There’s lots of talk lately about the Louisville dining scene. More and more Louisville restaurants are showing up on lists of the nation’s best, and the city itself appears more often than not on lists of the best culinary destinations.
In 2015, Louisville was named one of “America’s Next Hot Food Cities” by Zagat, the New York-based restaurant rating service; one of “America’s Best Cities for Foodies” by Travel + Leisure magazine; and is No. 2 on USA Today’s list of cities with the “Best Local Food Scene.”
Internationally, the city also is holding its own – National Geographic Traveler named Louisville No. 1 on its list of “Top 10 Food Cities,” making particular note of the city being the hometown of the iconic Hot Brown dish.
Louisville may be Derby City for two weeks every spring, but for the rest of year it could just as well be Food City USA.
The growing popularity of Louisville’s restaurant scene, however, is due in large part to its lesser known role as home to a robust and symbiotic regional food and beverage industry. More than 15,000 people work in the Louisville food and beverage sector, and not all of them are taking your order or working in the kitchen.
The “bourbonism” of Louisville
Bourbon plays a crucial and unique role in today’s Louisville food and beverage sector, but bourbon production at key Louisville distilleries – such as Brown-Forman, which produces Woodford Reserve, Old Forester and Early Times among many other spirits – is just one piece of the story.
Kentucky bourbon production reached a near 50-year high in 2015, according to the Kentucky Distillers’ Association. As the meteoric ascent in bourbon popularity continues to grow internationally, Louisville has embraced America’s native spirit, and bourbon permeates the city, especially as a tourism draw.
In the past few years bourbon producers have built and planned costly visitor-friendly, “boutique” distilleries in downtown Louisville where guests can learn more about the bourbon-making process, the story behind their favorite labels and the history of bourbon in Louisville. Recently, the Jim Beam Urban Stillhouse, complete with distillery and bottling line, opened in Louisville’s Fourth Street Live entertainment district. In the works are Angel’s Envy Distillery, Michter’s Distillery and Old Forester Distillery, which will join the already-open $9.5 million Evan Williams Bourbon Experience in Louisville’s revitalized Whiskey Row district.
Louisville is often considered a gateway to the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, an increasingly popular tourist attraction with nine destinations throughout Central Kentucky and now Louisville – the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience is the first urban distillery to be included on the trail. More than 750,000 guests visited attractions along the Kentucky Bourbon Trail in 2015, with that number growing each year. The visitors number balloons to nearly 900,000 if you include the associated Kentucky Bourbon Trail Craft Tour, which features smaller, artisanal distilleries such as Louisville’s Kentucky Peerless Distilling Co.
This influx of bourbon-focused visitors fosters a need for more restaurants, which in turn nurtures a creativity among the community of Louisville chefs and mixologists to highlight the spirits on their menus.
“Louisville’s rich bourbon heritage influences more than our cocktail menu – it has shaped our culture,” said Brittany Allison, the economic development project manager for food and beverage with Louisville Forward, the metro government’s economic development agency. “There is bourbon in our chocolates, in our museums and woven all through the menus of our vast culinary scene. The mayor (Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer) calls this phenomenon ‘bourbonism,’ and visitors are coming in droves to experience it.”
A center of food manufacturing
Actually, the bourbon industry gave birth to another pillar of the Louisville food and beverage sector: food manufacturing. Brown-Forman became one of the first Louisville food manufacturers when it started selling whiskey in 1870 in individual glass bottles instead of selling it by the barrel.
In the more than 145 years since, a considerable food manufacturing sector has set up shop in the Louisville region – of 150 food manufacturing companies in all of Kentucky, 125 are in Louisville, according to Deana Epperly Karem, the vice president of regional growth for Greater Louisville Inc. (GLI).
These companies represent an extremely diverse roster of products, from Girl Scout Cookies, produced by Little Brownie Bakers, to jellies and peanut butter at Algood Food Co., to filling a variety of niche food needs, such as caramel colorings produced at DDW for food and drink producers around the world, to innovative food packaging services at Flavorcraft.
Along with supplying ingredients to others globally, all of these manufacturers work together to create a collective food supply chain in Louisville. GLI created the Advanced Manufacturing and Logistics Network so all of these companies can actively share ideas and best practices and learn how they can take advantage of services available in Louisville. There’s a strong presence of food manufacturers in the network.
“It’s unique. They tour each others’ facilities; they do a lot of industry sharing, a lot of problem solving around industry challenges,” Karem said. “If we keep working to bring local industry leaders together to share trends and challenges and create solutions – if we keep that dialogue open and we continue to provide a venue and the format – I would hope it will continue to grow and keep getting better.”
