to succeed. More importantly, he never allowed his vision to be limited by Kentucky’s cultural aversion to change.

Most recently, Host led the effort to build Louisville’s KFC Yum Center arena, despite being a blue-bleeding University of Kentucky alumnus and fan. Working in Louisville underscored for him the foolishness of allowing intrastate rivalries to obstruct progress.

Host, 74, has become an evangelist for Louisville-Lexington cooperation. He was founding chairman of the Bluegrass Economic Advancement Movement, a new effort led by both cities’ mayors to bring more advanced-manufacturing jobs to Kentucky.

Lyons’ story is different. Born, reared and educated in Ireland, he came to Kentucky in 1974 because he thought it was a great place to start a business.

Pearse Lyons

Alltech began with the idea of developing and making all-natural animal nutrition supplements. Now, the company’s goal is no less than figuring out how to feed the world using natural ingredients and breakthrough technology, not to mention making good beer and whiskey on the side. Privately held Alltech now has 3,000 employees in 128 countries, including more than 500 in Kentucky.

Part of what makes Lyons worth watching is that he has figured out how to embrace and build upon Kentucky’s strengths without feeling limited by its traditional shortcomings. He is bullish about Kentucky’s potential. He took a “Kentucky Proud” road show to England’s Windsor Castle. Alltech is selling Bourbon Barrel Ale in China and, soon, in Ireland. Alltech just launched the Lyons Farm brand of premium meats, which have a distinct Kentucky marketing flavor.

“If you can’t sell Kentucky as a place to do business, then you’re not in any shape or form a salesman, because it’s an easy sale,” Lyons said. “I’ve been around the world I don’t know how many times, and I’ve never found a place as conducive to doing business or rearing a family as Kentucky — y’all.”

Now, about those success tips. Both entrepreneurs stressed the importance of having a positive attitude, passion for your work, a willingness to take risks, a confidence in self and a good sense of humor.

Among Host’s success tips:

■ Be prepared. Eighty percent of any sale is preparation; 20 percent is presentation.

■ Under-promise and over-deliver.

■ Do not lie or misrepresent to a client about anything. “You build great companies on integrity and character,” he said.

■ Write down the five most important things you need to do each day, and do the hardest one first. That will clear your head for creative thinking.

■ If you focus on creating excellence, profits will follow.

Among Lyons’ success tips:

■ Take a chance, any chance, to start a business. And, if possible, go it alone. You can never truly align partners’ dreams with your own.

■ Be curious and add to your expertise, both through your own education and by hiring great people.

■ Avoid negative people, whom he called “energy vampires.”

■ Be prepared to change your business, but not your core values.

■ You have two ears, one mouth; listen more than you talk, and take notes.

 


Chamber can have big influence on improving Kentucky

July 18, 2011

I am increasingly impressed with the leadership of the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce. Rather than just taking care of business, it seems to realize that improving life in Kentucky will help create economic prosperity.

That was apparent at last week’s annual meeting in Louisville. The agenda focused on substantive discussions of two of Kentucky’s biggest issues, coal and education.

For example, the keynote speaker on coal was journalist James Fallows, whose Atlantic magazine cover story last December was one of the best things I have read on the subject. “Coal is inevitably going to be a major part of the world’s energy solution for the foreseeable future,” he said. “But that role will be and has to be different.”

While Fallows characterized his remarks as a “good news speech,” it was nothing like the hot air we usually hear from the coal industry and its cheerleaders.

No matter how successful the world is at developing alternative energy, coal will remain a vital fuel for decades, Fallows said. But he stressed that global economic, scientific and political trends will require that coal be mined and burned in more environmentally friendly ways. It is smarter to lead change than be trampled by it.

Solutions built around market incentives — such as the ill-fated “cap and trade” proposal — would be better than regulation because they would encourage business creativity and flexibility, Fallows said. But if business wants market-driven change rather than regulatory change, he said, “high-level industrial leadership is important.”

