Tuesday, July 30, 2019

'There are times when I feel like I'm spread too thin,' says Ouita Michel, who now has eight restaurants

Ouita Michel watched the start of the monthly community dinner at Midway Christian Church Monday evening.
By Collin Kruse
University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Media

Whether it be managing her eight restaurants or coordinating the supper program at Midway Christian Church, Ouita Michel always has a lot on her plate. Michel discovered in high school that she wanted to become a chef; little did she know that the skills she would inherit along the way would someday lead her to become a successful business owner and restaurateur.

After her time in cooking school, Michel took her first steps in the restaurant business in 2000, when she and her husband Chris purchased the historic Holly Hill Inn that would go on to re-open as
a fine-dining establishment in May 2001.

Michel had already decided that if she was going to have her own restaurant, that it would only use fresh local ingredients. “It’s part of our mission for our company to increase farm income in Kentucky,” she told the Midway Messenger, “because without a strong farming community it’s hard to be a great chef.” Over the last 18 years, Michel says, her restaurants have purchased $3 million in Kentucky meats, dairy products, fruits and vegetables.

Photo from Ouita Michel Family of Restaurants
After Holly Hill Inn’s success, Michel gradually established what is now known as the Ouita Michel Family of Restaurants: The Midway Bakery and Cafe, Wallace Station Deli and Bakery in greater Midway, Windy Corner Market and Restaurant in Lexington, two Smithtown Seafood locations in Lexington, Glenn’s Creek CafĂ© at the Woodford Reserve Distillery outside Versailles, Honeywood in Lexington, and Michel’s newest restaurant, Zim’s Cafe and The Thirsty Fox in Lexington.

The restaurants Michel purchased kept their pre-existing names. Of the latest two she established, Honeywood, in The Summit at Fritz Farm, was named after Honeywood Parrish Rouse, who grew up in the house that is now the Holly Hill Inn; Zim’s, in the recently restored Fayette County Courthouse, is is named for Michel’s great-grandfather, Aaron Rufus Zimmerman.

Michel's first taste of the culinary business wasn’t the sweetest, but it would give her the formative experience needed to begin her career. Michel was offered a chef position at John Clancy’s, a New York seafood restaurant. Her first assignment was to fillet a fish, which she had never done before. With some help, she succeeded. “They stuck with me. Knowing what I know now I probably would’ve fired me,” she said. Her time at John Clancy’s was full of learning moments that would lead her to success.

Michel credits her time with the University of Kentucky’s debate team during college as an experience that would later prepare her for the challenges that she faces today. “It helped quite a bit. You have to do a lot of writing and research, which ended up helping me write my business plan. It helped me become an effective public speaker, it helped me with time management, and it gave me confidence too,” she said. In 1986, Michel’s senior year, the debate team won the National Debate Tournament, which she recalls as one of her proudest achievements. The win made Michel the second woman to win the title.

Now that Michel has eight restaurants, her biggest current challenge is maintaining the quality of their service and dining experiences. She has about 200 part-time and 50 full-time employees.

“There are times when I feel like I’m spread too thin,” Michel said, “but we have an excellent group of people running each restaurant, and my real job is to support them and their work.”

Michel said she has each day of the week planned out in advance, where she visits each one of her restaurants to hold staff meetings and to go over any other issues with the chefs.

When she isn’t checking up on her restaurants, Michel spends most of her time in Midway, where she’s either coordinating the free community dinner each month at Midway Christian Church or cooking in the Holly Hill Inn kitchen. Chris and Ouita Michel still live next to their first restaurant, where they have been for the last 19 years.

Looking back, Michel explains how her success came to be. “You have to be willing to work really hard. You have to use your hands, your head, and your heart all at one time.” She said, “It’s definitely not a desk job, but I never wanted that. You can’t be afraid to fail.”

The chef said she is done opening new restaurants for now, but hinted that a podcast and cookbook may be in the works. Her pace seems unlikely to lag. “Running a restaurant, you have to learn fast," she said. "With hard work and persistence, one thing led to another, and I never looked back.”

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