For Northern Kentucky restaurateurs Mitch Arens and Stephen Williams, the region that lies just across the mile-wide Ohio River from Cincinnati is a geographic anomaly — it doesn’t quite warrant a label designating it as the Midwest or the South.
“I went to Louisville (and people asked), ‘Where are you from?’ Do you say Cincinnati, Northern Kentucky, Covington, Hebron — do people know those?” Arens says. “I think we’re in the unique position where we get to use both.”
And it’s that uncertainty of Northern Kentucky’s reputation of bridging the gap between the Midwest and the South that Arens and Williams are harnessing with their new hospitality group, Y’all Hospitality.
Arens and Williams, both Kentucky natives who have a history of navigating the Cincinnati culinary landscape as chefs themselves, joined forces last year to start the restaurant group, honing in on Covington as their battleground. Williams already owned Bouquet Restaurant, a farm-to-table bistro and wine bar in the MainStrasse district, which they tacked onto Y’all Hospitality. Arens was executive chef at Hotel Covington’s Coppin’s.
But the guys weren’t planning on setting up shop in conventional storefronts. Instead, they set their sights on a peculiar location: Covington’s RiverCenter Towers, a 19-floor office complex located just a stone’s throw from the Roebling Bridge.
Arens and Williams began talks to take over an existing concept in RiverCenter called Butler’s Pantry, a grab-and-go café with options ranging from hot sandwiches to quick pick-me-up snacks.
Last fall, they did a top-to-bottom overhaul of Butler’s Pantry, focusing on bringing local, fresh ingredients to the dishes. They say the place originally had a freezer-to-fryer-to-plate model, and they literally had to teach the staff how to cook from scratch.
Now, the café boasts a full espresso bar, a bakery, made-to-order entrees and other fast bites geared toward office workers on a quick lunch break.
“We’re kind of reinventing the office cafeteria,” Williams says.
But they didn’t stop there. In January, just across the hall, they opened up a fast-casual diner concept designed to complement Butler’s Pantry they named The Kitchen.
The Kitchen is where they got to get creative with menu items that spotlight Northern Kentucky as the gateway to the South, Arens says.
“We’re right on the line between the North and the South. A lot of the stuff moving north, you don’t see a lot of the Southern-inspired dishes in Ohio,” Arens says. “That’s where this menu in particular came.”
They say the menu sticks to simple preparation to accommodate the fast-casual service they strive for, given their clientele is largely office workers trying to grab a quick bite. Choices represent authentic cuisine from both Cincinnati and Kentucky. Goetta balls served with white cheese, chow chow and sloppy sauce are reportedly popular. Kentucky chicken is also on the menu, including a fried chicken thigh sandwich aptly named the Colonel. Brunch is also offered on weekends.
Additionally, some menu items come directly from businesses in the community. The Queen City’s staple German heritage is honored with an unconventional reuben. Instead of using brined corned beef, the sandwich comes with smoked corn beef supplied by Findlay Market’s Eckerlin Meats.
Williams says several members of the staff — which includes Bhumin Desai, formerly of Maplewood Kitchen and Bar, at the helm as head chef — helped craft the menu. He says that teamwork coupled with unorthodox touches on regional favorites are just part of what makes The Kitchen’s menu unique.
“We want it to be a team effort, almost looking at it like a plateau, where all of us are on the same level and everybody’s bringing ideas to the table, and that gives the entire team ownership in the ideas,” Williams says. “And that’s where people are the whole key to this.”
Next, they plan on rolling out daily lunch specials with a $9.43 price tag. With tax, that brings the bill to $10 even. They also hope to keep The Kitchen open for dinner.
But like every other business owner in the country, Y’all Hospitality’s plans are being put on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Arens says they effectively shut down all their restaurants except for Butler’s Pantry. In addition to the carry-out eats, they also began selling essentials like fresh produce, dairy, eggs — and even toilet paper. However, he says they have since decided to close that as well due to health concerns.
The hospitality group also has plans to open a third concept in RiverCenter, a more upscale eatery and bourbon bar called Whiskey Thief. Arens says they are still full steam ahead on that concept.
“We’re just trying to stay positive and trying to keep the staff positive,” he says. “Hopefully, in two, three, four, six weeks, whenever this is all calmed down and over with, we’ve still got our team and we’re ready to open and get into beautiful weather and business as usual.”
Whiskey Thief was slated to open by early May. Follow facebook.com/ButlersPantryRC for updates.
The Kitchen by Butler’s Pantry and Butler’s Pantry, 50 E Rivercenter Blvd., Covington, butlerspantrymarket.com.