While Rebecca Burnworth had designed restaurants before, she never envisioned owning one, too.
Rebecca and her husband, Eric, are an architect-builder team responsible for the look of much of Lexington’s revamped Distillery District. And, earlier this year, the pair opened a restaurant in the northern Woodford County community of Millville that’s seen an immediate spike in popularity.
From the walls to the small bourbon flights on each table, Eric and Rebecca are responsible for every intricate detail in an establishment they carefully crafted. When the restaurant, described as a new take on Kentucky and Southern classics, opened in June, the Burnworths hoped to bank on drawing some of the thousands who pass through the area en route to nearby distilleries, and in the months since, business has surpassed all expectations.
It’s bourbon tourists who are responsible for the boom. October, in particular, was extraordinarily busy, Rebecca said. From 13 to 30 people, tour buses routinely dropped off large groups of people, forming long lines that stretched out of the building, off of the front patio and into the parking lot.
“It’s been humbling,” Rebecca said. “I’ve been humbled by how popular the Bourbon Trail is. When you’re actually on the Bourbon Trail, your realize that it’s actually way bigger than you thought.”
The Stave’s location on McCracken Pike is prime for people visiting Woodford Reserve, Castle & Key, Glenns Creek Distilling and The Old Crow Distillery. Castle & Key Master Distiller Marianne Eaves is a frequent guest at The Stave, whether it’s for refreshments or a nice place to finish work.
But location isn’t the sole driver of The Stave’s success. The restaurant has made an intentional effort to capitalize on the popularity of Kentucky’s native spirit. In gauging The Stave’s chances for success, for example, Rebecca contacted several companies that give bourbon tours and inquired about the demographics of the “bourbon tourist.” In December, the Stave arranged classes for its staff to officially become “bourbon stewards.”
“It’s important for us to speak intelligently about the bourbons that we offer when people come,” Burnworth said.
And, while the menu isn’t necessarily bourbon-centric, The Stave has done its best to try ideas that keep bourbon fans coming back for more.
“We just added a build-your-own-bourbon plate. Oh, my God. In the first week we sold something like 80,” Rebecca said. “So, we’re trying to explore different options.”
As another bourbon-related idea, The Stave plans to introduce “featured distilleries” in early 2019. That will include mini-pairings with lunch or dinner. Describing an example, head chef Jonathan Sanning said diners throughout one week could purchase three bourbon samplings from the featured distillery to match a three-course meal. And, one time during the week, the featured distillery would be at the restaurant and The Stave would serve a larger meal with bourbon.
Sanning calls Lexington home now, as he’s lived there for the past 16 years, but says he’s from “everywhere.” He’s lived in eastern Kentucky, western Kentucky, Colorado, Missouri and Portland, Oregon. And, while he’s helped open restaurants before, Sanning says The Stave has been a “refreshing change.”
Rebecca also calls Lexington home but is originally “from” the northeast and Cincinnati. She’s also lived in larger metropolitan areas such as Cleveland and Philadelphia and says an “urban edge” helps define her design style. For the past 15 years Rebecca’s professional life has focused on designing restaurants, nightclubs and bars in downtown Lexington.
The Stave is the first that she’s owned and operated.
“I guess it was inevitable that one day I would try this, opening a restaurant myself,” she said. “I always tell people I accidentally own a restaurant now, but, to be fair, I had a client who originally showed me the property and we decided to make a go out of a Bourbon Trail restaurant.
“I literally never dreamt of having a restaurant. It’s funny, but I never did. And, when I saw this property, I said, ‘OK, I’ll try it.’ ”
The Stave isn’t solely a Bourbon Trail business. Along the way to its current spot, the restaurant has received significant support from locals — both through the ingredients that comprise the dishes to the customers who keep coming back for more. Farms nearby brought in berries that were used to make a pie. Another local farmer brought in zucchini and yellow squash to use in The Stave’s dishes.
“For me, not a chef, to watch (Sanning) adapt as the seasons have gone on has been a blast,” Rebecca said.
Even the liquor is locally sourced, as The Stave uses a heavy helping of Castle & Key’s products, which don’t yet include bourbon. Meanwhile, distilleries for popular brands Buffalo Trace and Woodford Reserve are just a short drive away.
While it may seem that bourbon tourists can crowd out locals and returning customers, she encouraged those looking for a table at The Stave to call ahead and make a reservation — just the same as the bourbon tourist. The Stave can hold roughly 80 total diners, about 40 inside and 40 outside.
For diners not sure about what to order, Rebecca and Sanning recommend the “snack board,” which includes beer cheese, pimento cheese, benedictine, chow-chow, deviled eggs, candied walnuts, country ham, pepper jelly and cornbread.
As The Stave looks toward the future, it will add heat to its patio during the winter and install a deck with a stage for performances on Glenns Creek when the weather warms up. Rebecca said The Stave has already received approval from the Division of Water for the deck project.
The Stave is located at 5711 McCracken Pike in Millville. It’s open from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. and the phone number is 859-879-0101. Find out more on Facebook at www.facebook.com/TheStaveKentucky/