Fallows was followed by Michael G. Morris, chairman of American Electric Power, whose remarks were titled “Coal Under Attack.” While saying that coal must get “cleaner,” his rambling presentation was filled with the usual clichés about new environmental rules being unfair and unreasonable.

Morris bragged about how much less pollution coal-fired power plants emit now than they used to — as if that were the result of industry leadership rather than government regulations that most utilities fought every step of the way.

Morris repeated an earlier claim that new regulations will have a “devastating effect” on AEP, shutting down 6,000 megawatts of generating capacity. But as another speaker pointed out later, two-thirds of that capacity was going to be retired anyway because of a 2007 pollution settlement with the Bush administration.

I was impressed that so many chamber members seemed wise to Morris, even ignoring most of his attempts at applause and laugh lines.

Morris was followed by Rodney Andrews, director of the University of Kentucky’s Center for Applied Energy Research. He gave an excellent but rushed presentation that echoed many of Fallows’ points and made a persuasive economic and environmental argument for making coal-fired power plants more efficient. I would like to have heard more from him.

The chamber announced some initiatives that could have a big impact. The New Agenda for Kentucky Campaign focuses on action plans in five areas: improving schools, modernizing government, remaining competitive in energy resources, doubling international exports within five years and improving Kentuckians’ health and wellness.

Perhaps the most impressive effort is the Kentucky Leadership Institute for School Principals. AT&T and other companies are giving money to send many Kentucky school principals to the respected (and expensive) Center for Creative Leadership in North Carolina to get the kind of high-level leadership training that business executives receive.

The chamber also unveiled a follow-up to its 2009 “Leaky Bucket” study, which underscored how huge increases in state spending for public employee health care, Medicaid and prisons were contributing to a short-change of education.

That report provided encouragement — and political cover — for landmark legislation earlier this year to rewrite Kentucky’s criminal code. It will reduce the number of non-violent offenders in jails and prisons, send more drug offenders to treatment and save a lot of taxpayer money in the process.

The chamber’s new report, called “Building a Stronger Bucket,” offers more suggested policy changes, including moving new state employees to a 401(k)-style pension plan.

Too often in the past, Kentucky has fallen behind the rest of the nation when narrow economic or political interests wielded too much power. Building a better future will require that many perspectives be considered and many voices be heard.

Still, no single group can do more to make this state a better place to live than a progressive organization that represents a broad spectrum of the business community. The Kentucky Chamber of Commerce seems to be stepping up to the challenge.


Chamber knows Kentucky art is good for business

February 27, 2011

FRANKFORT — When the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce decided to renovate and enlarge its headquarters to create more public space, chamber president David Adkisson said, “I kept saying I wanted something really Kentucky.”

He considered asking architects to design the 7,000-square-foot addition to look like a fancy Bluegrass horse barn, or even a bourbon distillery warehouse.

“They convinced me that wasn’t the way to go,” Adkisson said, as he gave me a tour of the beautiful, but conventional, new space.

What is happening instead is a better reflection of Kentucky’s uniqueness: the Chamber is filling its new building with a diverse collection of original art and furniture by the state’s contemporary artists and craftsmen.

Since the new space opened in April, it has been a big hit, with members of the business advocacy group and with other Kentucky organizations that have used the new meeting rooms, Adkisson said.

He said the project has more than achieved his goal of making the Chamber’s headquarters, near the intersection of Interstate 64 and U.S. 60, a prominent “front door” to Frankfort.

“We’re in the business of showing off the best of Kentucky, so this was a natural,” Adkisson said. “We made a conscious effort to create a gallery-like atmosphere that would showcase the artwork. Now, when groups come here, the art immediately becomes the focus of attention.”

The project also has been a significant boost for Kentucky artists — and not just because the Chamber has so far spent about $50,000 buying and commissioning pieces. Louisville distiller Brown Foreman gave $40,000 toward the art project, and most of the rest so far has come from building-project money, Adkisson said.

