By Patrick O’Dowd
To say that Paris is now a changed place might be a bit of a stretch, but if you make the gorgeous drive out Paris Pike and take a quick stroll through downtown, you might notice a few things. For example: bike lanes! Paris, KY has bike lanes running the entire length of the greater downtown area. If you happen to be strolling around on the third Thursday of the month, you might notice a street festival with food, beer, live music, and lots of people—a few of them maybe even dancing.
If you’re like a lot of people though, you might notice the crowd gathered at the town’s first craft beer brewery, Rooster Brew. The crowd there can be explained pretty easily if you consider two factors: good beer and Ralph Quillin.
Quillin is hardly a new name to anyone in Paris or the Bluegrass region. For years, his main business, Quillin Leather & Tack, has developed an impressive reputation for the craftsmanship of the products his shop produces while supplying the area’s horse industry. The brewery, though, is a new venture providing Quillin with a new set of challenges and, to some extent, one of those challenges has been Paris itself.
In the months following the opening of Rooster Brew, Quillin has set out to shake things up just a bit for the good of his shop and for the sake of those who want to see Paris, and particularly the downtown area, finally start to live up to its potential.
Key to that has simply been the brewery itself. From the beautiful woodwork that is exhibited throughout the late 19th-century building paired with the custom-made tables and stools featuring metal cutouts of the brewery’s red rooster logo, to the small-scale (compared to the new generation of breweries in Lexington) beer production with fairly loose but unique focus on creating Belgian-style ales, Quillin is taking a stab at what can be a tough market by making something new that is still very Paris.
One of the things that’s garnered him the most attention locally has been his introduction of food trucks to the Paris culinary scene (so to speak).
Much like Lexington, Rooster Brew has had to navigate new regulatory waters in Paris as the city decides what its relationships with food trucks will be.
On July 29th the city held a public meeting to start moving that dialogue along but in the meantime, Quillin has gotten a kitchen license which allows Rooster Brew to host food trucks inside and avoid the parking regulations altogether. Already the brewery has hosted some of Lexington’s biggest food truck names like Athenian Grill, Gastro Gnomes, Red State BBQ, Thai and Mighty, and Crank and Boom. And along with the food, they bring a following. “That’s the trick. Some people will ask why don’t you use Paris food trucks? Well there aren’t any. But the second part of it is that they know about social media and will put it out on twitter and bring their buds down here, helping everybody,” Quillin explained.
“The city understands it’s good for downtown when they come down here and see 130 people here, and 70 aren’t from Paris,” Quillen says. “The nay-sayers will go, Well they’re not from Paris. But the positive guys will say, Well they had a good time and next time they see something going on in Paris there’s a chance they’ll come back.”
The other big surprise has been a demographic one. “The thirty somethings—we didn’t even know they existed in Paris,” said Quillin. Most importantly, “They’re spending money.”
What’s next for Rooster Brew will largely parallel what’s next for Paris and that’s largely a question of figuring out what a market like Paris can bear. Quillin has ordered new equipment to begin increasing the brewery’s initial capacity and Rooster Brew has signed a distribution contract with Kentucky Eagle. There are also plans to put that kitchen license to better use one way or another with some in house products.
Paris meanwhile is growing slowly as well after years of lagging behind some of its neighbors’ growth.
Just like Lexingtonians can catch a whiff of peanuts roasting at Jif, people in Paris can often catch a whiff of coffee roasting at Caffe Marco. In recent years, Lexington has gained several small-scale coffee roasters but before most of them, there was Mark Newberry in Paris catching the early edge of the third-wave coffee scene before most in Kentucky knew what it was.
A new distillery also hopes to bring life to downtown by capitalizing on the Bourbon industry’s growth while returning Paris and Bourbon County to its brown liquor roots. Called The Gentlemen, it’s the first licensed distillery in Bourbon County since prohibition wiped out the industry. They also plan to source as many of their product’s ingredients from the county.
Beyond figuring out the role food trucks will play, Paris has gained a new, exquisitely designed, high-end restaurant with Joe Clay’s Bour-Bon, located just across the street from Rooster Brew. The restaurant features a wood-fire grill, craft-cocktails, and a stage for musical or theatrical performances. Of all the new ventures in Paris, it’s clearly one of the most ambitious and only time will tell whether or not Paris is ready.
In the meantime, Quillin says he’s just waiting for a gelato shop. That’s when you’ll know Paris has really made it.