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Ouita Michel’s Kentucky Restaurants Grow Together With Local Farms

Ouita Michel is chef and owner (along with her husband Chris) of Holly Hill, a group of seven restaurants based in and around Lexington, Kentucky.

We have a local farmer, Patrick Kennedy, who does all of our hamburgers in all our casual restaurants, and all of our pork, all of our country sausage, all of our bacon, all of our pork roast—everything like that. When they closed us down for the pandemic, it was really hard on him. So he created a stockpile, and we guaranteed that we would help go through that stockpile if he guaranteed that he wouldn’t raise prices. So that meant some of the meat had to be frozen. But I don’t think our customers noticed any change at all.

We pivoted very quickly, as did most people, to online ordering and curbside and everything that we could do to continue operations. A lot of our casual places, even though we were closed inside, we did really well with the pickup thing—even out in the country. One of our restaurants is a little place called Wallace Station out on a country lane. It’s actually a national scenic byway now. It had tremendous business, which just shocked me. So we were able to at least keep the hamburgers going and the pulled pork sandwiches.

Out of Holly Hill Inn, which is our flagship, we were doing an online store where you could get a quiche, or you could get bread. You could have this beautiful dinner packed up. We had outdoor lawn seating and people were bringing their picnic tables. That was early on.

And Patrick did not raise his prices, and he never ran out of meat. Right now, his local prices are better than the broadline price, or the same as the broadline. We just took care of each other. We’ve been working together for 15 or 20 years. There have been times when I haven’t been able to pay. When you’re a chef going into business, sometimes it takes some time to learn cash flow management. There were many times early on in our relationship where he would float me. As we’ve become more and more successful, we’ve stayed loyal to one another.

The same thing’s true for my lamb producer. They were hit a little harder because they rely on the fine dining sales. They’re a very small producer. I go through an animal at a time. She’ll take 10 to slaughter, and I’ll take all the shanks, all the racks, all the tops. That’s how we’ve worked that through. As far as our vegetable growers, we ramped up as soon as we could. We scrambled around and figured it out. Their pricing did not go up either.

You can’t get everything locally though. Every day there’s a Brussel sprouts shortage or whatever. But if you orient your menus around what people in your state are growing—like lettuces, for example. We worked really hard to put together this group of lettuce producers who would keep all the restaurants in local lettuces throughout the whole year. And their pricing never changed. I know a lot of people think local pricing is variable, but it’s really not. In the last two years, it demonstrated itself to be much more stable than the broadline.

That’s because the whole thing is based on individual relationships. When your producer is your vendor, your relationship is much closer. Your dependency upon one another is much more apparent to both parties, so there’s no markup, there’s no middle man.

We have an aggregating process for our company that we started during the pandemic. An old friend of mine—David Wagner, who’s grown as a farmer for the restaurant group for years—became our aggregator. He helped us start to navigate and aggregate local produce, and it really stabilized the whole process.

Ouita Michel with farmer and agricultural aggregator David Wagner on the grounds of Holly Hill Inn. Photo: Pony Boat Media.

It’s very low tech. David still has his farm, and he still produces some of what we use in our restaurants. After 20 years in farming, he has all these relationships with other farmers who were having a hard time moving product. Actually, farmers pivoted really well, and farmers markets became very popular as people cooked more at home. But there were certain niche things they were having a hard time moving. One of those is hard squashes, because who wants to cook that? Most people can’t do it.

We have a large events facility we lease that has multiple walk-in refrigerators. The main walk-in we keep in use all the time for different events, but there are three others on the property that have very little usage, except for maybe four or five times a year. So we were able to cellar sweet potatoes, butternut squash, delicata squash, onions, red potatoes, garlic, and all that kind of thing.

It doesn’t work with everything. Over the summer, for example, it allowed us to buy a substantial amount of sweet corn, and then get it out to all the different restaurants. You don’t want to cellar sweet corn very long. But on the other hand, it makes it convenient to be able to buy enough for a week. We did a ton of carrots, which were really nice. They worked out beautifully.

Before this, every chef at each restaurant would buy what they needed by the case. What we started doing was trying to buy for the group and have enough available for everyone. At a certain point in Kentucky, the harvest ends. We were trying to buy in before that so that we would have the hard squashes and the butternut squashes through the end of October and into November. We honestly still had carrots we were just sending out almost through the end of the year.

This was sort of an experiment. We had never had the idea before, but we also had a great harvest this year. The growing season was really strong, and there was a lot of product out there with the producers that we use, so it gave us the opportunity to buy in.

