Something exciting is happening in Stanford, Kentucky. A new restaurant, the Bluebird, is soaring in popularity—and it isn’t just the delicious menu that’s bringing in the customers. With a commitment to local foods and sustainable agriculture practices, the Bluebird stands to change the way food is served in small town America.
I’ve talked to so many of you throughout the state who want to be eating local—at home and when you go out—but feel frustrated that the marketing of local goods is so heavily concentrated in larger cities. There are farms near you, but many of them are taking their goods elsewhere to sell. After all, they can often charge higher premiums at farmer’s markets and restaurants in large markets like Louisville or Lexington.
The Bluebird stands to change all that. This unique venture is proving that local food is not only possible—but profitable—for small town America. In a town with a population of just over 3,000 people, you can dine with the knowledge your food is good for you and the money is going right back to local farmers.
I sat down with Executive Chef Bill Hawkins and Cliff Swaim of Marksbury Farm to chat about the Bluebird’s visionary approach to small town dining.
The Bluebird is situated on Main Street in Stanford in a newly renovated building. Down to the finest details, the project was Kentucky-made. Chef Bill says, “All of this wood, all of this work is done from Kentucky jobs. The guy who did the upholstery is right next door. The plan from the get-go was to keep this build, keep this project, Kentucky. Originally, I wasn’t even going to serve a soda in here, but we decided to serve a soda because Pepsi does have a distribution warehouse out of Corbin, so it’s produced, shipped, bottled out of Kentucky. I acquiesced because of that.”
The Bluebird is working with a number of suppliers around the state, including:
It’s more than the big names, though, with a supply chain that harkens back to a different era of community food. “The editor of the local newspaper brings me asparagus and a guy named Jeff Lines showed up just today with a son no bigger than mine and a bag full of oregano. That’s one of the cool things, I think, about this. The one thing I do ask is that they let me come out and look around and talk to them, because I want to make sure that the practices are agreeable.”
Chef Bill’s interest in local foods began several years ago when he partnered with a farmer name Dave Fisher in southwest Indiana to supply goods for his work there. “The initial impact for me as a chef—I’m a business man—was, wow, the food tastes better! I can make better food. I can please my customers more. And truthfully, I can make more money. Then after meeting Dave, meeting his family, becoming kind of a part of their lifestyle and how their marriage was to their business and to their land—it become even more important to me. There’s also a personal religious side as well, as far as the stewardship of the planet.”
A Cincinnati native, Bill jumped on the chance to work on this project in Stanford. And the partnership with Marksbury Farm, whose small-scale processing facility is just up the road in Lancaster, came naturally for both sides. As Cliff from Marksbury said, “Chef Bill really just makes a great partner for Marksbury. Not only in his pedigree as a chef and his appreciation for quality, but also his interest in sustainable farming, supporting community—all these things that go into what you have when you support local farmers and keep your food sources close to home. There are so many things about this relationship that just work. I see this as a real model for what other restaurants can do. Our proximity to each other is obviously a plus. Especially when you hear food miles a lot and you want to know how far from the time that animal hits the ground on the farm, to the processing, to the end user. We’ve got cattle right across the road, and they come to our plant, 15 minutes north, then they come back here.”
The investors behind the Bluebird knew that undertaking such a venture in a rural area had some potential for risk. But they banked on the fact that the local food movement is becoming more prevalent. Even more to the point, it just plain tastes better. But has the community responded as they hoped?
Chef Bill was quick to answer that affirmatively. “Overwhelmingly, yes. The local economy here and the local people, they buy into this and they support it. It makes sense to them because they feel like when they are putting a dollar on the table here, it’s flowing back through, back to the local economy. We’re in a town of 3,000 people and I’m putting 140, 150 people through here a day.”
