The Closing Bell: Aloft East nears completion; KFC surpasses Yum golden child Taco Bell; Humana deal update; liquor store closes; and more

Welcome to The Closing Bell. This is your last stop for biz scoops and big news before the weekend — a roundup of stories that can’t wait till Monday.

Aloft in Louisville’s East End nears completion

The Aloft Louisville East hotel is in what developers and contractors refer to as the FF&E — or Furniture, Fixtures & Equipment — phase of construction.

“Now, we are on to the finishes,” said developer Patrick Madden, owner of Madden Development. “It’s mainly inside stuff, trimming, fixtures.”

The 23,363-square-foot, 126-room hotel is located near the intersection of Indian Lake Drive and Westport Road on the former Indian Springs Golf Course, and it is slated to open toward the end of August, Madden said. The Oct. 4 open date listed on Aloft’s website was a place holder date.

Although he previously thought the Aloft might open in June or July, Madden said weather has impacted the project.

“The rain has been the only thing that has been slowing us,” he said, adding that otherwise, the project has moved along predictably.

Aloft East Louisville is pet-friendly and offers amenities such free in-room internet, a pool, fitness center and 24-hour snack shop. It also will feature Aloft’s W XYZ Bar.

The first Aloft in Louisville opened in November at the corner of Main and First streets downtown. —Caitlin Bowling

Soft U.S. market hits Taco Bell sales; Yum! Brands CEO praises new KFC colonel

Innovations such as the Quesalupa drive Taco Bell's sales, Yum! Brands CEO Greg Creed said. | Photo by Caitlin Bowling

Innovations like the Quesalupa (pictured) drive Taco Bell’s sales, Yum! Brands CEO Greg Creed said. | Photo by Caitlin Bowling

Same store sales at Taco Bell declined 1 percent during the second quarter of 2016.

The fast-food chain is typically the golden child of parent company Yum! Brands, but during the second quarter, fried chicken restaurant KFC took that crown. KFC saw a 2 percent increase in same-store sales.

“I have to give the KFC U.S. teams credit. I think George Hamilton as the new Colonel behind extra crispy is brilliant and that is having a positive impact on our sales momentum at KFC in the U.S. right now,” Yum CEO Greg Creed told analysts on a conference call Thursday morning.

“We’ve gone back to a core product,” he added. “We haven’t had to discount. We’ve obviously wrapped it around $20 buckets and $5 boxes, but we’ve just done a much better job of breaking through with the communication.”

Creed noted that Taco Bell’s same-store sales are up for the first two weeks of the third quarter and blamed a “soft” U.S. market for the uncharacteristically poor Taco Bell numbers. He cited a GenForward study that found that the majority of people ages 18 to 30 believe the U.S. is either falling behind or failing as a nation.

“What it means is for brands like Taco Bell, we’ve got to make sure that we get our communication really tight and focused,” he said. “I don’t necessarily believe it means we have to drop our prices anymore. I think we’ve got to do a better job of communicating our value. And we also have to remember that the Taco Bell brand always responds to incredible breakthrough innovation.”

Overall, Yum reported a 44 percent increase in net income to $339 million during the second quarter of 2016 compared to the same period a year ago. Yum’s earnings per share for the second quarter rose 9 percent to $0.75, and revenues declined 3 percent to $3 billion.

The company lifted its guidance for core operating profit from a projected 12 percent increase for the year to 14 percent. The positive numbers and guidance change resulted in a 4 percent jump in Yum stock Wednesday.

During the fourth quarter of this year, Yum will spin-off its China business. Executives said the company is on track to meet the Oct. 31 spin-off deadline despite reported problems with potential investors.

Same-store sales for Yum’s China division were flat during the second quarter, but its operating profit rose 1 percent to $147 million. —Caitlin Bowling

Homearama at Norton Commons and River Crest starts Saturday

This year's Homearama include 25 different abodes. | Courtesy of Norton Commons

This year’s Homearama include 34 different abodes. | Courtesy of Norton Commons

The East End village of Norton Commons and neighborhood of River Crest will open their doors to Homearama starting Saturday.

Norton Commons will feature 25 custom-built homes. The homes will feature new design trends, luxurious outdoor living spaces and increased energy efficiency, according to a news release.

