30 years in, Susan Hershberg isn’t slowing down as Wiltshire is poised to grow

Wiltshire Bakery and Cafe is located at 901 Barret Ave. | Courtesy of Wiltshire Pantry Facebook

In a way, Wiltshire Pantry has followed the life cycle of a human. The first years were about learning, followed by more than a decade of sustained growth, and now, in its 30th year, Wiltshire owner Susan Hershberg feels like the bakery, restaurant and catering business is coming into its own.

This December was the first where she wasn’t crunching numbers, worried about making it through the winter, a typically slow season for restaurants and retailers.

This year, there is no slow season. Wiltshire has several large corporate catering jobs lined up, regular events twice weekly at Angel’s Envy and Rabbit Hole distilleries, and it recently debuted a hot breakfast menu at Wiltshire Bakery and Cafe, 901 Barret Ave. Wiltshire’s small cafe within the Speed Art Museum is gearing up for a new late-night event, and Wiltshire on Market, which serves dinner Thursdays through Sundays only, is plugging along.

Wiltshire isn’t experiencing the same labor constraints that many restaurant owners are facing. “People know we are solid, and we are not going anywhere. I think that’s why,” Hershberg said, adding that chefs at Wiltshire work with premium ingredients and have more leeway to tinker than they might in some other jobs.

Wiltshire’s multiple operations employ upward of 60 people, and Hershberg has her eyes set on growth.

People camped out overnight outside the Frazier History Museum, now the start of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, for a chance to buy rare bourbon. | Courtesy of Frazier History Museum

She is working with the Frazier History Museum to open a new bakery and cafe in one of the properties on West Main Street owned by the museum, and Hershberg is actively searching for a place somewhere in the East End for another bakery and cafe, maybe in Crescent Hill or St. Matthews — where Wiltshire got its start.

Someplace with a lot of foot traffic, Hershberg said.

“I like being in a neighborhood. I like to come to work and see people walking to and from the bakery. That’s really what makes it work,” she said, adding that the Beechmont neighborhood interests her, too.

The urge to grow came from increased traffic at the Barret Avenue bakery and its rise in production capacity with the opening of its commissary kitchen in Shelby Park in August 2017.

Wiltshire Bakery and Cafe saw a jump in business when the new Broadway apartment complex, The Highland, came online, Hershberg said, and she expects it to pick up further now that The Baxter, another apartment complex nearby, is accepting tenant applications, and again once redevelopment of the Urban Government Center across the street gets underway.

“We operate here at capacity,” Hershberg said.

The Wiltshire Bakery and Cafe concept is “solid and replicable,” she said, and new locations will take pressure off the current storefront. Customers who travel to the bakery and cafe from downtown and NuLu would have the option of visiting the new location inside the Frazier History Museum instead.

Frazier History Museum President Penny Peavler called Wiltshire “a Kentucky treasure.”

“Susan Hershberg’s commitment to fresh local ingredients and recipes honors the history and future of Kentucky’s diverse foodways. As the place where the world meets Kentucky, sharing Kentucky foodways is vital to the Frazier’s guests,” Peavler said in emailed comment to Insider, noting that Wiltshire is one of the approved caterers for the Frazier.

“As we explore developing our additional real estate on Main Street with businesses that support our mission and designation as the Official Start of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, we are speaking with Susan about occupying space for a coffee and bakery shop in the future,” Peavler continued. “We will announce these plans once all of our partners are in place.”

With plans still in the works, there’s no timeline for opening yet, but the Frazier is debuting its new Jon Carloftis Gateway garden in the spring where Wiltshire will set up its pop-up coffee truck.

Once the new bakery and cafe downtown does open, Hershberg said she expects it will seat 50 and serve breakfast, coffee and pastries as early as 7 a.m., and sandwiches, salads and treats until 3 p.m., like the Barret Avenue storefront.

Hershberg anticipates that business at the Frazier location will be tourist-driven, either people visiting the museum stopping for a quick bite or bourbon tourists picking up boxed lunches to go. The Frazier is the official start of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail.

