Hillbilly Tea: A Homespun Tribute to Tea in Louisville

A long drive through the mountains of West Virginia to Kentucky gave birth to an idea for which a native son of Louisville would later be thankful. It was inspired by his sister’s request for a green tea she could not name. Eight years down the road, Karter Louis turned what he thought was an amusing concept into a popular destination in his home city.

“We opened on Derby Day four years ago. Two months later, we had a line out the door,” says Louis, the founder of Hillbilly Tea, a cafe with an Appalachian theme. “Our brand is so much bigger than I could have ever dreamed. The response has been amazing.”

As CEO of GBG LLC, Louis has been involved in opening more than half a dozen restaurants, including a Hillbilly Tea in Shanghai, China which his now in hiatus due to needing a bigger location. He and business partner Arpad Lengyel, who is known as Chef Arpi, wanted a place in downtown Louisville where they could celebrate fresh, homemade food and quality tea. The restaurant is a tribute to the country life they both enjoyed as children.

“For me, it’s really about simplicity. It’s about the good things in life. It’s about where I think we all need to be, eating real foods,” says Louis. The restaurateur embraces a “farm to fork” philosophy along with a desire to make tea more approachable and fun with names such as big Earl’s tea. “The names are very Americana and easy. They connect to the sensibility of the tea, the flavor and the mood.”

Years earlier, the tea lover drank Celestial Seasonings at home with his parents. He helped his mother with the tea parties she held for their church. He left home after high school for a career as an actor and singer. But 16 cities later, Louis was ready to live closer to his family. Now, he and his team offer fresh, organic, whole-leaf teas paired with quality food. They also create entrees, desserts, snacks and cocktails made with tea.

Menu choices might include beet fritters, original moonshine pork or fried Cornish hen. Photographer Sheryll Lynne has taken more than 50 photos at Hillbilly Tea. In one of her blog posts, she said, “And whatever you decide to get, DO NOT LEAVE WITHOUT HAVING THE BOURBON BREAD PUDDING. You can thank me later.”

The Portland community of Louisville will be the next location to see the opening of a Hillbilly Tea. Louis and developer Gill Holland are working together to bring a sit-down restaurant to a neighborhood with mainly fast-food options. The plans call for a quick-stop version of the downtown restaurant. “We got amazing welcome emails and notes from people in the neighborhood, professional people who live there in this food desert. They cannot wait.”

Hillbilly Tea is located at 120 S. First Street in Louisville, Ky. Check out the menu, teas and other information at www.hillbillytea.com or call 502.587.7350.

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The joy of cooking became a part of her life when Phyllis was a child learning her way around the kitchen with her mother and grandmother. Her retirement from a demanding career in broadcast news has given her time to write about African-American chefs and restaurant owners as well as other black professionals succeeding in the travel and wine industries. Phyllis still loves to cook and try out new recipes.