Lori Meadows, executive director of the Kentucky Arts Council, worked closely with the Chamber to identify artists and pieces for the building.

“It’s incredibly important for the Chamber to recognize that to complete a building, you need art,” Meadows said. “A lot of time went into the selection of pieces to make sure they were appropriate for each spot.”

The additional space was built onto the front of the Chamber’s existing 10,000-square-foot building. The two sections are connected by a new, light-filled lobby. The upper parts of the tall lobby walls are covered with panoramic Kentucky scenes by Jeff Rogers, a Lexington photographer best known for his two Kentucky Wide books.

The Chamber’s new board room is dominated by a round conference table designed by Brooks Meador of Interspace Limited in Lexington and produced by furniture maker Shawn Strevels of Faulkner Fain in Nicholasville.

The board room’s largest wall displays four large seasonal landscape paintings of Kentucky wilderness by John Lackey of Lexington. Light from a corner window illuminates a leaded-glass sculpture by Dan Neil Barnes of Lexington.

The building’s largest meeting space — the AT&T Teleconference Room — has a 10-painting suite by Lexington artist Dan McGrath, depicting scenes of commerce across the state.

The new addition also features paintings by Chris Segre-Lewis of Wilmore and Darrell Ishmael of Lexington, and mixed-media pieces by Kathleen O’Brien of Harrodsburg. There are decorative platters made by porcelain artist Wayne Bates of Murray, and a coffee table in the reception area made by Mark Whitley of Smith’s Grove.

“Our goal is to buy one new piece each year,” Adkisson said. After a few more pieces are purchased, he said, the Chamber plans to publish a brochure for visitors, telling about each artwork and the artist who created it.

“I think it’s exciting that they are realizing the value of art and supporting it,” said Ishmael, who in addition to being a successful artist is an executive with East Kentucky Power Cooperative in Winchester. “I think it’s really refreshing, and I wish other businesses would do it.”

Meadows said the Chamber’s collection has inspired several executives to contact her for help in acquiring original Kentucky art for their companies’ buildings. “That’s exactly what we want to see happen,” she said.

Click on each thumbnail to see complete photo:


Will Lexington, Louisville finally cooperate more?

August 16, 2010

The best way to get to know someone is to travel together. That was the idea behind the joint trip to Pittsburgh in May by 200 members of Commerce Lexington and 100 members of Greater Louisville Inc.

Kentucky’s two big cities have always been separated by much more than 75 miles of asphalt. But these days, cities, states and regions that want to succeed economically can no longer afford to let cultural differences, petty jealousies and college basketball rivalries keep them from working together.

The trip went well. But the big question was this: Would there be any follow-up?

Commerce Lexington’s trips are sometimes criticized as junkets because the travelers come home, go on summer vacation and never get around to following up on most of the city-improvement ideas they gathered.

Lexington and Louisville officials said they are determined that that won’t happen this time. Last Thursday, summer vacation ended, and it was time to get to work. A Commerce Lexington/GLI steering committee met all day and, that evening, announced follow-up plans to the trip’s participants at a reception in Louisville’s 21C Museum Hotel. The attendees included both cities’ mayors.

The two chambers of commerce announced plans to form a joint task force to follow up on seven top priorities and to hire a full-time staff person to drive the process. Most of those priorities were identified and ranked by the 300 travelers during a session in Pittsburgh.

Top priorities include exploring the feasibility of light passenger rail between Lexington and Louisville, and creating Bidwell Training Centers in both cities. Bidwell is a remarkably successful job-training center for poor people in Pittsburgh. Founder Bill Strickland’s presentation about it during the trip had almost everyone in the room teary-eyed and cheering.

Strickland is now working with other cities to replicate Bidwell’s success. Talks began this summer about seeing whether the concept could mesh with a Fayette County Public Schools project to develop an agribusiness vocational training center on Leestown Road.