The single-family and multi-family homes and townhomes in Norton Commons are a nod to neighborhoods like Old Louisville, the release states, and are surrounded by a raised lawn called “Emerald Park,” which features Classical Vernacular-style columns, landscaped pathways, a gazebo, and park benches and swings.

River Crest’s Homearama showcase will feature nine different home designs that feature a mix of stone, brick and wood, giving some of them a large country cottage feel on the exterior.

Hours are 5 to 9:30 p.m. on weekdays, 10 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Saturdays, and from 1 to 6 p.m. Sundays July 16-31.

Tickets are $10 per person for a single day or $15 for a two-day pass. Children 12 and younger are free, as is parking. Tickets are available on-site at Norton Commons and River Crest.

The Building Industry Association of Greater Louisville has organized Homearama since 1968. —Caitlin Bowling

Bardstown Road drive-thru liquor store now closed

Bourbon & Belles closed after less than a year in business. | Photos by Sara Havens

Bourbon & Belles closed after less than a year in business. | Photo by Sara Havens

Bourbon & Belles, a drive-thru convenience and liquor store on Bardstown Road near Douglas Loop, has shut down without warning.

The business provided a one-stop shop for people who wanted liquor, beer or wine but also needed to grab essentials such as eggs, milk, diapers and toilet paper. It opened last October, according to a previous Insider Louisville story.

There’s been some speculation online as to why it closed, but IL wasn’t able to confirm or deny those rumors. The phone number listed for Bourbon & Belles has been disconnected, and owner Jennifer Jones has not returned emails seeking comment.

Neither Bourbon & Belles Facebook page nor its website acknowledge that the store has closed.

Property owner Tom Drexler also has not returned messages asking for comment on the closure and whether a new business would be moving into the 2232 Bardstown Road space. —Caitlin Bowling

Aetna-Humana merger gets approval from New York

Humana HQAetna and Humana got some good news about their proposed merger this week after some tough days that brought significant stock price declines.

The New York Department of Financial Services has approved the merger, a spokeswoman told Insider Louisville on the phone Wednesday. IL received no reply to an emailed request for additional information. Bloomberg had reported that New York officials’ approval came with some conditions to assure continued competition in the health insurance market.

Hartford, Conn.-based Aetna wants to buy Humana, based in Louisville, for $34 billion. Before the merger goes through, federal regulators — and those in some states — need to give their approval.

The companies have received approval from 18 of 20 states in which they do business, an Aetna spokesman told IL via email. He also said that while the company does not disclose which states remain, Georgia has scheduled a hearing on the matter for July 26. Missouri is the sole state that, so far, has ruled against the companies, at least preliminarily.

The companies’ biggest hurdle seems to be convincing federal antitrust regulators that the merger will not materially reduce competition. News reports have hinted that officials with the U.S. Department of Justice are skeptical about the companies’ claims that the merger would lead to better health care and better prices for consumers.

Humana stocks got hammered late last week and early this week. Humana’s shares fell $26, or more than 14 percent, in three days, wiping out about $4 billion in shareholder value. The share price rebounded Wednesday, rising $7, or about 4.5 percent within 90 minutes in the afternoon. Aetna’s shares rose 3.2 percent Wednesday. The S&P 500 was unchanged. On Thursday, however, the S&P 500 recorded a gain of 0.53 percent, while shares of Aetna and Humana closed essentially unchanged from Wednesday’s close. Boris Ladwig

Former antitrust official: Meaning of high-level antitrust meetings difficult to ascertain

David Zimmer

David Zimmer

A former antitrust regulator said that a high-level meeting among leaders from Aetna, Humana and the U.S. Department of Justice last week says little to nothing about the prospects of the companies’ proposed merger.

Shares of both companies fell sharply last week after media reports indicated the companies’ leaders were about to meet with top officials in the DoJ to discuss the regulator’s concerns about the proposed merger’s impact on competition.

If regulators believe the deal would reduce competition, they could sue to block the transaction.

David Zimmer, associate professor of economics at Western Kentucky University and a former antitrust regulator with the Federal Trade Commission, said the meaning of high-level meetings between company officials and antitrust regulators is difficult to determine from the outside.

