Wiltshire Pantry spreads wings to meet needed neighborhood niches
By Mandy Wolf Detwiler
Photos courtesy of Wiltshire Pantry
Susan Hershberg epitomizes the age-old philosophy that loving what you do daily helps you thrive. Sure, there are setbacks – such as nearly every bank in town using the ugly word “no” and running out of square footage more often than not. But where there’s a will there’s a way, and Hershberg could teach a class on perseverance.
Hershberg’s family moved to Louisville when she was a teen after her father took a position with the University of Louisville. “I’ve always loved cooking and I worked my way through high school and college working in restaurants, coffee shops and pastry shops and bakeries, and I just loved it,” she says. “For me, it was kind of a natural fit to go into the food industry. I never had a master plan for ‘OK, this is what I’m going to set out to do – start with A and expand to B.’ We have just sort of seen the company organically grow.”
Hershberg originally opened a small tea room in St. Matthews where, “I would change the menu every day, and we just had fun with it,” she says. Soon, the need for more space – and perhaps a larger menu – led her to a spot in NuLu in 2009, Wiltshire on Market, where the current gentrification had just begun its renaissance.
It took about six years for Wiltshire as a brand to gain success. What helped them take off? They started doing catering at Gardencourt and nearby Whitehall.
“Those two venues really brought us into a different league in terms of the types of catering we were doing,” Hershberg says. “It allowed us to see some pretty rapid growth. Years one to five were just a big struggle. Year seven we took off, and now we’re where we are.”
She also credits much of her company’s momentum thanks in part to local PR expert Merrily Orsini of CoreCubed, who made sure every food publication in the area knew about the Wiltshire brand. “We doubled our sales in a year, boom,” Hershberg snaps her fingers. “She did a fantastic job, and we got amazing press. People who had never visited the restaurants suddenly came to taste. And with venues like the Muhammad Ali Center, we were doing two to three weddings in a weekend for 200-300 people. It was huge, and some way or another, we managed to keep up with it.”
In 2014, the bakery and café opened on Barrett Avenue, an area that straddles historic homes and businesses, and by 2016 Wiltshire had won the bid for the Speed Art Museum.
Surprisingly, each business operates autonomously, with separate chefs helming each kitchen. At the dinner-only Wiltshire Market, Chef Roy O’Connell creates new dishes nightly, such as the 3-D Valley Farm New York strip steak with grilled Woodpecker Chase Peaches, Rootbound Farm Shishito peppers, N&J summer squash and Chimichurri Rojo ($25) and the Kenny’s Fromage Blanc Gnudi: Rootbound Farm beet butter, roasted Prayer Mountain oyster mushrooms, red veined sorrel and parmigiano-reggiano ($18).
At Wiltshire Pantry, Executive Chef Jonathan Exum serves up fresh soups, sandwiches and wild shrimp salad featuring garlic and lime pan-roasted wild shrimp, local greens, sweet corn, roasted poblano, ancho cauliflower, pepitas and a house-made tomato-like vinaigrette ($14 full; $9 half).
The menu is rarely the first item that catches the eye. The tour-de-force pastry chef is Patricia Kelley, who whips, dips and well, chocolate chips everything from French almond cake ($6 a slice), lemon blueberry mini cakes ($8) and mousse bombes dipped in white chocolate and rolled in sprinkles and silver dragees ($4). They’re all on display – mouthwatering and difficult to ignore.
Wiltshire uses a commissary, but all of the chefs have some modicum of autonomy to give them creative license in their own kitchens.
With the businesses operating successfully and at the beginning of the farm-to-table movement, Hershberg turned her attention to catering, which she is able to do out of the bakery/café location on Barrett, affectionately dubbed “the mothership.”
“I never intended to have a restaurant,” Hershberg admits. “I always wanted to stick with catering because (with) catering, you know how many people are coming, and you know what they’re having for dinner, and then they go home.”
The building she’d found in 2007 was perfect but had a failing tenant – a sandwich shop – that closed, and in 2013 Hershberg opened the eight-seat Wiltshire Pantry, with the catering section in the rear.
Hershberg made a risky move after being turned down by most banks – she financed Wiltshire Pantry on credit cards, but paid it off within two years.
“You can grow, but if you don’t have a team to sustain it, your quality will suffer,” Hershberg admits. “I’ve been very fortunate to have very few executive chefs.” In nearly 30 years, she says she’s only had about six executive chefs.
When the economy soured, Hershberg worried about laying off the very employees who had built her brand loaf by loaf. Low turnover and autonomy seem to keep the machine well oiled, and some of Hershberg’s employees have worked with the company for decades. Catering, it seemed, was just the ticket, using the Barrett Avenue location to supply the Market shop every weekend. The idea behind it? Catering 101, which eventually turned into 25 percent of Wiltshire’s business.
“Catering is hard to generate press for,” Hershberg says. “I feel like publications love to write about restaurants, and all of a sudden we had a restaurant that magazines and newspapers wanted to write about. We saw a big jump in our catering business since Wiltshire on Market was our own little press entity.”
Today, Wiltshire Pantry serves as a commissary, but Hershberg also rents a commercial kitchen off of River Road solely for the cakes, cookies, pies, tarts, breads and other delicacies that supply her businesses. There’s something new each day, but regulars will recognize cult favorites well. They sell homemade breads and pastries made by hand at the Douglass Loop Farmers Market. (Get there early – there’s usually a line.)
With each business running under the tutelage of their executive chefs, Hershberg now allows herself some downtime. Still, she’s not one to sit back on her laurels. She’s got a project in the works in Shelby Park’s upcoming Logan Street Market and a mobile unit called Wiltshire on the Go.
“That’s a lesson that I’ve learned now: I kept my eyes open for opportunities throughout the course of Wiltshire Pantry’s existence and that’s what’s really allowed us to grow,” Hershberg says. “I’ve always found that if you’re doing what you love to do and you’re doing it well, you’ll be happy and have happy employees. And that’s going to lead to growth and expansion.” V