Café at Main Street Owner Talks Early Days for Popular J-Town Restaurant
More than five years ago, owner and general manager Kathy Thomas opened Cafe at Main Street in the heart of Jeffersontown, serving up favorites such as tomato cheddar and butter bean soups, chicken salad, bread pudding, and, of course, her famed Hot Brown to the lunch crowds a few days a week.
“I’ve been in the kitchen since I was eight years old,” Thomas says. “My mom had blood clots in both her legs and couldn’t stand up a lot. She would lay in the bed in my brother’s bedroom, which was closest to the kitchen and tell my sister and I what to do. I just opened cans or peeled potatoes or something, set the table, dry the dishes. I just got hooked being in the kitchen.”
Thomas says she always loved to experiment in her mother’s kitchen with new ideas, taking inspiration from TV, her favorite restaurants and whatever else crossed her path whenever she baked or cooked.
Her adventures in the kitchen continued upon leaving her native St. Louis, Missouri for Mount Washington, Kentucky in 1969. Beginning with a three-decade-long career in kitchen design, which saw her visit and design a few kitchens in Jeffersontown, she came to an abrupt halt against the destructive winds of the Great Recession. Despite the sudden loss of employment — and the money attached to it — Thomas told her husband, Roger Sparrow, that “people are still gonna eat.”
“There was an 18,000 square-foot gift shop in Mount Washington,” Thomas says. “Attached to it, there had been a restaurant. The owner of the gift shop had built three-level decks in the back corner of the gift shop, because he also owned a hardware store. I was in there one day, and I was talking to the manager, and I said, ‘Wouldn’t it be neat to have a little cafe here?’ She just looked at me like I’d grown wings or something. She said that the owner was looking for someone to open a cafe.”
Thomas went back to her husband about opening a cafe in the space, arranged a meeting with the owner, and within five weeks, opened her first cafe in time for the gift shop’s Christmas open house. She says the menu for the new venture offered the usual soups, salads and sandwiches to the lunch crowd like every other small cafe she visited in her previous career but also offered special items.
“A lot of my customers said, ‘Had you thought about J-Town?’ When we left [Mount Washington]. We got in a car and headed towards J-Town,” she says. “We came up Billtown Road, and there was this house, and there was a [For Lease or Rent] sign out front. We called the guy, talked to him a little bit and went and looked at some other places around J-Town and didn’t really see anything that grabbed us as much as the house did.”
The future home of Cafe at Main Street was originally built in 1863 by Charles Pound, then used as the medical office and home of Doctor Luther Blankenbaker during the 1880s before eventually becoming the cafe it is now. Following extensive preparation, the new cafe opened to customers in Jeffersontown August 28, 2012.
Since then, the cafe has drawn many through its doors, young and old alike. Most of the customers, Thomas says, like to slow down to spend time with their friends and loved ones, getting a chance to relax and catch up over lunch.
What’s on the menu at Cafe at Main Street? Hot Browns, for one. Thomas says her Hot Brown is among the 11 best in all of Kentucky according to the website “Only In Your State,” while her customers note her Hot Brown “is better than the Brown Hotel,” where the namesake dish was first invented. The cafe also serves a lot of chicken salad, as well as tons of tomato cheddar and butter bean soup. The latter has always been a hit with the crowd since the Mount Washington days, when 40 pounds of the soup were made in the cafe’s first week of existence. Bread pudding, Benedictine sandwiches, herbed egg salads, changing specials and homemade breads help round out the menu.
All of this is prepared and served solely by Thomas and her husband day in, day out. She says finding help to work in the fast-paced cafe is difficult. Last December, Thomas hired four or five girls to get refills and bus tables during the four hours the cafe is open on weekdays. At the end of one shift, one of the employees wondered how the owners could do so much in one day, let alone all the time. Another worked only nine days, turning up late for six of them. Thomas says this isn’t exclusive to the restaurant industry — finding people with the right work ethic is difficult.
She and her husband have hope as far as the future of their business goes, though.
“Hopefully, we’ll be here until we can’t do this anymore,” she says. “We’re both closer to 70 than we’d like to admit, but we just take it each day at a time. We plan on being here as long as we possibly can. We both love what we do and love our customers. I would probably go crazy if I didn’t get up every morning and go do something.”
Cafe at Main Street is located at 10317 Watterson Trail in Jeffersontown. The restaurant is open Wednesday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Reservations are accepted. Call 502-267-5111 to make your reservation. You can also find Cafe at Main Street on Facebook at facebook.com/pg/cafeatmainstreet.