Story originally published in Insider Louisville. Click here to read.
by Steve Kaufman
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (March 29, 2016) — A pastor, an engineer and a banker walk into a bar.
When they walk out, they’re the founders of North Lime Coffee & Donuts, which in four years has become a popular, innovative, award-winning Lexington pastry shop.
And now, North Lime is coming to Louisville.
“We don’t want to rush this; we want to get everything right,” said Joe Ross, the ex-banker, talking about the move. One of the things they’ve realized is that location is everything.
The trio has already made a couple of tours of Louisville, eyeballing neighborhoods and commercial strips, freestanding sidewalk locations, strip malls, shopping plazas.
What they know is that they want to be part of a neighborhood, where they can uplift the spirit of the community. And they want to be near “the right” kind of retail, which means small local businesses rather than chain stores, with the hopes of increasing the business of their neighbors.
My guess: someplace like Bardstown Road, Frankfort Avenue, the heart of St. Matthews, NuLu/East Market, Main Street/Butchertown, maybe Germantown or parts of Old Louisville – depending, of course, on availability and price. Those are the kinds of neighborhoods the North Lime founders like — neighborhoods with sidewalks, lots of local independent retailers, a residential community.
But that’s just my guess. They really don’t know yet and aren’t rushing. They say, with the certainty of their millennial generation, that they’ll know the site when they see it.
“We haven’t narrowed the scope,” said Teddy Ray, the pastor. “A mixed-use neighborhood is really important, especially for our first Louisville location. We’re open to anywhere. When we get there, we’ll get the feeling that we’re suppose to be there.”
Their time frame is “as soon as we find a location. We won’t push too hard, and we won’t settle.”
They’re planning more trips. “If we don’t see somewhere that immediately appeals to us,” Ray said, “we might need to bring in a professional.”
This faith, in their vision and in the concept, worked for them once. Their first shop in Lexington, on the corner of West Sixth Street and North Limestone (thus the name), looks like it has been nestled comfortably in this neighborhood forever. It’s a few blocks from busy South Broadway, not far from the Transylvania University campus, a bit further to Rupp Arena. You might think it’s a family operation, started by immigrants in the ’20s or ’30s and passed down from generation to generation of bakers.
But, no. They found it shortly before opening their doors in 2012. And they weren’t even looking. “I’m not sure we’d have found it, even with a Realtor,” said Ray. “Heidi went to a concert across the street and just sort of saw it.”
“Heidi” is Heidi Hays, the engineer who gave up a job with Lexmark to make North Lime happen, because her hobby – making birthday cakes and wedding cakes – had become so successful she was taking sick days from work to keep up with her orders.
Encouraged by Ray, a fellow attendee of First United Methodist Church’s Offerings Community, she said, “We ought to find somebody who knows something about coffee.”
Enter Ross, the loan officer at Fifth Third Bank who had served a stint as a Starbucks manager. He was drawn to the idea, he said, because “while handing people drinks through the drive-thru window at Starbucks, I’d noticed they often had bags of doughnuts in the back seat from somewhere else.
“Plus, I really like doughnuts.”
In fact, they had their first meeting at a Starbucks. (Not at a bar, that was just a tie-in to an old joke.) “I felt like a conspirator,” said Ross.
The business is based on making everything from scratch. “Most other doughnut shops use mixes, just adding water,” Hays said. “That’s why they all kind of taste the same.”
They also encouraged the staff, many of them recruited by Ross from Starbucks, to come up with creative notions. That’s where such wildly popular concoctions as the chocolate stout cake doughnut; the pulled pork doughnut with maple barbecue; the French toast doughnut; and the grilled cheese sandwich in doughnutform came from.
Plus everyone’s new old standby, the maple-bacon doughnut.
That also led to the success North Lime had on the Cooking Channel’s “Sugar Showdown” show, shot in Canada last summer and aired in the U.S. in November.
The three-team competition began in the first round with the Iron Chef concept of a secret ingredient. The ingredient was pineapple, and Hays made a spice cake doughnutwith a rum molasses drizzle and grilled pineapple and walnuts on top.
That moved them into the finals, a St. Patrick’s Day theme. Hays responded with her chocolate stout doughnut with a stout beer glaze, filled with Irish whiskey butter cream and drizzled with kahlua; and then a yeast doughnut with fried corned beef and cheddar cheese, topped with cranberry sauce.
Creative notions like that, plus just good-tasting doughnut and locally roasted coffee and specialty drinks, must have filled a void. Because – fueled by word of mouth, a social media buzz and pure curiosity – the lines were out the door when they opened their first store.
And the success continued when, in 2014, they opened a second location at the Stonewall Center on Clays Mill Road, toward the South/Southwest side of Lexington – further from campus, a little bit more suburban.
“Many of our most eager customers there knew our North Limestone location and were grateful because this store was on the route of their morning commute or closer to their neighborhood,” said Hays. “But many didn’t know us at all. They just liked coffee and doughnuts in the morning, saw that we were opening, and came to see what we were about.”
It’s this faith in the way things just seem to happen that’s driving their confidence in the Louisville move. But Ross sees another aspect to the Louisville community. “I lived in Louisville for a year, and I know the excitement people have for local merchants and local food ingredients,” said the ex-banker.
Wherever in Louisville they plant the North Lime Coffee & Donuts flag is just a matter of them taking their time. They’re not driven by a season or a month or a day in the calendar. They don’t feel the need to be open for Derby or the start of the summer or right after Labor Day or by Thanksgiving and Christmas.
“January is always our slowest month,” said Ross, “but we opened on Clays Mill Road in January, and it worked out fine; business was great.”
It’s not, insisted Ray, “whether or not we do it. We’re doing it.”
As the old construction site signs say, WATCH THIS SPACE. We’ll keep you updated.