Cliff agrees. “Really, within the first week or so, he was already placing his main order, and supplemental orders to get him to the next main order. And that’s only let off a couple of times in the two and half months since he opened. For instance, this week we had to get his chickens early. He just needed them. A lot of that has to do with how they run the place—they’re clean, their service is great, their food is great, the whole atmosphere [is great]. But also people know—and Chef Bill makes a point of letting people know—this is local stuff, we do support the farmers that live in this community. There was a bit of a risk in being that it’s so rural. When you’re so close to the land already, sometimes it’s hard for people to have the extra appreciation because it does cost a little more. Chef Bill has done a great job in the way that he has set his menu. You’re not looking at prices that are twice as much as commodity foods. For the most part you can’t go to Applebee’s and get the equivalent for less. He serves great food, it’s good, it’s clean, it’s got tons of flavor. And it’s less than ten bucks.”
I was pretty surprised after looking over the Bluebird’s menu and seeing the great selection of local foods at such reasonable prices. When I asked how that was possible, Cliff gave the credit to Chef Bill. “Because he believes in what he’s doing. I deal with people all the time that are convinced this won’t work because they won’t try it. In that sense, he’s a pioneer because he followed through and is making it work in a small market.”
While the prices have stayed consistently affordable, the menu selection is constantly evolving to reflect what’s available. “That was one thing that the community had a little difficulty adjusting to. So they come in and order the pasta—well, the pasta’s different today. ‘Where’s the pasta I had last week? That was really good, I liked it.’ So that one took a little bit of getting used to, but it wasn’t a deal breaker for anyone. And I sell it as a benefit, because, I mean, why wouldn’t you want something different all the time?”
It’s energizing to see this kind of innovative business coming to small town Kentucky, but hopefully it is only the beginning. “I think this is the future trend of restaurants. Look at Asheville, look at Charleston, Lafayette . . . All of the best chefs—and I’m not saying I’m the world’s best chef—but all the good chefs in the industry are doing this. And they’re doing it for the same reasons. If you were a painter, and you could get a more vivid red, why wouldn’t you? You’d get the more vivid red.”
Can this be model be replicated elsewhere? Cliff says yes. “The support system involved has everything to do with it. If you don’t really believe in it, you’ll fall back on commodity stuff in no time. It’s not as simple as picking a city and setting up shop. There’s definitely market research that has to happen. And the farmers have to be on board to. And that is why this relationship works so well and why the time is right.”
The folks at the Bluebird and their partners know that this is about more than building a better business or serving better food. The perspective of businesses like Marksbury is that “part of what’s cool is none of us that participate in farm-to-table—whether it be from the restaurant standpoint, or from the supply standpoint—none of us are in competition with one another. Because we are in the business of locking arms with those who are like us and supporting one another. It’s not us against the other guy who is also selling to restaurants locally. It’s us against this idea that it’s all got to come from industrial ag.”
Chef Bill and his team have some big plans for the long term future of the Bluebird as well. “I’d like to see an amphitheater go out back. Have bluegrass festivals, be barbecuing in the grass. Have a back deck with music and people everywhere and this restaurant humming. Have the upstairs renovated for dinner service . . . But I think I should at least get the first year in, although the back deck’s being built now.”
While this vision may seem grand, it isn’t out of reach, particularly if the Bluebird continues to deliver on the promise for delicious, natural food. And my oh my . . . the food is delicious. After years of growing accustomed to unimaginative, mass-produced, small town diner fare, the Bluebird is definitely in a league all its own. I took my family for an impromptu breakfast visit and everything really was divine (and I’m not even a breakfast eater). We ordered a broad sampling from the menu, but I have to say that of what I sampled, I was really quite enamored with the Breakfast Fries, which were topped with bacon, spinach, peppers, onion and the house gouda sauce, which as far as I am concerned can now go on top of everything I eat! (The Bluebird’s oatmeal came in a close second. My father—who has hated oatmeal his entire life—was converted with Chef Bill’s fantastic rendition.)
If you have been wondering what all the fuss is about, you really need to check out the Bluebird. It’s worth the drive to support a great local business and eat some really good food. Warning: come very hungry as portion sizes are generous and trust me when I say you aren’t going to want to waste a bite!