Reopening a restaurant is kind of like moving houses; you’ve got all the pieces, but they don’t necessarily fit.
The building at 106 W. Main St. hit all the points Hillbilly Tea owner Karter Louis wanted — more room, a larger kitchen, one story and the historic downtown feel with hardwoods, exposed brick and metal. And although he’d opened Hillbilly Tea for the first time six years ago, this time around was actually harder.
“It was a little backwards. The concept was developed. It had another space,” Louis said. “And you are trying to make it fit this space.”
All the furniture and decor had been purchased or given to Louis for Hillbilly Tea’s original location on First Street, and he had to figure out how to make it work in the restaurant’s new home.
Louis closed the original Hillbilly Tea just more than a year ago, citing decreased traffic because of construction related to the Ohio River Bridges Project. The restaurant also was located just off the beaten path and suffered from having a small kitchen, he said.
Louis never expected Hillbilly Tea to get as popular as it was. He started the restaurant after returning home to Louisville to be near his mother who was sick at the time, he previously told Insider Louisville.
After Hillbilly Tea took off, “I unfortunately said yes to a lot of things,” Louis said, including the now-closed Hillbilly Tea Shack on Baxter Avenue and other projects that never got off the ground, such as an Appalachian sushi restaurant and a Hillbilly Tea location in the Portland neighborhood.
His mother died in 2014, and Louis said he continued to work long days trying to keep Hillbilly Tea going without taking enough time to grieve. Eventually, the mixture of stress and grief caught up with him.
“Emotionally, it was just really overwhelming,” he said.
He closed Hillbilly Tea and Hillbilly Tea Shack and visited friends in New York City and Taipei.
“I just went away, and I took care of myself,” Louis previously told IL.
While he was gone, he helped open a Western-style restaurant called Allegro in Taiwan, helped Joy Luck’s owner plan his second restaurant, recorded an album, and continued serving on the board for Jefferson Community and Technical College Foundation. His plan was always to come back to Louisville, he said, but not to reopen Hillbilly Tea.
“I was done,” he said. “I was pretty much at peace.”
But customers kept messaging him on Facebook and posting to Hillbilly Tea’s wall asking for him to bring the restaurant back. Realtors called offering spaces in Louisville in which to reopen Hillbilly Tea.
One Realtor and friend was particularly persistent: Gant Hill of Gant Hill & Associates. Hill repeatedly told him about a building on West Main Street that he thought would be a perfect fit for Hillbilly Tea — but still Louis resisted.
Hill also sat on the foundation board for JCTC, and when Louis returned to town to survey all of JCTC’s properties as part of a project to update the college’s master plan, Hill convinced Louis to take a peek at the building.
“He said, ‘Since we’re here, you might as well look,'” Louis said.
When Louis first toured the property, he said it was pretty much ready to go. The owners already had cleaned up and finished the building; it just needed Hillbilly Tea’s branding and decor.
It was a “if-you-pass-this-up-you’re-an-idiot kind of deal,” Louis said.
Along with a covered outdoor patio, the size of the kitchen helped seal the deal, according to Louis. The kitchen originally was built for a small restaurant incubator concept that fell through and is roughly four times the size of the kitchen at Hillbilly Tea’s original location.
“We didn’t even have a freezer (at the old location), and now we have a walk-in freezer,” Louis said, noting that when Hillbilly Tea finally got a freezer at the First Street space, it had to be stored in the parking lot because there was no room inside. “This is pretty luxurious for Hillbilly Tea.”
When the pieces didn’t fall together for the incubator, property owner Prem Durham wanted a restaurant to open there, and Hillbilly Tea in particular, she told Insider Louisville. She co-owns the property with her husband Fred Durham, founder of CafePress.
“It’s very wholesome food, and it’s not shi-shi,” Durham said.
The kitchen give Hillbilly Tea the capacity to cook a lot of food at one time to accommodate large crowds, Durham noted. It also will allow the cooks to prepare meat separately from other ingredients to prevent cross-contamination, which is important to Durham, whose family is strictly vegetarian.
Durham, who also owns and runs Lakshmi Farms in Anchorage, isn’t simply the landlord though. She is now a partner in the business with Louis.
“It is amazing to have a partner who is engaged like her, who was a passion and a vision,” Louis said. And while Louis is the ideas man, Durham is the “taskmaster” who makes things happen.
Durham said she and Louis connected over their passion for sustainability and farm-to-table food. She plans to compost Hillbilly Tea’s teas and use it on her farm. She hopes to compost Hillbilly Tea’s food as well in the future.
At the old Hillbilly Tea, the menu would change every three months, but Louis said the menu at the new reincarnation will be a “best of Hillbilly Tea” featuring only the top-selling and most-loved items. That includes the pork and pone, bean fritters, skillet pancakes, house-made granola and of course, its variety of teas and Hillbilly Hooch.
Hours of operation will be 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays, 11 a.m. to midnight Fridays, and 10 a.m. to midnight Saturdays. Hillbilly Tea will serve 10 a.m. brunch Saturdays and Sundays, but it won’t offer dinner service Sundays.
It will stop serving dinner at 10 p.m. every day, but Hillbilly Tea also will offer an all-day bar menu, which includes burgers, turkey wings and other items.
Although he was reluctant at first, Louis said he is happy to be reopening Hillbilly Tea along historic downtown Main Street.
“I couldn’t imagine doing it anywhere else.”