Always open to opportunity 

Susan Hershberg, owner of Wiltshire Pantry | Photo by Whitney Neal

On Jan. 10, 1989, Hershberg said she could not have dreamt what Wiltshire, which started as a catering company only, would become.

“I would not have imagined this 10 years ago. I really wouldn’t have,” she said.

Hershberg called the expansion of Wiltshire spontaneous before amending herself to say, “I don’t know how 30 years can be spontaneous.” What she meant was that growth and changes at Wiltshire start off with an opportunity or a talented individual that came out of the blue.

“I used to say, ‘Oh, it’s just such a coincidence,'” she said, to the point where employees poke fun of her proclivity for chalking things up to random happenstance.

Hershberg said she later came to realize that it wasn’t coincidence. “It’s always being open to opportunity and not having a closed mind, and I think it’s about remaining curious.”

Wiltshire used to not do much of anything with bread, but a baker applied for a position with the company and Hershberg thought, “She’s super talented; let’s see what we can do.” That led to the opening of Wiltshire Bakery and Cafe in 2013, and now workers are kneading, proving and baking bread daily at its Logan Street commissary.

Wiltshire on Market, which opened in 2009, was created in a similar way. Coby Ming, now executive chef at the Pine Room, was executive chef for Hershberg at the same time that brides were telling her that they wished Wiltshire had a restaurant because they never got the opportunity to enjoy Wiltshire’s catering at their wedding.

“That’s really how that started. I never thought of opening a restaurant. I never wanted to own a restaurant,” Hershberg said. “But all the sudden, it was like this little seed that got planted.”

Wiltshire on Market changed the game in terms of name recognition for the business, she noted, because it was the first place where people could try the food outside of private events. The media attention surrounding the opening of Wiltshire on Market, in turn, raised awareness of the catering operation.

While to those on the outside, it seems as though Wiltshire has always been around and always been successful. Hershberg pinpointed multiple times when she wasn’t quite sure the business would make it.

The first five years were zero growth, she said. “It was just night and day, networking and cold calling. I was part of every women’s business networking group in town, and it was really slow, but thankfully, we didn’t have a lot of overhead. We were able to keep it tight.”

For the first seven years, Hershberg had a business partner in chef Patricia Kontur, but the pair parted ways in 1996. In the eighth year, Hershberg said Wiltshire saw “huge” growth, which she attributes to fear.

“I think it was that I was scared to go out on my own and that it was going to be like starting all over again, and I’d already worked so hard for seven years. I wasn’t sure I had it in me to push again,” she said.

A Wiltshire Pantry employee makes bread in the Logan Street commissary. | Photo by Caitlin Bowling

She did push, though, and Wiltshire, Hershberg said, saw a decade of rapid growth. During that time, however, she never had a moment where she thought: This is it, I’ve made it.

“I never had a chance to look back,” said Hershberg, who former Insider contributor Steve Coomes described in 2016 as always on the move.

As Hershberg reminisced, another key moment that stood out to her in the business’ evolution was the leap in 2007 from Wiltshire Avenue in St. Matthews, its namesake and base of operations for 18 years, to a storefront near the intersection of the Highlands, Paristown Pointe and Germantown. The storefront didn’t become Wiltshire Bakery and Cafe until six years later.

“I was afraid that people in the community would think that we had closed and they wouldn’t know we had moved all the way over here to this part of town,” she said. “It felt like it was so far away because, at that point, Germantown wasn’t on anybody’s radar as an up-and-coming neighborhood, or Schnitzelberg, nobody’d heard of — I had never heard of Schnitzelberg.”

The traditionally blue-collar neighborhoods in the past several years have seen a boom in new businesses and an influx of young homebuyers, as well as rising home prices. They’ve become highly desirable places to live.

Hershberg’s worries about changing locations ultimately were unfounded as business continued gangbusters and is still growing.

“I am really looking forward to the continued growth of the local food economy. It’s amazing to me, even from one year ago, the amount of produce we are able to purchase directly from local farmers has grown exponentially,” Hershberg said. “… I think we are going to see a lot of growth in the local food economy, and we are thrilled to be a part of that.”