Wiltshire Pantry shares how they survived the pandemic and are preparing for Derby 2021
By Laura Ross
Photos by Kari Smith
Susan Hershberg of Wiltshire Pantry thrives on stress. The dynamo chef, restaurant owner and catering maven knows her food, events and the crazy business of keeping people well-fed and happy. A Louisville legend in and out of the kitchen, she is used to juggling multiple events, restaurants and ideas all at once. Typically, during Derby time, she is dealing with non-stop craziness in her world.
But, the events of 2020 put a screeching halt to all of that and created a level of stress she had never known. “It was a roller coaster of emotions,” Hershberg remembered. “For the first couple of months, I kept trying to predict what was going to happen. By July, I realized it was futile and overwhelming to handle.”
During the early part of the pandemic, Wiltshire shrank from around 80 employees to about 30 and saw its catering and restaurant business evaporate. Those were scary times but also offered a chance to refocus business on what could be done, instead of what was usually done. “We had to be very creative and stay positive,” Hershberg said. “We went many, many months where we didn’t do any group events at all. We changed the way we approach providing food for folks, and we concentrated on taking care of people who don’t like to cook, couldn’t cook or who couldn’t get out.”
But now, as the world gently steps back into a more hopeful future, Hershberg and her Wiltshire team are ready for Derby. “As we see the rapid decrease in positivity rates, an inching up of venues providing vaccines and rules allowing larger capacities, I’m hopeful that by Derby we’ll be allowed 80% capacity,” said Hershberg.
Her team is ready for Derby time. “I think we’ll do a robust box lunch business for locals who are entertaining,” she said. “We’ve always done more Derby house parties versus corporate Derby events. To fit those outdoor, backyard parties this year, we are rolling out single package bento box meals.”
The bento box idea evolved during the pandemic as an easier approach to socially distanced catering. Wiltshire follows strict COVID protocols to protect both employees and guests. “We are shying away from buffets where people are congested around a food table, and we’re staying away from passed trays where our staff approach guests with masks down,” she explained. The boxes make perfect sense and they won’t skimp on culinary creativeness.
“Our theme is a Southern antipasto platter, with South Carolina pickled shrimp, pickled crudité, country ham biscuits and Hot Brown biscuit sandwiches,” said Hershberg. “There’s also deviled eggs, sliced beef tenderloin and lots of vegetarian options. Think of all those items that would usually be on a Derby buffet and instead, it’s in a nice little bamboo box.” Hershberg encourages a peek at the Wiltshire website to see Derby menus online. And, don’t forget the weather, she added. “As a host, you need a weather contingency plan. Be ready for Louisville weather, which can always turn on a dime,” she laughed. “Honestly, people are dying to get together. If you plan properly, it will be a success. We took our food truck out to neighborhoods through the autumn and people were clamoring for us to come.”
As she moves further into this year, she’s concentrating on lessons learned and the shift in focus that 2020 forced upon everyone. She’s feeling hopeful.
“We learned to exhale through the control part and lean into the creative part,” Hershberg said. “It’s amazing when I look back now, that the first special event we did was Mother’s Day and it was pure chaos, trying to manage orders and curbside pickup and such, but now we have it down to a science.”
During the pandemic, with less staff, normal operations shuttered and an uncertain future, Hershberg and her team adapted. They developed a series of individual meal packages for clients and focused on a new gourmet-to-go service featuring creative entrees, appetizers, soups, pizzas, empanadas, and of course, the famous Wiltshire pastries and desserts.
“Our special event business is down 90 percent,” she said. “We had to be creative in how we market our meals to folks. Our weekly delivered meal service is very popular, and we’ve yet to repeat a single meal since the shutdown. And, our Friday night fish fry drive-through service has sold out every week with more than 200 dinners served each time.”
While Wiltshire on Market remains closed for now, it is slowly opening for private parties and small events. Wiltshire Pantry Bakery and Café on Barrett Avenue has retail display cases that feature items and meals for purchase and gourmet-to-go items can also be found at Primo Oils and Vinegars on Brownsboro Road.
“Our bakery production team is stronger than it has ever been, and they are producing some of the most spectacular desserts and breads,” Hershberg added. “Wiltshire at the Speed is adding more hours as the Speed Museum has more open evenings and weekends, and we will have a presence at the Douglass Loop and Beargrass farmers markets soon.”
And what once was a longshot might be a sure bet for Wiltshire Pantry by the summer. “Keep an eye out for Wiltshire opening a new location soon,” Hershberg teased. “It will be a way to keep bringing new team members on board until the catering industry picks up again.”
“I went into this crisis anticipating a five-week shutdown, and even that was devastating to consider,” reflected Hershberg. “If someone had said it would be a year, I never would have thought I could survive it. I’m grateful for where we are now, and I’m beyond grateful for the team I have that has weathered the storm and supported me. I think our food is better than we’ve ever been. We are singularly focused on excellence right now and it is mirrored in the quality of our food.”
Wiltshire Bakery & Cafe
901 Barret Ave
Louisville, KY 40204