Out-of-state journalists were served up first-hand information about the commonwealth’s $5 billion-plus food and beverage sector during a two-day Taste of Kentucky media tour last month. They visited with the executive chef at Churchill Downs and saw a bourbon barrel cooperage, the KFC headquarters, a distillery, a national lobster distribution center, a soft-drink bottling plant, a food coatings supplier and the offices for a company whose heatless powder production process could revolutionize food manufacturing and much more.
Louisville has been touting its strong food and beverage cluster as a building block upon which to build further business and job opportunities for several years. However, the realization has dawned that this cluster is part of a broader – and important – Kentucky economic sector.
“We have a booming food and beverage sector, and we want to showcase that,” said Joe Hall, communication specialist with the Kentucky Cabinet for Economic Development. There are 270 businesses that employ more than 43,000 Kentuckians.
The cabinet orchestrated the tour, which was underwritten by East Kentucky Power Cooperative, Kentucky United, LG&E KU, and TVA.
The two-day tour highlighted bourbon, of course, an industry unto itself that is growing by leaps and bounds yet still lagging growing world demand for this signature Kentucky product. It began with a reception at the Distilled Spirits Epicenter in downtown Louisville where craft distillers showcased their products.
After a general tour of Churchill Downs, executive chef Dave Danielson outlined the year-long planning and complex logistics process required to serve 400,000 meals at the track during Kentucky Derby week, including thousands at the highest price point, and the level of expectations by customers.
There was a visit to Clearwater Lobster, which is located five minutes from the UPS Worldport at Louisville International Airport and ships lobster that originated in Nova Scotia from its 38-degree saltwater tanks to restaurants all over the United States within 24 hours.
There was a tour of KFC headquarters with its museum full of Harlan Sanders memorabilia, a full-size in-house restaurant complete with a drive-in window for training, and the safe inside a vault that contains the recipe of 11 herbs and spices known only to a handful of top employees – because multiple suppliers produce successive portions of the final seasoning mix used at locations around the world.
A Brown-Forman Cooperage tour provided a close-up look at how white oak barrels are produced without glue and their interiors specially charred so that clear whiskey aged in them for four or more hot Kentucky summers and cold winters turns into amber bourbon.
Next came a tour of the large Jim Beam distillery in Clermont, followed by a bourbon tasting lesson from Fred Noe, a seventh generation of the Beam family and the operation’s bourbon ambassador.
Gov. Steve Beshear and first lady Jane Beshear hosted tour participants for a dinner at the Governor’s Mansion featuring Kentucky food and beverage.
The next day began with a tour of the Ale 8 One bottling plant in Winchester that since 1926 has made a soft drink whose own distinctive recipe of ginger beer and “exotic fruit flavors” is known to only four people. Current management is working on expanding distribution of the 8,000 cases made daily from Kentucky, southern Ohio and some of Tennessee to the entire United States.
In Boone County, tour participants were shown a 326,000-s.f. plant under construction for Newly Weds Foods, which will supply breadings, batters, seasonings and other coatings to the major food manufacturers already located in Northern Kentucky. It will be the 16th North American location for the Chicago-based company, which expects to use more than 1 million pounds of flour a day as its main raw ingredient.
Lastly came a visit to ZoomEssence, a five-year-old food process technology company based on a heatless spray drying method developed by physicist and research scientist Charles Beetz. Heat has been integral to making powdered products of all types 1870, but it evaporates some ingredients and chemically alters others.
Beginning with food products that will retain their original flavor and consistencies, officials of the Hebron-based company describe the ZoomEssence process as “one of those technologies that will change the world.”
“We wanted to cover a variety of food and beverage sectors. We grow it. We manufacture it. We headquarter it,” Hall said of the tour. “And we wanted to show how important logistics, with the UPS and DHL hubs in Louisville and Northern Kentucky, are to the full package.”
Participating journalists were from the New York region, greater Los Angeles, Atlanta and Birmingham. They write specifically about food, business and economic development.
Mark Green is editorial director of The Lane Report. He can be reached at [email protected].