While she's one of the least hipster-looking chefs in town, Susan Hershberg did open a restaurant in NuLu before it was cool to do so. The caterer became a restaurateur in 2009 when she decided the best way to fill a vacancy in an investment property she owned was to open Wiltshire on Market. And last week Food & Dining Magazine reported Hershberg's about to own a bakery too: Wiltshire Pantry Bakery and Café is slated to open at Joe Davola's old spot (901 Barret Avenue) on April 1. (Eater's interview with Hershberg was conducted before this news was announced.)
When we met at the [Eater Louisville] launch party you said you were looking forward to the city 'finally having an intelligent online discussion about food'...what did you mean exactly by that?
Basically I don't really like to participate in the bitch fest there often is online, whether its reviews or the chatter. It's just not intelligent conversation about food, and we have so many great restaurants and so many really talented professionals that I think we deserve more. I've been in the food business for 25 years, it's kind of what I live and breathe, so when I have conversations about food I like it to be interesting and not just snarky commentary and gossip.
Why do you think that hasn't been the case? Do you think it's just this city in particular?
I think we're such a small city that, we're not quite a big city yet, and so it's still just this little pockets of folks who are isolated so we don't get together and network amongst ourselves. I think in other communities there are professional organizations that chefs and restaurateurs and folks like myself who have been in the catering industry, we do a lot of events and great work with fun food, we have colleagues that we can converse with and network with and socialize with.
And you haven't found that so much in Louisville?
Definitely not online. I haven't really found much in terms of progressive conversation going on online.
Are you originally from here?
My family moved here when I was going into high school. I grew up in Champaign, Illinois. My father was a university professor so we moved from Champaign to Louisville.
Why open the restaurant as well [as Wiltshire Pantry, her catering company]?
I had purchased this building as an investment property years before when I was looking for property for my catering company, and I kind of stumbled upon this spot and really fell in love with it. Walked in the door and I felt there was really something really positive in the air down here. Turns out this was Billy Hertz's original gallery. He lived upstairs and he developed the garden that's out back that is now a communal garden that all the property owners on this block have a tiny little parcel of. But it used to be Billy's. Billy and his partner Tom did an incredible job with the garden out there and they used to host gallery openings and parties and soirees here on a very regular basis, so there are a lot of Louisvillians that have very wonderful memories of being in this space. I wasn't around then, but when I first came to look at the building it was a garden shop. You could tell that it hadn't really gotten the love that it needed but there was just phenomenal potential. So I bought the building, continued to look for a spot for my catering company and leased the space for four or five years. When my tenants decided not to renew their lease was right around the time the economy was tanking in a very major way. And I thought, if I'm going to keep my team productive and creative on the clock, this would be a great opportunity for us to expand the brand and also give my team of chefs more of a creative outlet where they could decide what we were going to make as opposed to a client that is hosting 200 people and tell us what they want. It was a way to push the envelope culinarily speaking and I had also always wanted a space where we could host events and that was something that I had never had. We could host wine dinners and things like that.
What would you says is the biggest advantage about being in this area? Do you feel like the new openings crowd you out at all?
We're kind of the old guard down here at this point amazingly enough, except for Mayan Cafe. We only have eight tables to fill, so I still love it when new places open because there's more diversity in terms of different people's tastes. So you don't have to come to NuLu for just for fine dining or just for pizza, there's everything in between. And if people come down they can just pick a spot or pick a block where they can find a place to park and they can walk up and down the street and they can decide where they want to eat. I love that. It's urban where you have every demographic represented. I think a lot of that is because of the Garage Bar and the pull that they have from tourists and etc. I have no complaints really. It's a great place to be and we lucked into it really. In 2009 and 2010 when the catering sales decreased only that one year, 2009, it was great to keep our name out in the public view. We got good press because it seemed kind of crazy to be opening a restaurant at that time. There weren't a lot of people down here and we have an existing client base, people we have worked for for 20 years. So when they have an anniversary or a birthday or a kid's wedding that we'll do when they come in from out of town, this is where they come from dinner. It's not like we have a real restaurant because we have an existing client base. It's not a brand new restaurant that's starting up from scratch and building a name and a reputation. We really had a reputation of a tremendous chef so I knew people would come to us.
How long was this project brewing before you got started?
I had suspected for some time that my tenant might not be able to renew their lease. I hoped that they would, but I knew that I would be faced with that decision of putting a commercial space on the market in a downturn, and yet I have a mortgage to cover and bills that I'm not able to pay without somebody in here. I had been milling those thoughts around in the back of my head of a while.
Three predications about Louisville's restaurant scene for 2013. Any changes you see forthcoming?
I think there are a lot of brand new places that I think are going to get their footing and really crank out great food with great service. I'm looking forward to that. I think as always, there are places that open that don't quite get their footing and don't quite make it. I don't really feel like we have a round of restaurants that are quite in that category. I think we're going to see an expanding local food economy. Places like Foxhollow for example that are opening: small handmade, artisan-oriented industry, if you will. I think that's what we'll really see in 2013. Things that are to scale as opposed to many a little out of proportion for what's possible in this day and age with so many other places open. There so many other places already established. There's only so many people that are going to go out to eat on any given Saturday night. I think we all have to be on our games every night of the week that we're open, but I think having our expectations at a realistic level, I think that's really important.
What do you think the sudden spark of interest has been?
I hope this isn't taken out of proportion, but I really think a lot of it is 21c. Even in NuLu, I think the advertising reach that 21c has with Proof and Garage Bar has had a big impact down here. I also think that the Bourbon Trail has been tremendously successful in terms of an advertising and public relations campaign. So I do think that Brown-Forman and Maker's Mark and Heaven Hill and all so those folks, Jim Beam, who have expansion projects and are pumping big dollars into development. All of that is having a huge impact on the national reach if you will.
