Photo by Ron Jasin

October 12, 2011

Dining Guide 2011: The tea total package

Hillbilly Tea expands to meet customer demands

The best type of success is doing something unlikely and making it work, against the odds and what most might call common sense. One example would be Hillbilly Tea, the downtown eatery and gourmet tea specialist that opened last year.

When tea business veteran Karter Louis and his partner, Arpi Lengyel, decided to open the cozy spot for a lunch-only crowd, the hidden gem, located on a side street near the KFC Yum Center, immediately outgrew its initial design.

“Since we opened, week one, we reached capacity. We got pretty popular pretty fast — that, we did not anticipate,” says Louis, a Louisville native who also has worked on other restaurant concepts in larger cities. “A lot of our customers are not necessarily just people downtown … We took off really fast, but then it died down a little bit. Comments from people were like, ‘Oh, we didn’t think we could get in.’ We don’t want to convey that to people.

“I think if you own a large restaurant, people perceive a wait as OK. But when they see everything when they walk in the door, it’s a bit more daunting. We knew immediately that we wanted to expand, let guests come who wanted to experience the concept.”

But Hillbilly Tea had a second issue to resolve, as well.

“The No. 1 thing that some of our customers requested when we asked ‘What can we do to improve?’ was ‘Get alcohol,’” Louis laughs. “The size that we were before, we could not get a liquor license because we were too small. Certainly, growing does help us with that.”

Louis initially wanted to open a small, low-pressure spot that would pay tribute to tea first, and also to his roots, with what he describes as “good, wholesome food.”

“For me, tea has become a way of life, and I’ve put a lot into it, in terms of my career, and it resonates with me, certainly, and it’s amazing that I come home to Louisville and I say, ‘OK, I’ve done all these fancy tea places; this is my expression of tea … is it stupid?’” Louis says. “‘Or do people really get it?’”

After spending 20-something years in bigger cities, Louis wanted to return to Louisville, but says, “I still needed to have something to do for a livelihood. I told (partner Lengyel) that we would open up downtown, that we would be a lunch place open from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., and we would be off on weekends. Now we open up at 8 o’clock in the morning, and we close at 9 p.m. — as soon as we get alcohol, we’ll close beyond that — and we’re open seven days a week, so it’s clearly not that. But it’s OK, it’s a good thing.”

Now expanding to the second floor, Hillbilly Tea soon hopes to introduce a liquor program that will include tea-infused vodkas, boutique wines, bourbon and a few local beers.

They also plan to incorporate another regional treasure. “We’re very excited about moonshine. There’s only two companies in the United States that are approved to sell moonshine; one of them is a company called Moonshine, from Tennessee. We’ll probably do some infusing with the moonshine, as well.”

For this, patrons can thank the heavy drinkers of Louisville, as well as downtown’s conventioneers. “I feel like a lot of people think we don’t want to serve alcohol, but that wasn’t the deal,” Louis says. “It was just that we didn’t plan on it; we just thought we’d be open for lunch. Last fall was when we started opening for dinner, and all those convention people would come and we’d have tables of six and eight convention people … they would say, ‘Where’s the alcohol?’ and get up and leave. That was very painful,” Louis says with a bittersweet chuckle.

“Instantly, I begged our landlord to let us go upstairs, and that took a long time. That space has never been used for anything other than storage in 80 years. There was a lot of infrastructure stuff that had to go on here. I think people thought it was going to be a matter of just coming upstairs and painting,” he laughs, “but it actually was a lot of work.”

Now the time has come for Louis’ little tea retreat to become a Louisville nightlife fixture.

“It’s been a blast. I didn’t really know what to expect, coming home to Louisville … They say you don’t make it till you make it at home. The success of Hillbilly Tea is the cherry on top of all the things that I’ve done.”  

Bad experience

By Simpson10
I visited the restaurant twice for dinner and can easily say I was not impressed. Small portions (see pictured items in most recent story), expensive menu items, loud surroundings, and slow, indifferent staff did not endear me to Hillbilly Tea. Mr. Louis was friendly enough at our first visit when the restaurant was just starting but went out of his way to avoid our table the next visit. I was embarrassed as I had explained to friends who were visiting from out of state that H.T. was a "new" restaurant. Eighty dollars and two hours later we could not wait to shake the dust from our feet as we left. There were adequate staff in the restaurant but we waited far too long for our food to arrive, the plates to be cleared, and our small glasses of tea took forever to be refilled. Mr. Louis walked by our table several times after we had finished with empty plates sitting for quite a while. Our server disappeared as well. I had noted the small portions of food and teas at our first visit but wanted to give the restaurant a fair chance to show improvement. It was not to be. The quality of the food is fair but not worth the price given the tiny portions! The experience was negative throughout and not worth a return especially with alcohol being served in the future. Bring your bluetooth, it is the only way you will hear your dinner companion.

Dear Simpson10

By karter
my heart is bleeding reading of your bad experience at Hillbilly Tea. I just saw this & wanted to respond. Are portions are small this is true. Our goal is to provide our guest with wholesome & natural food. As a restauranteur I'm committed to encouraging & supporting folks in maintaining a healthy life style. In my opinion portion control is out of control these days. We want to be a healthy & delicious alternative. I wouldn't say that we have the cheapest menu, but we do stand by the value you get. Most of our ingredients are sourced locally which does come at a premium cost for a smaller establishment such as our. And we make every single item in house. Nothing is pre-made. But I stand by the fact the we pass the value on to our customers depending on our sources. For example we just lowered many menu items because we got better pricing. Not sure what you ordered but $80 for three folks seems odd. I'm not sure what happened on your last visit but if you are willing to return it would be on us. I'm not in this business of failing customers. Each & every experience is important to me. That said we have made some much need improvements in customer service. We would love to try again. Just call us and reference Simpson 10 anyone on our team will be able to help you if I'm not there. Thank you for your feedback...Karter

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