Karter Louis: Opening a Hillbilly Tea in Portland will be a catalyst for change


The future home of Hillbilly Tea and Gelato Gilberto on Portland Avenue.

The way Karter Louis sees it, he could do the safe thing and make a lot of money. Which is what entrepreneurs do, he noted.

Or he could do the slightly crazy thing and possibly change the city.

“We could open Hillbilly Tea in the Summit, but we’re not going to the Summit. That’s low-hanging fruit,” the restaurateur said. “We’d make a lot of money, but that’s not the point.

“The point is to be a catalyst for change.”

That an African-American businessman is risking time and capital to bring an Appalachian-themed restaurant to one of the poorer – though promising – sections of Louisville’s urban core is not lost on Louis. NuLu creator Gill Holland, who’s been leading a 2-year effort to revive Portland with partners Matthew Gilles, Gregg Rochman and Jonathan Bevan, started recruiting Louis about year ago.

At the time, Louis said, he told Holland he was too focused on his store in China, and on creating a new soul food concept. But somewhere along the line, he decided he wanted to be part of the effort to tear down that Ninth Street Divide, a mostly psychological border that has kept investment from spilling over from the central business district into West Louisville.

Louis signed a lease Friday for about 1,400 square feet of space in a former firehouse on Portland Avenue, just east of 22nd Street. The building is owned by Holland and his Shine Contracting partners Gilles, Rochman and Bevan.

Louis declined to reveal numbers, but described the terms as “an amicable, fair lease.” Portland rates are something of a bargain that offsets the risk, he noted: “We hope that as business builds over five years, we come out on the upside.”

The variant of Hillbilly Tea that opens in Portland will be slightly different than the original inventive restaurant and hooch tavern on First and Market streets.

Hillbilly Tea Stop will share the building with Gelato Gilberto, an Italian ice cream maker with its main store in Norton Commons. Louisville-based architect Mose Putney, who is also a partner in the Portland firehouse, is working on a re-design for the East Portland building, Gilles said, and Louis said the plan is for a quick-service Hillbilly Tea Stop to open by the end of the year.

(We checked with Justin Gilbert, Gelato Gilberto founder, and he confirmed his operation will be a commissary, with no retail sales. “Though we’re not ruling it out at a later date.”)

It would be the first non-chain, sit-down restaurant in Portland/Shippingport, which runs from 10th Street on the edge of downtown to the Shawnee Parkway on the west, one of the larger urban Louisville neighborhoods in geographic terms.

Hillbilly Tea Stop will be different in that it will be a quick-stop setup, with food supplied by a commissary to open next to the First Street location.

But it will have the same tea-infused hooch that has made the original a must-visit.

If you know the Hillbilly Tea story, you’ll know this move isn’t out of character for Louis, who’s been of something of an unconventional career path after careers as an entertainer, then as a restaurant consultant in Asia and the United States.

He opened Hillbilly Tea to rave reviews in 2010 with Hungary native Chef Arpad Lengyel. Then in 2013, Louis opened a second store in – of all places – Shanghai, where he had lived before returning to Louisville.

Louis opened in China after a serendipitous series of events including an affordable space opening up. But he did it because he believed the Chinese had a skewed understanding of American food, with choices limited to chains such as KFC and Olive Garden.

He also wanted to expose China – “In their minds, they own tea,” Louis said – to the “American narrative on tea” including his tea-infused alcohol.

And thus, the Hillbilly Tea Tavern was born: “We didn’t want to take over China with 50 stores.”

Now, the idea of being a West End pioneer appeals to him, he said. Louis grew up in Old Louisville at Fourth and Hill streets in Old Louisville, graduating from Youth Performing Arts School near by, but has lived in the West End.

Now, he wants to not just be part of the Portland Renaissance, but part of the effort to revive the entire West End, he said. Louis said he’s seen neighborhoods such as South of Market, or SoMa, in San Francisco go from Skid Row to having “insane” property values, and is convinced Portland can come back.

“I think Hillbilly Tea needs to happen there. There needs to be a destination,” Louis said. “That’s the start of something. If would be great if other restaurants followed suit.

“But in the meantime, I don’t mind being the destination.”