What about neighborhood wise in Louisville? What would you say is the next bustle?
I have heard some buzz about Portland and I hope that that happens. I'd like to see Smoketown improved. If new NuLu can stretch a little this way into the Smoketown area, that would be great because it really connects the Highlands to NuLu. I think having Germantown, there are great foodie spots in Germantown right now, it's really just the center of this triangle that still needs to be filled in and that's where Billy Hertz, and again, he's been there for a number of years and I don't know if you've been to his gallery but it's a phenomenal spot. He's really great at seeing potential in a neighborhood and really digging in for the long haul, not just breezing in and prettying things up and moving on. He really has a presence there and I think that will really help.
What improvements would you like to see in NuLu overall?
I really don't have any complaints. It's pretty smooth sailing over here. I wouldn't mind a little additional lighting on the street although I don't have any safety or security concerns. It's really just visibility in general, but really with Garage Bar, any time of the day or night until 3 o' clock in the morning we can come in and out of here and there's people on the corner. There have been Butchertown stink issues that I don't love.
How often do you deal with those?
It's pretty regular. In the summertime it can be pretty funky when the air blows in a certain direction. We don't have a lot of outdoor seating so it's not an issue, but I think that's why most places out here don't have a patio because it's really not compatible with dining. I don't have any complaints about parking. We're not open during the day so the parking meters don't bother me. I'm not looking forward to major construction that I know is coming our way with that $10 million sidewalk improvement to make the sidewalks more walkable. I haven't seen any problems with the walkability myself but I know that's coming so we're just going to grin and bare it and hope they get through it quickly.
How actively involved are you in discussing what they're going to put on the menu?
On the restaurant menu I'm really quite uninvolved. I'm multitasking. I had the 11 o' clock appointment at Garage Bar and then I had a client meet me here so I could show him the upstairs and then I had 45 minutes. I'm never idle, I will say that. I kind of think of myself at this point as an operations manager over both the restaurant and the catering company. We do special events on a regular basis that I will have a notion of, I didn't like us to go in this direction or I have a dish that I'd like you guys to try but that's the extent of it. I'll do wine pairings, so if I have a particular wine I'd like to feature I might steer the chefs in a particular direction in terms of flavor profile. Or if there's a vendor that I really want to bring on board that has a particular product. Last week, for example, Foxhollow was needing to clear out one of their hoop houses so they could do some planting for another season, so Maggie [Keith, Foxhollow's co-owner] sent me some images of some great braising greens. So we put it on the restaurant menu as a salad and we sent it to the Kentucky Author Forum as their braised greens for 100 people for their side dish. So that's where I happened to have that contact so I passed that on to the chef.
Are you the one that mostly deals with vendors then?
The chef mostly does.
Are most of your vendors a certain radius from Louisville?
No, we bring our seafood in from Hawaii. Just about every weekend Honolulu Seafood delivers to us. We also have a seafood vendor out of Florida. We go to the Southwest Cargo pick up at the airport to pick up fish from Florida. We do a pick up on Thursdays and that carries us at the restaurant through the weekend. Honolulu Fish Company, they do a phenomenal job. They call and they let us know what they have that's well suited for what we do here. Years ago I may have read about them in the New York Times. I know a lot of restaurants in town work with them now. We have some oyster harvesters in Washington state that I like to order directly from we have some lobster folks in Maine. We're right across the bridge from Portsmouth, New Hampshire. All of our dinnerware is handmade and she is out of Exeter, New Hampshire so she does porcelain. We have a great collection. She's coming in for the first time this Saturday and we're going to do a special artists talk and wine dinner on Monday night, a week from today. So that's a good example of where, in pondering the different vessels that she has, I'll tell the chef, "Do a frothy soup for a first course." Something to make the color pop, with beets or oranges and a salad.
Why do you think the restaurants in Louisville are thriving, especially compared to others?
I think part of it is the farm community here, the farmer's markets and the local producers. I think really that's what it is. We have such great producers and really Grasshopper Distribution did a phenomenal job a number of years ago of giving restaurants better access to that product. A lot of those vendors now have worked out their own distribution networks so we deal directly with the producer and not specifically through Grasshoppers. But I would think that would have something to do with it, but I have to say once again, 21c has been hugely instrumental in raising the bar in terms of the quality of food and the level of service because there was a total void for a number of years. We always had great restaurants like Kathy Cary's [Lilly's] but they didn't have the same machine behind it. So I think once 21c came to town, I think it made everyone step up their game. It's been three years or four years ago. It must have been longer than that because we weren't down here before them.
They were here first?
Yes, they were. They were doing really interesting modern, delicious food and it was the kind of place you could go to two or three times a week and find something new and different and exciting. I think maybe Sullivan University has something to do with that because there are a lot of talented folks that sustain all of these restaurants in the kitchens. It's a very livable city too where people, like yourself, come from the coast where it's nowhere near as affordable.
When we first opened here we could only have wine and beer, and that was an ABC thing, and that has since loosened up a little bit. We were within 600 feet of another open bar but we didn't see the 100 so we couldn't have a restaurant liquor license, it had to be a drink license. The way I realized I could get booze was a little shop opened next store to me, this Taste Bourbon and Wine, and he came in and said I got a liquor by the drink license. I thought that was interesting because if he was within 600 feet, I was within 600 feet so I called the ABC and they said, "Let me get your application and we'll see what we can do." And that was that.
·5 Questions with Chef Dean Corbett [~ELOU~]
·New Wiltshire on Market builds on small plate theme [Louisville Courier-Journal]
[Photo: Whitney Neal]