Saturday, April 11, 2009

Keeneland meet brings tourists, boosts restaurants

By Tilly Finley
University of Kentucky School of Journalism & Telecommunications

Spring is finally here, and with it come showers, flowers and of course, Keeneland thoroughbred horse racing.

The spring meet at Keeneland Race Course is very important to businesses in Lexington and surrounding areas such as Midway. It is a time when many tourists come to enjoy themselves, spend some money, and see why the Bluegrass is dubbed the horse capital of the world.

Many businesses in Midway look forward to the opening of Keeneland and see it as the kickoff to their busy season. Restaurants prepare extra food and hire extra staff to prepare for the influx of dining customers they expect during the April 3-24 racing season.

“We look at spring Keeneland meets and the horse sales [at Keeneland] as our most productive time,” said Mark Wombles, chef and owner of Heirloom Restaurant, at 125 Main St.

Heirloom can expect a 30 to 40 percent food and alcohol sales increase once Keeneland opens, Wombles said. Much preparation must be done in order to accommodate to the added guests in town for the races.

Heirloom hires more people and buys nicer ingredients for their nightly specials which bring many Keeneland tourists into the restaurant.

“The specials are determined by what I decide I want to eat for dinner,” said Wombles. “I start with my protein and where it ends up is where it ends up. Many changes take place along the way.”

Another Midway restaurant that prepared for an increase in guests is Wallace Station, at 3854 Old Frankfort Pike. Because the restaurant is on a main route to Keeneland from Midway it sees a significant increase in guests and sales.

“We get a lot of people who come for breakfast and return for lunch on their way back from the track,” said three-year employee Ashley Holland.

Wallace Station knows when to expect to get hit with a crowd, said Holland, so preparation is a key factor. Employees help get ready by doubling everything from making bread and desserts, to slicing double the amounts of meats and cheese for lunch sandwiches.

The restaurant offers many items that have names inspired by Keeneland and horse racing to appeal to track patrons . The “Wild Turkey Triple Crown” and the “Santa Anita Club” are two of the most popular selling sandwiches during this time, said Holland.

Summer Cooper, manager of The Black Tulip, at 133 Main St. (in photo), is excited to be able to offer a full bar for the first time under its new full liquor license. The Black Tulip maintains steady numbers throughout the year, said Cooper, but when the patio is opened, beginning with Keeneland, weather permitting, it doubles the restaurant capacity and therefore sales.

To bring Keeneland visitors into the restaurant The Black Tulip will offer a spring version of the wine list which includes lighter, patio-style wines, and will refresh the menu, adding items that incorporate seasonal produce, said Cooper. The Black Tulip also incorporates live music on the patio into its seasonal change.

There is no question that the Keeneland spring meet brings more people to Midway, but not all the businesses there are feeling the track-tourist love.

“Restaurants see a great deal of business,” said Glenn Castle, the owner of Midway Leather, a specialty shop, at 208 Dudley St. “It is more food-oriented as far as Keeneland tourism is concerned.”

The out-of-towners come to Midway to dine and usually do boost the sales of the restaurants in Midway, said Castle. Midway Leather used to be located on Main Street where many restaurants are located, but even in that location, Castle did not see a substantial additional amount of revenue during the Keeneland season.

“They are saving their money for the races,” he said.

Carel Pelzer, owner of Le Marche, a boutique at 104 Main St., shares a similar experience. While she doesn’t need to prepare for the opening of Keeneland, Pelzer says she sees a distinctive difference in her clientele.

“Keeneland brings in people with more money to spend,” said Pelzer. Her higher priced items such as gifts, soaps and food items usually go first when the Keeneland tourists visit the store.

Restaurants also cater to the different clientele that Keeneland brings to Midway. During the spring meet at Bistro La Belle, a restaurant at 121 Main St., the strongest sales come from finer wines, said owner Laura Wolfram.

Bistro La Belle has seen a 30 percent increase in sales during the Keeneland season in the past and is expecting the same in 2009, Wolfram said. She plans on accommodating extra reservations as well as having more staff on hand.

“We will be busy for the whole month,” Wolfram said. “Keeneland kicks off Derby season as well, and leads us into summer.”

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