‘You always have to reinvent yourself’: How one Kentucky restaurant redid everything during COVID-19

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – I arrive at CASK Southern Kitchen & Bar about 2:30 p.m. on a weekday afternoon. A couple of masked employees greet me, and I let them know that I’m meeting with owner Ashley Sayler.

“Oh, she just pulled up,” one of them remarked, looking out the window. “I’m gonna go help her with the baby.”

The employee returns a few minutes later, baby in hand, with Sayler right behind her. I’ll soon learn that baby Colin is a regular presence there, and the CASK team is accustomed not only to having him around but to keeping an eye on him – and what’s more, they seem to enjoy it.

“It’s super easy to come to work when we have built the dynamic of how positive we want this place to be,” said general manager Chastity Owens. “Restaurants tend to not be that way, (but) that’s not at all how we wanted it to be (here), and I think we have done a fantastic job of keeping it (positive).”

“(Colin) will be out in his walker just running around while I’m serving tables,” Sayler said. “That’s not normal, but we have to do what we have to do.”

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Owens holds baby Colin while Sayler tells me about how she opened her first restaurant in November 2019 – just four months before pandemic restrictions would force her to close its doors. Clearly, she knows all too well about making tough choices and doing what needs to be done in order to keep a business alive.

“It was called SOU!” she said of the American soul food restaurant she opened with chef James Moran. “It was a great restaurant – great food, more farm to fork, much more upscale, different price point. And then shortly thereafter, the pandemic hit. Had I known a pandemic was going to hit, I wouldn’t have opened a restaurant. But here we are – you got to pivot.”

Sarah's Fried Green Tomatoes and remoulade at CASK Southern Kitchen & Bar.

Sayler bought out Moran and completely rebranded in an effort to bring down the price point for her customers.

“We laid these floors, we did the trim work (and) put up TVs,” she recalled. “We built the patio, we built all those picnic tables. I had a baby in the mix, and reopened (on) July 23 under CASK.”

Today, the CASK menu offers a new take on traditional Southern food, featuring everything from fried green tomatoes and deviled eggs to smoked meatloaf and pan-fried pork chops.

“(We created) the whole menu compilation,” Sayler said, “so if you didn’t want to spend a lot of money, you could come in and get a $5 cup of chili; or if you wanted to spend a little bit more, you could walk out the door with ribeye. That way it was more, ‘come as you are,’ and you know, you don’t have to expect to spend a lot.”

Modifying the menu, revamping the interior and creating new outside seating aren’t the only things Sayler did to boost business amid the pandemic.

“We have done it all,” she said. “We put tents in the parking lot; we’ve created our own events.” She also participated in Louisville Burger Week, an annual affair that occurred just a couple of weeks after CASK opened.

“I was grasping at anything for … exposure,” Sayler recalled. “We were just, like, we’ll do whatever to get our name out there – and we had no idea what we were getting into.”

CASK is closed on Mondays, but on Tuesday of Burger Week, the phone began ringing nonstop.

“I should have done a little bit more research,” Sayler said, laughing. “We wrote a rail of tickets; literally had to take the phone off the hook. We had no idea what we were getting into, which was a great, terrible problem.”

At the time, CASK only served dinner – and by the time the doors opened at 5 p.m., there was a line wrapped around the building. Despite the unexpected overwhelming response, Sayler knew they had to make it work.

“You only get one try to win consumers over, and they don’t care if you’re new or not,” she said. “People are hard critics. And so, you know, it helped us in a ton of ways.”

“But it taught us a lot in a short period of time,” added Owens, who has been Sayler’s right-hand woman through it all. She was on the receiving end of late-night text messages during the really rough periods, when Sayler was awake at all hours, trying to come up with new ideas to keep CASK going.

“I have an infant here, and I have a staff that depends on me to feed their families (and) pay their rent,” said Sayler, who will be adding two more people to her own family soon – she is expecting twin girls in a few months. “I don’t take those things lightly. So, you know, I’m worried about everything. My husband and I’s whole life is on the line. If we went under, we would lose our home. We would lose everything, and all these guys depend on us. So yeah, (I’ve had) tons of sleepless nights, (and) I would text her (with ideas). It’s just nonstop because you can’t (stop) – and there’s no sleeping.”

The good news, she added, is that she has always been competitive and doesn’t back down from a challenge.

“Your hustle game doesn’t just get to stop – ever – even if you’re successful,” she said. “You always have to reinvent yourself, and that’s what we’ve done. And our sales, just since the rebrand … probably tripled. So, it goes to show, too, (people like) our products (and that) kind of stands on its own. And for that, I couldn’t be more thankful.”

CASK corner, which resembles a rickhouse, sponsored by Makers Mark at CASK Southern Kitchen & Bar.

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