Two Lexington food entrepreneurs share their secrets to success

July 19, 2015

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

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

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

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

First, a little about them.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pappas and Romero say several things contributed to their success:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


With market opening, National Provisions fulfills ambitious plan

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Boughalem prepares baked goods in the bakery, National Boulangerie.

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

Sims helps a customer select cheese at the new market.

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

National Provisions began in December 2013 with a bakery.

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

Sims walks through the Beer Hall.

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

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

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

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


New program allows restaurant patrons to feed hungry neighbors

November 26, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Popular restaurant owner returns to Sav’s after kitchen accident

August 4, 2014

140729SavSavane-TE0056 Mamadou “Sav” SavanéŽ, left, talked with regular customer Ron Pen, a University of Kentucky music professor, and Erin Fulton last Wednesday. Photos by Tom Eblen

 

The regulars at Sav’s Grill & West African Cuisine got a pleasant surprise when they walked in for lunch last week. Sav was back.

Nearly two months after being badly burned in a kitchen accident, Mamadou “Sav” Savané has begun spending a couple of hours a day working the counter and walking around the dining room, greeting and thanking customers.

Sav’s Grill, 304 South Limestone, is known for the delicious food Savané learned to cook in his native Guinea. It also is known for his big smile and friendly manner.

“He’s quite the community-spirited person,” customer Alice Dehner said. “He always has that smile. He never forgets a face.”

Customers didn’t forget him, either, when news spread about his June 3 accident.

140728SavSavane-TE0025Friends at Smiley Pete Publishing created a fundraising page on the website Giveforward.com. They knew Savané did most of the restaurant work himself, and that his family would need to hire help in his absence — and pay medical bills not covered by their insurance.

Publisher Chuck Creacy set an ambitious fundraising goal of $50,000 in 90 days. That goal was reached in less than three days, and money keeps coming in. The page has raised more than $67,000 from nearly 1,200 donors. “It was an interesting and wonderful thing to watch,” Creacy said.

In addition, local businesses contributed food, beverages and silent auction items for a fundraiser at Smiley Pete’s office that attracted 1,500 people and raised $11,000.

Savané and his wife, Rachel, whom he met when she was a Peace Corps volunteer in Guinea in the early 1990s, have been overwhelmed.

“I don’t have words to describe how this community stand up for us,” Savané said. “What am I doing to make people so happy? When I think about it I just want to cry.”

Savané had just opened for lunch June 3 when he tried to move a huge pot of peanut chicken stew off the stove. Something caught it and caused some to spill on the floor.

Rather than wait for his son to arrive and help, Savané held the pot with one hand and reached for a cart with the other. He slipped, pulling the pot down on him. The boiling liquid burned his arm, torso and face. His screams alerted an employee to call for help.

Savané spent 10 days in the hospital, including six in ICU. His second-degree burns required skin grafts on his arm. He is just glad skin grafts weren’t needed for his torso, which would have required another two weeks in the hospital.

His wife cared for him at home while friends managed her jewelry shop, Savané Silver, 130 North Broadway. Their son, Bangaly, 20, stepped in to run the restaurant with help from employees, family, friends and Alex Ortiz, an experienced restaurant manager they hired.

Although his son had worked at Sav’s Grill for years, Savané had only recently taught him to cook his signature dishes.

“God knows how to do things,” Savané said. “For me to have an idea three months ago to say, ‘You know Bangaly, you know everything here except the cooking I do.’ In Africa, we don’t have recipes; it’s in our head. To put that in writing, that was the first time. It’s like something warned me: prepare this boy. I am so proud of my son and the job he is doing.”

Savané thinks it will be at least three weeks before he can resume normal work. The wounds are healing, but he is still in pain. There are mental scars, too. The first couple of times he stepped back in the kitchen, he said, “I had to sit down. I cry like a baby. I have a long way to go before I forget that memory.”

The restaurant’s security cameras recorded the accident. “I watched it once,” he said. “I don’t think I like to watch again.”

Savané said getting back to business will be the best therapy. And business is good.

Mark Hoffman said he had never eaten at Sav’s Grill until he read about the accident. He came in to show his support “and now I’m hooked,” he said. Bangaly Savané introduced Hoffman to his father last Tuesday as a new regular customer.

Savané said the accident has made him appreciate life more.

“It’s unfortunate you have to get hurt to know what the community’s about,” he said. “We are lucky. This city is exceptional. Today, honestly, I can proudly say I’m from Lexington.”

