Talk to Karter Louis for a few minutes about what he does, and you’ll likely get a story that is equal parts anecdote, philosophy, business lesson and comedic monologue.
The Louisville native has lived a personal and professional life that has steered him onto avenues into the worlds of acting, music, and culinary entrepreneurship that have taken him around the globe and back.
As he prepares to open the latest incarnation of the locally treasured Hillbilly Tea restaurant – a carry-out storefront on Baxter Avenue – while stepping foot on stage for the first time in nearly three decades as Dr. Frank-N-Furter in Acting Against Cancer’s “The Rocky Horror Show,” his many endeavors have very much come full circle.
“It’s kind of cathartic. I feel like I do it much better than I do restaurants,â€ he said, with a laugh, of his return to the stage. â€œIsnâ€™t it ironic? I texted one of my best friends and said â€˜Why did I stop doing this?â€™ I think I have the wrong job. Restaurants are different. Itâ€™s always been something that Iâ€™ve loved and wanted to do, but Iâ€™ve had to work very hard at it. Theater – not that I donâ€™t work hard at it – but the natural part of it is there. Itâ€™s almost effortless.”
Theater got the 48-year-old Louis started on his path to big ventures. He started acting at age 11, doing shows at the old Mary Anderson Theater on Fourth Street, and singing at church. A vocal performance at the Youth Performing Arts School caused the newly formed drama institution to bend the rules and recruit him while still a middle schooler. Louis graduated from YPAS with 13 scholarship offers, 11 of them full rides.
However, Louis took a detour to Europe the day after graduating. He met a producer working for Stock Aitken Waterman, the mega-successful songwriting and producing team behind such stars as Rick Astley, Kylie Minogue and Bananarama, and began recording demo tapes.
Louis did return stateside for school, but quickly clashed with his instructors over failing to audition for school plays. Already a member of Actors Equity, he was too busy trying to earn his Screen Actors Guild and American Federation of Radio and Television Artists memberships.
Post-college, Louis tried his hand in L.A., then went on the production side, working as an assistant on the childrenâ€™s game show â€œDouble Dare.â€ He moved to Chicago, where he opened his first restaurant in 1990.
“I quit TV because I loved restaurants,” he said. “I worked on it for three years, harder than I ever had in life, and sold it three years later.”
He revived his singing career, signing to a label on a development deal as part of a band called Tapestry Blue. The label cut all the members except Louis and one other, hoping to create the American version of British pop duo Wham! It was not to be.
“We recorded a song called ‘Stay With Me,’â€ Louis recalled. “I accidentally substituted ‘he’ into a love song. Iâ€™m thinking â€˜Itâ€™s the â€˜80s. Whatâ€™s the big deal?’ They said no. I was a bit defiant and appalled that a creative company would ask me to hide my sexuality.”
The experience deeply hurt him. He would not sing for another five years, when he would record a song in tribute to a friend who had died. The experience landed him a record deal recording dance music. He scored hits in Australia and Europe, eventually recording three albums.
“People were writing in magazines, â€˜Karter, the Prince of Trip hop,â€™” he said. “I remember asking my producer, â€˜Whatâ€™s Trip hop?’ Heâ€™s like, â€˜Itâ€™s what you do.â€™ I said, â€˜Okay.â€™”
But a full-time music career could not go on forever, and Louis found himself making a concerted effort to go in a different direction. He became a highly sought-after restaurant consultant in Washington, D.C., where he rediscovered his love for a childhood delight: tea.
“I was just a tea enthusiast as a kid,” he said. â€œWeâ€™d go to Winn Dixie, and I would lie and say â€˜Hey, mom, we need teaâ€™ because I was trying to collect every Celestial Seasonings box.”
A trip to Asia to study the Oolong variety led to an unexpected partnership in a design firm. But a whim – and a tragedy – would draw him home in 2009. His father passed away, and he longed to be closer to his roots. That, plus a suggestion based on a joke by his friend, Chef Arpi Lengyel, led to the creation of Hillbilly Tea.
â€œI challenged myself and said, â€˜If I can pull this together in a week, Iâ€™ll do it,â€™” he said. “And I did. I flew here, found a space, put the numbers together, and it was doable. So, I did it.â€
That whim turned into a culinary success story and Louisville institution expanding into the Portland and Highlands neighborhoods. With a return to the stage and aspirations to begin singing again, Louis has not only come full circle; he seems prepared for another go-’round.
â€œIâ€™m not gonna stop,” he said. “My life has been amazing, and itâ€™s been because of the things I continue to try to do. I canâ€™t sit still. I donâ€™t know what pushes me. I think Iâ€™m fueled by doing what I love, and many people donâ€™t choose to do that. I canâ€™t imagine being on this earth doing anything other than the things that make me happy. I can see the contribution when I go on tour, when Iâ€™m at the restaurant. I see the happiness. That to me is what itâ€™s all about.”
Photos By CHRIS HUMPHREYS | The Voice-Tribune