In one of our restaurants, we had to take an old walk-in refrigerator out. We saved all the panels, and David and our team are going to build a produce-only walk-in refrigerator. If it’s only produce, we can store it at a little bit higher temperature, which it really needs. For a food service interior, if you have a little refrigerator that you’re putting sauces and soups and things like that in, you need to be at 40 degrees or below, which is a little bit cold for produce, honestly. This one is going to allow us to aggregate all kinds of stuff. I’m really excited about it.

Gardens at Holly Hill Inn that supply herbs and produce for the restaurant. Photo: Talitha Schroeder.

David also spearheaded the gardens at our restaurants. He’s an amazing farmer. We have two other employees that are helping him. Holly Hill Inn sits on a 10-acre lot. We own two acres at the end. That allowed us to put in two new gardens and expand the herb garden. We also expanded this gardening mentality to all the patios of the other restaurants. We put in herb gardens and pots at Honeywood, Zim’s Cafe, Windy Corner, and Wallace Station. Some of them are in horse troughs, some of them are half barrels, and some are in simple pots.

We had a lot of buy-in from the staff, coming in and gardening. You could pick up a shift. We’re going to expand that this year. It’s good for morale, and it connects people to the food. When you’re cooking in a high-volume restaurant, food can become invisible to you in a weird way. There’s a lot of beauty in gardening, and it helps connect people to the creative aspects of what they’re doing. It’s a stress reliever, and it’s financially good for the restaurants. This year we’re going to expand the herb garden enough so that we probably won’t have to buy much in the way of herbs at all.

We also grew a huge number of shishito peppers. We had shishito peppers coming out our ears. Lots and lots of cherry tomatoes, and everybody got the benefit of those. Lots of lettuces. One of the things that a lot of the chefs love, and that I love, are edible blooms. We were growing cucumbers for the cucumber blossoms. We did have a lot of cucumbers that came to fruition, too. But we’re going to expand the blossom garden. We’ve typically grown squash in the past, but just for the squash blossoms. To buy those is just not economical, but to grow them is really economical. They’re easy to grow, and they’re a plant that we don’t have to maintain a lot, so we can get out there in the morning and pick the squash blossoms and get them ready for the evening.

We also grew a bar garden. And we grew a tea garden, so we grew all of our own chamomile and made iced chamomile tea. We dehydrated all the excess from the chamomile, the bergamont, and the mint. It was really fun. We’re going to expand all of that this year. We’re meeting to do a final seed pick. It’s exciting.

Honeywood took the ball and ran with it. They now have a huge number of plants inside that their staff takes care of, and they have a big patio garden. At Zim’s, we had a die-off because nobody was attending to the plants. That was a wake-up call for the staff, and they all felt really bad. It was like, “If you don’t water these things, guess what? They die, and it’s very depressing. Let’s get it together.” At Windy Corner and Wallace Station, which are both more out in the country, their herb gardens are in horse troughs, so they’re a little bit more durable because they have so much soil. They really take care of theirs, and they’re very productive. We’re going to try to get troughs over to the city restaurants this year.

Staff are encouraged to take shifts working in the gardens at Holly Hill restaurants. Photo: Talitha Schroeder.

Even with all this happening, 2021 was a tough year. It was harder than 2020 because it was so busy, and the labor was so hard just to get staffed. Our core staff stayed with us. We were really, really lucky. But part of the reason that happened was a ton of support from us, and that’s the way it should be.

This year, I’m just finishing up this huge HR formalization, which we had never done before. I mean, I’m a chef that went into business, not a business person that opened a restaurant and hired a chef. We’ve always been a caring employer, but we didn’t necessarily have the institutional support behind what our values were. Now I feel like we have that—like in the employee handbook and in the job descriptions, and looking at employee assistance protection support. Those kinds of things, we realized, were really important. We weren’t giving them the priority that they needed. And 2021 really opened our eyes to that. I would like to say that I was a good employer, but it was all based on my personal instincts instead of my business structure, so I’ve tried to get the business structure to reflect my personal instincts.

We also started a big partnership with one of the local universities. If you’re one of our employees, you get up to 25 percent off your tuition. The longer you’re with us, we will match up to 25 percent for continuing education. I’ve just been wracking my brain about anything that I can do that could help education. With our younger generation—and I love this about them—if they’re not learning, they’re burning. They want to learn all the time. How do I keep them engaged? I will be 58 this year. I’m talking about employees who are in their mid- to late-20s and early 30s. I want them to understand working in our restaurants isn’t a dead-end job. It’s a really interesting and vibrant career.