“It’s not unusual for antitrust cops to meet with high-level representatives from companies seeking to merge,” Zimmer told IL via email. ”Such meetings can happen early or late in an investigation. Sometimes such meetings are simple information sessions or meet-and-greets. Or sometimes they are the start of negotiations involving, perhaps, proposed divestitures.

“Or,” Zimmer said,  “sometimes antitrust cops might call such a meeting to warn that they’re upping the intensity of the investigation.

“Most importantly,” he said, “the occurrence of such a meeting doesn’t necessarily mean the merger is in trouble, or that it’s not.” Boris Ladwig

New fast-casual pizza chain opening in Hikes Point

Customer can build their own pizza or order one of 10 signature pies. | Courtesy of MOD Pizza

Customer can build their own pizza or order one of 10 signature pies. | Courtesy of MOD Pizza

MOD Pizza is the latest fast-casual pizza chain to see a potential customer base in Louisville.

MOD, which stands for Made On Demand, will open its first Louisville store at noon on Wednesday, July 20, at 3085 Breckenridge Lane. Customers who visit on opening day will have a chance to win free pizza for a year.

The restaurant is a similar concept to Blaze Fast-Fire’d Pizza, Pieology Pizzeria and Uncle Maddio’s Pizza in that it prides itself on serving up thin-crust personal pizzas in a short period of time. MOD bakes its pizzas for three minutes in a gas-heated oven at 800 degrees. It has a regular 11-inch thin crust, a mini six-inch thin crust and the Mega MOD, which is two 11-inch crusts stacked on top of each other. Customers can build their own or choose from 10 signature pizzas.

The restaurant company was founded in Seattle by couple Scott Svenson and Ally Svenson, who also founded Seattle Coffee Co., which was purchased by coffee giant Starbucks Coffee Co. in 1998. —Caitlin Bowling

West Louisville FoodPort launches new website

West Louisville FoodPort will include a vertical farm. | Courtesy of FarmedHere

West Louisville FoodPort will include a vertical farm. | Courtesy of FarmedHere

The $56 million West Louisville FoodPort development now has its own website that explains what exactly the project is, what businesses are involved, and who’s donated to make it a reality.

“You asked, we answered. FoodPort website is LIVE!” a post to the project’s Twitter account states.

The website explains what a food port is and how the project will help economic and community development, among other aspects of the development.

Nonprofit Seed Capital Kentucky is overseeing the development of the food port at 30th Street and Muhammad Ali Boulevard. IL reported last week that the nonprofit had raised nearly 70 percent of its $9 million fundraising goal for the first phase of the project. —Caitlin Bowling

Sign up for bridge toll system RiverLink starting next week

River link logoRiverLink, the tolling system that Kentucky and Indiana are implementing on the John F. Kennedy Memorial Bridge, the new Abraham Lincoln Bridge and the new East End bridge, will allow customers to start creating accounts next Thursday.

On July 21, two RiverLink customer service centers will open, and people will be able to sign up for the tolling program. The customer service centers are located at 400 E. Main St. in Louisville and 103 Quartermaster Court in Jeffersonville, Ind. Hours of operation will be 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday and 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday during the first year of operation.

“Setting up a prepaid account is an important first step we know many drivers are ready to take. We want to make the process as easy as possible, and make sure drivers have the information they need to pay the lowest rates,” Clint Murphy, director of tolling oversight with the Indiana Department of Transportation, said in a news release.

The all-electronic tolling booth was introduced last November but won’t take effect until later this year. Tolls start as low as $2 per trip across the bridge for passenger vehicles with a RiverLink transponder or E-ZPass transponder. Drivers who don’t register their license plate with RiverLink will pay $4 per trip.

The most expensive per trip cost is $12 for an unregistered semi-trailer truck. Semi-trailer trucks with a transponder will pay $10 per trip.

Registrants will need to know the make, model, year, color and license plate number for each vehicle they sign up. People can sign up online or by calling 855-RIV-LINK. Commercial users are encouraged to call the customer service line. Personal accounts must have a minimum balance of $20 and can include up to four cars.

For more information about how the tolling will work, check out River Link’s website. —Caitlin Bowling