Along with food manufacturers, GLI helps encourage Louisville restaurants to source their ingredients as locally as possible, which Karem says it isn’t a hard sell. “There’s a real movement here for restaurants to use local companies,” she said. “I’ve been doing this a long time, and I’ve never seen the commitment that our restaurateurs have to using local businesses as we see today.”
Local companies, global institutions
Along with bourbon and food manufacturing, a hallmark of the Louisville food and beverage industry is the
city’s cluster of global restaurant chain headquarters.
Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC), with its humble beginnings in 1930 in Corbin, Ky., is now headquartered in Louisville. The restaurant has grown to become the second largest fast food chain in the world, just behind McDonald’s, with nearly 20,000 locations – over three-quarters of which are outside the United States.
KFC is a subsidiary of Yum! Brands, which is also headquartered in Louisville. Along with KFC, Yum! operates Taco Bell and Pizza Hut, and is one of the world’s largest restaurant companies.
Just across the river in Southern Indiana, John Schnatter started Papa John’s pizza in a back room of his father’s tavern in 1983. The take-out and delivery pizza chain is now the third largest in the world and is headquartered in Louisville.
Like Papa John’s, Texas Roadhouse started in Southern Indiana and is now headquartered in Louisville. Since starting in 1993, the company now has over 400 locations across the country and a handful of international spots.
Location, location, location
All of these facets of the Louisville food and beverage industry rely on the region’s fortuitous location and logistics infrastructure.
Today, manufacturing, and not just food manufacturing, flourishes in Louisville because the city sits within 600 miles – or a day’s drive – of two-thirds of the nation’s population. For products with a finite shelf life, like food, being able to quickly deliver your product is essential.
The crux of the Louisville logistics network is Worldport, the worldwide air hub for UPS. The 5.2 million-s.f. facility can process nearly half a million packages an hour, and there is a constant stream of air freight carriers bringing products in and out of Louisville.
Worldport is crucial for getting Louisville-manufactured products to other destinations, but it also creates some interesting business opportunities. Nova Scotia-based Clearwater Seafood operates one of the largest lobster distribution centers in the country out of Louisville because of Worldport – fresh lobster comes to Louisville before being shipped to destinations around the world. This also means that outside the Atlantic Coast, Louisville restaurants have some of the freshest lobster in the country.
Lobster isn’t the only fresh food routed first through Louisville on its way to being shipped elsewhere. Lots of Louisville restaurants take advantage of this nexus, and it directly contributes to the favorable culinary notoriety Louisville restaurants have been able to achieve. However, the regional farms and food offerings, buttressed by the Kentucky Proud program, are also vital to Louisville restaurants.
“Louisville and the surrounding area play host to amazing farms, and the proximity to the UPS Worldport gives us access to food staples not normally found in a central state,” said David Rowland, the president of the Louisville chapter of the Kentucky Restaurant Association and assistant manager of the Louisville Marriott Downtown. “Programs like Kentucky Proud take the strong focus chefs already have on local fare and enhance the attractiveness of using products from the nearby area.”
The future of food
There is a concerted effort among city and business leaders to foster Louisville’s tech industry, and it’s only natural that a commingling of the tech and food and beverage sectors would emerge.
Louisville software development firm QSR Automations has created a number of technological innovations to help the restaurant industry, notably the company’s DineTime app, which helps restaurants manage reservations, menus and other front-of-house needs. The back-of-the-house ConnectSmart Kitchen software the company developed helps maximize chefs’ productivity by coordinating recipes, ingredients and cook times.
Perhaps the most anticipated and innovative food project coming to Louisville is a new $56 million indoor vertical farming and regional produce market facility. The West Louisville FoodPort is planned for a 24-acre site south of the downtown corridor in the Russell neighborhood. FoodPort will provide year-round food production, distribution, processing and other services. The entire project is expected to be complete in the spring of 2018.
With the convergence of all these factors that bolster Louisville’s food and beverage industry, the sector is regarded as a regional economic driver with lots of potential in store. Jack Mazurak, with the Kentucky Cabinet for Economic Development, says it is a sector his organization definitely has its eyes on.
“We have several target industries, and food and beverage is among the top industries that we are looking to recruit and grow in Kentucky, simply because we have so many advantages that it makes sense,” he said. “Once you have a certain amount, there’s a momentum that comes with it.”
Robbie Clark is a correspondent for The Lane Report. He can be reached at [email protected].