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

July 27, 2014

140722Apiary

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

 

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

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

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

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

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Cooper Vaughan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

140710Apiary0015

Brent Bruner of EOP Architects

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Old menus up for sale recall long-gone Lexington restaurants

March 4, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Greek immigrant hopes food truck is path to successful restaurant

May 6, 2013

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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Friends share love of fresh pasta with Lexington

July 24, 2011

Lesme Romero and Reinaldo Gonzalez became good friends as college students in Cleveland. They had grown up in South America with Spanish fathers and Italian mothers, and both loved good food.

They shared an apartment in the Little Italy neighborhood and worked four years as cooks in some of Cleveland’s best Italian restaurants, where they learned to make fresh pasta.

Romero, 33, earned business degrees and eventually moved to Florida to work in finance. Gonzalez, 37, became an industrial engineer and took a corporate job in Lexington.

During a visit several years ago, Gonzalez took Romero to the Lexington Farmers Market to buy fresh produce. They went back to Gonzalez’s home, made fresh pasta and cooked a delicious meal.

“I remember saying to him, ‘I wish I could do this for a living,'” Romero said after making the pasta. “And his wife, Heather, said, ‘Well, why not?'”

So, in 2009, they started Lexington Pasta. Using a countertop pasta machine, they made samples and took them to restaurants. Bellini’s gave them their first order, for 20 pounds. “It took us 20 hours to make on that little machine,” Romero said. “But we were just excited to have an order.”

Now, the company has more than $50,000 worth of pasta equipment and makes 600 pounds a week. Some of it goes to the best restaurants in Central Kentucky. The rest is sold in specialty stores, at farmers markets and at Lexington Pasta’s tiny downtown shop in a converted two-car garage for $2 for a 4-ounce serving.

Romero manages the company, which has three employees. He makes daily deliveries downtown on a bright red scooter, and he has become a fixture at the farmers market at Cheapside on Saturdays and Southland on Sundays. “I used to have a name,” he said with a laugh. “Now I’m ‘The Pasta Guy.'”

Why eat fresh pasta instead of cheaper stuff that comes dried in a box? Because it tastes better, Romero said.

“It’s the subtle part of the dish that makes the difference,” said Debbie Long, owner of Dudley’s on Short, which uses Lexington Pasta in several dishes. “They have a wonderful product. They are very customer-oriented and they are easy to work with. I think they’re a great addition to our food community.”

Lexington Pasta is made with semolina flour, eggs and flavorings from fresh ingredients, many of which are locally grown, Romero said. The pasta, which keeps in a refrigerator for about 10 days, comes in 10 cuts and 10 flavors, including spinach, cilantro, portobello and chipotle. Fresh egg ravioli comes stuffed with spinach or Parmesan, ricotta and mozzarella cheese.

The company takes orders for gluten-free, whole grain, spicy diablo, lobster and Spanish saffron pasta. Some restaurant chefs have worked with Romero to create specialty pastas for signature dishes.

One way Romero cultivates customers is by offering “Pasta 101” classes for six to eight people once a week. At the two-hour class, which costs $45, students learn to make pasta and then use it to fix a gourmet dinner. The evening includes Kentucky wines, cheeses and an Italian dessert. The classes are booked up through early September, said Romero, who plans to add a ravioli-making “Pasta 102” class.

Because of his business education and background, Romero said he is always thinking about ways to grow the company. He has his eye on a pasta machine that would produce 70 pounds an hour, up from his current machine’s 40 pounds.

But Romero said he doesn’t want Lexington Pasta to grow too fast or too big. He likes the feel of his tiny downtown shop, where he knows many of his customers.

“I have felt so welcomed by this neighborhood,” Romero said. “I love what I do. When people come back in the shop and say, ‘That’s the best pasta I’ve had in my life,’ that’s the best reward for me.”

Lexington Pasta

Products: Sold at markets including Shorty’s, Good Foods Coop, The Mouse Trap, and Lexington Farmers Market.

On the menu: Served at Central Kentucky restaurants including Bellini’s, Portofino, Dudley’s, Nick Ryan’s, Azur, Holly Hill Inn, Windy Corner, Alfalfa, Boone Tavern, Columbia’s, Varden’s and Le Deauville.

Where: 227 N. Limestone

Hours: 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Mon-Fri., 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Sat.

Learn more: (859) 421-1764 or LexingtonPasta.com

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