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Local Food and Creative Small Business Development Transforms the Bluegrass Region

By Jairus Rossi, Assistant Research Professor with CEDIK

The local food scene in Lexington, Kentucky and surrounding areas is growing rapidly. It is not uncommon to see the names of farms and local products prominently displayed in food trucks, restaurants, and grocery stores. When researchers at CEDIK conducted a local food demand assessment in late 2015, we were overwhelmed by the recent increase in Lexingtonians’ interest in local food. Somewhat unexpectedly, many buyers of local food mentioned that they saw increased consumer demand for local products tied to the emergence of craft brewing.

tomatoes

Just a few of the tomato varieties for sale at the local farmers market.

These interviewees noted that while Kentucky’s bourbon industry has historically led to an appreciation for local craft processes, the arrival of microbreweries in the past 5 years has paralleled an increased consumer consideration for other local consumables.   One interviewee went as describing the emergence of the ‘The Craft Beer Generation’ – which is less a generation than a type of consumer. This generation is distinguished by its interest in the creative processes necessary to bring food, drink, and art out of the Earth.  They are likely to spend more on a product that they consider higher quality. They may also have a better appreciation for the labor involved in making these things.  Indeed, many of those involved in microbreweries started as home brewers.

As consumers educate themselves on how products are made, producers have more opportunities for distinguishing their products from others based not only on the quality of ingredients, but the labor involved in the production.   For Lexington, the craft beer crowd is an extension of a regional interest and understanding of bourbon. In both consumer segments, appreciation of place is quite important. Just as bourbon lovers wax lyrical about how Kentucky’s particular landscapes and environments are critical to the production of superior spirit, the craft beer generation valorizes products made by Kentuckians from Kentucky products.

This craft ethic extends beyond fermented offerings into the food scene. Most directly, microbreweries have had an interesting relationship with food trucks.  Breweries have allowed food trucks to set up in nearby locations.  This allowed the breweries to focus on their craft while providing a diverse eating experience as different chefs could offer their specialties.  Many of these mobile eating establishments would source food locally.  Some of these trucks transformed into brick and mortar establishments.  In some ways, this arrangement between breweries and food trucks allows for experimentation with food concepts and an opportunity for these chefs to market their innovations across different neighborhoods in the city.

aquaculture_foodchain

Food Chain sells microgreens grown in their closed chain aquaculture to local chefs.

Microbreweries and local-food oriented restaurants have also tended to locate together.  Take for example the Jefferson St. corridor and the James E. Pepper Distillery Campus.  Both locations have a mixture of breweries and restaurants that promote local products.  At the Breadbox complex in the Jefferson St. corridor, visitors can get a tour of the brewing process while drinking a beer and then get an education on closed chain aquaculture production at Food Chain. They then might have a tilapia sandwich at Smithtown Seafood which may contain both fish and greens produced on site. In other locations, visitors may learn about the seasonality of production, heirloom tomatoes, or sustainable agriculture. At Middle Fork in the Pepper Campus, food preparation and cooking are the center of the dining experience – visitors watch their food being meticulously prepared. Indeed, the emphasis on craft process is an important reason why local food demand is growing – consumers are learning to differentiate foods and their sources in a novel way.

These locations also point to an interesting reconsideration of industrial spaces. The Pepper Distillery campus and the Breadbox complex both make use of formerly abandoned manufacturing spaces and emphasize part of Lexington’s postbellum economic history.  This use of historical properties also allows these businesses to distinguish themselves from conventional chain restaurants that have little consideration of local sourcing.

Finally, microbreweries have moved from a support position for the local food scene to actively engage with agricultural production.  The West 6th Brewery recently purchased a farm to produce components for their brewing process.  They have also served as pickup locations for Community Supported Agriculture programs and have hosted events that have brought attention to local farmers and businesses.  Country Boy Brewing has used hops, fruit, and squash from local farmers in their brews.  Ethereal Brewing led a crowd-sourced wild yeast cultivation effort.  While not directly related to local food, they had patrons take malt home, open it up in their yard, and try to capture wild yeast that would create a unique local flavor in the brewing process.

In all of these examples, we are seeing an interesting synergy between local food, creative small business development, and a redefinition of the city.  These convergences may prove to have as lasting a legacy as Central Kentucky’s equine and bourbon industries while promoting the diversification of agriculture.

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