Other top priorities include the cities working together to promote Kentucky’s horse industry, and to pursue legislation that would allow the cities to have a local-option sales tax. The cities say they need the extra money to provide the infrastructure necessary for business to flourish.

Presidents Bob Quick of Commerce Lexington and Joe Reagan of GLI said afterward that such taxing authority probably would have to be done in the context of overall state tax reform, which is long overdue. “Some of these things will take some time to build the right coalitions,” Reagan said.

The two chambers and city governments already work well together, but closer ties are needed between them and Northern Kentucky, Quick and Reagan said. The so-called Golden Triangle has been Kentucky’s growth engine for a couple of decades, and it will become even more important in the future.

But, Reagan said, “The last thing we want to do is pit urban against rural. We have to look at the big picture.”

Jerry Abramson, who is retiring after 21 years as Louisville’s mayor to be Gov. Steve Beshear’s running mate next year, said the cities’ most important challenge will be convincing the rest of the state that investment in the Golden Triangle benefits the entire state. That’s because much of the tax revenue and economic development created by Lexington, Louisville and Northern Kentucky flows throughout Kentucky.

“As we develop our strategies, we must take into account how it’s going to positively affect the other citizens of the state,” Abramson said. “How does it play in Paducah? What’s in it for Hazard?”


Contest, center hope to boost KY entrepreneurs

July 26, 2010

There are three basic approaches to building business in Kentucky: attract ‘em, keep ‘em, grow ‘em. Success requires all three. But over the years, state officials often have focused so much attention on the first two that they have neglected the third.

Kentucky Highlands Investment Corp. has worked on that third approach since 1968, helping home-grown entrepreneurs create more than 10,000 jobs in its 22-county Appalachian service area.

Now the corporation’s efforts are turning it up a notch. Kentucky Highlands is opening a new business- incubation center this fall beside its headquarters near London, and it is sponsoring a contest for Kentucky entrepreneurs who have big ideas that could become successful companies.

“We’re hoping to bring some of these entrepreneurs out of the woodwork,” said Jim Carroll, executive director of the new center.

Kentucky Highlands announced six winners last week among 47 entrants in the first phase of its Big Idea Competition. Each winner received a $1,000 cash prize based on a one-page outline of the idea and a business model.

Kentucky entrepreneurs and small business are now being solicited to enter the second phase of the contest. That involves submitting a three- to six-page executive summary of an idea along with business, marketing, sales and financial plans. Three winners of this phase will receive $2,500 cash prizes. Entries are due Aug. 20.

The final phase will involve oral presentations this fall. The winner will receive $10,000 cash and 12 months of free rent in the Kentucky Highlands Business Innovation and Growth Center. Two runners-up will receive prizes of $5,000 and $2,500 and offers of free work space in the center for six months.

For more information, go to Kentucky Highlands’ Web site.

Winners of the competition’s first phase were a diverse group:

■ Awesome Labs of Lexington has created technology to turn store windows into interactive touch-screen displays.

■ B2 Solutions of Somerset has developed software to manage documentation required for new products to be approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

■ Monumental Builders of Jamestown makes a patented product that uses recycled materials to create a cultured-stone concrete block system for construction.

■ NuForm Thermal Management of Sadieville turns coal ash into a ceramic material that can replace chemical flame retardants in insulation.

■ Olde Kentucky Logs of Corbin makes concrete wall facing molded to look like 150-year-old construction logs.

■ STATShift.com of Versailles has developed Web-based software to match health-care facilities with qualified workers.

“We were glad to see that diversity,” Carroll said. “We all tend to gravitate toward techy-type things, and it was good to see that (the judges) saw that more traditional types of business have an opportunity to be successful and create jobs.”

