Hillbilly Tea closed for good, not just the holidays

Prem Durham, left, partnered with Karter Louis to revive Hillbilly Tea. | Photo by Caitlin Bowling

Hillbilly Tea has once again closed; this time, for good, according to owner Karter Louis.

The Southern restaurant reopened in May at 106 W. Main St., just down the street from the KFC Yum! Center. Louis said he saw the new location as a reincarnation that would present the “best of Hillbilly Tea.”

Louis told Insider Louisville in an interview Wednesday night that the revival didn’t work out as planned.

“We closed for the holiday, and we decided not to reopen,” Louis said. “We feel like we just did not get off to a good start, and we did not achieve the level of excellence we wanted to achieve.”

Before fans start penning a Hillbilly Tea elegy, Louis said the company isn’t closing.

“Hillbilly Tea, the brand, will continue,” he said.

Hillbilly Tea will still operate as a tea supplier for local restaurants, including the new Hi-Five Doughnuts brick-and-mortar store, and its line of teas are expected to pop up in some retail locations next year, he said. The line also is available online.

And be on the look out for an announcement early next year about the Hillbilly Hooch facility, which will produce tea-infused alcohol. Louis said he continued to work on plans for the Portland neighborhood distillery even after the restaurant closed the first time.

The brand will survive, but Louis said, “there will never be another Hillbilly Tea restaurant.”

Hillbilly Tea originally opened on First Street downtown in 2010. The restaurant closed five years later; Louis cited declining sales as a result of the construction related to the Ohio River Bridges Project and personal issues as the reasons for the closure.

Roughly a year later, Louis teamed up with Lakshmi Farms owner Prem Durham, who owns the Main Street building with husband, Fred Durham, founder of CafePress.

In the meantime, Louisville’s restaurant scene continued to grow, creating increased competition for qualified staff. Louis said he’d hope to take more of a backseat and leave the day-to-day operations to the staff, but he said the restaurant struggled to find quality employees who could successful run Hillbilly Tea.

“It is a worker’s environment,” he said. “We did not find a dynamic team until the end. Unfortunately, we as partners collectively — we don’t want to risk it. We have risked enough in terms of finances and reputation.”

Louis added that Hillbilly Tea already operated several months longer than he and Prem Durham originally agreed to. Before they reopened the restaurant, Louis said, that they planned to give it three months; if it didn’t go well, they’d close.

“People did find us. People rallied. Louisville is a great community of people who are supportive and loving,” he said. But “we didn’t achieve the level of excellence that we wanted to achieve.”

Since reopening, Hillbilly Tea has had mixed reviews on Yelp. It received some rave reviews, but other reviewers complained about the service and quality of the food, including one person receiving moldy fruit.

“Yelp is horrible, but what can you say, some of it’s true,” Louis said.

Hillbilly Tea’s staff of about 16 employees were told about the closing earlier this week, and nearly all have other employment, Louis said, reiterating that the most recent staff members were great and helping to improve the restaurant.

“I am nothing without a team,” he said, but “the numbers aren’t there.”

Durham could not be reached for comment about the closure or the future of the building. Louis said the fate of the Main Street building wouldn’t be decided until after the new year.

Now that the restaurant is done, Louis said he will continue his consulting work in the food industry. He worked as a restaurant consultant with local Asian fusion restaurant The Joy Luck and is currently consulting on another restaurant, though he wouldn’t say what.

Of course, Louis said he will still be around town for meetings of the JCTC College Foundation board, of which he is a member, and to perform his music. Louis is working on an album and will be one of the performers at the Speed Art Museum’s 90th anniversary celebration on Jan. 21.

“I am really involved and engaged in the things I like to do in Louisville,” he said.