The competition, which is open to entrepreneurs or businesses with 20 or fewer employees, is being judged by a panel of investors, economic development professionals and representatives of the contest’s supporters. Among those supporters are the state Cabinet for Economic Development, Kentucky Science & Technology Corp., Lexington Venture Club, Silicon Hollow Association and Mountain Association for Community Economic Development.

Among the criteria that judges were asked to consider was each idea’s ability to create jobs in Kentucky and generate revenue from outside the state. Those factors have always been a key to Kentucky Highlands’ approach to entrepreneurship.

The new-business incubator hopes to help do that by providing office space, technical infrastructure and mentoring to entrepreneurs. The 9,700-square-foot center will rent private suites, cubicles and “rough” work space, and it has two dry labs and two wet labs.

In addition to providing start-up companies with office space, printers, fax machines and other technical support, the center offers mentoring from experienced staff members and a network of volunteer professionals in the region.

“Entrepreneurship is the future of our economy,” Carroll said. “We have to focus on growing local companies.”


Young entrepreneurs don’t let economy stop them

March 8, 2010

Oh, to be young, ambitious and just starting your own business — in the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.

Nobody ever said being an entrepreneur would be easy.

While many of their classmates hunt for jobs — or give up and go to graduate school — Seth Hill and Michael Rumpke last week launched a grocery shopping and delivery business they call Lose Your List.

It wasn’t a casual endeavor. The 24-year-olds said they spent months planning logistics, developing marketing strategies, writing a business plan, creating a Web site, designing a logo and having it painted on Hill’s SUV and embroidered on their green gingham shirts.

And while they were preparing for orders — they got four their first week — they were thinking ahead. They want to create relationships with groceries and partnerships with local farmers to supply produce. And they’re planning for a time when orders are so numerous they must buy vehicles, hire college students to shop and deliver and, if they’re really lucky, franchise their concept in other cities.

For now, though, Hill and Rumpke are just looking for enough customers willing to go to their Web site (www.loseyourlist.com), submit a grocery list and pay them at least $15 to do the shopping and deliver the goods. They figure they’ll need 100 to 150 orders a week to keep themselves in groceries.

Rumpke, a University of New Orleans graduate, and Hill, a University of Kentucky senior on break from his studies, said they were raised on business and entrepreneurship. They always believed they’d work for themselves.

Rumpke’s mother, Linda, a former banker, is Lexington’s commissioner of finance and administration. His father, Rob, is president of the regional planning group Bluegrass Tomorrow. Hill’s parents, Jenny and Chuck, started Interior Yardage, a specialty fabric company on Southland Drive.

“I grew up watching them grow the business from our basement to flea markets to a company with (significant) sales,” Hill said. “Entrepreneurship was all I knew. My parents are my heroes, so it seemed like the thing to do.”

Rumpke and Hill see a good business opportunity in performing a necessary, time-consuming chore that many people hate. “It’s a business model that’s working in other areas,” Hill said. “We didn’t see why it wouldn’t work here.”

They said they researched the concept thoroughly and talked to dozens of people, including a lawyer, a banker and a small business development consultant. The approximately $3,000 in startup money came from their personal savings because they want to avoid taking on debt. “Everything we could do on our own we tried to do to keep costs down,” Hill said. “We also have gotten help from friends.”

Their biggest expense, they said, will be newspaper and online advertising. They also envision an ambitious social-media marketing strategy, from daily health tips on Twitter to a blog with information like that from a Harvard Business School study on the high-cost of impulse buying for people who do their own shopping.

One of the young entrepreneurs’ first deliveries was to a friend, Tara Wilkerson, a single mother. “I work 13-hour days at two jobs and have a 2-year-old,” she said. “I like not having one more chore to do.”

Hill and Rumpke hope to find more people like Wilkerson, whatever their reasons for wanting someone else to do their grocery shopping.

“At the end of the day, it’s just getting orders and delivering groceries,” Hill said. “If we’re really good at it, and manage our business well, other things will take care of themselves.”