By Aimee Nielson
Photography by Matt Barton

downtown business in Corbin

“When you grow up here, you think you’re successful if you get out,” Kristin Smith said of Eastern Kentucky. Growing up on a Whitley County farm, Smith believed that. After she graduated from college, she got about as far away from Eastern Kentucky as she could—as a missionary to China. After her two-year commitment was complete, she decided to stay a while longer translating Chinese restaurant menus to English. Then the call came.

Her grandfather back in Kentucky was ill, and she needed to return to help keep the farm afloat.

“I never thought I would go back home,” she said. “All my friends were like ‘Of all people, we never thought you would come back.’ I decided to give it five years.”

That was 11 years ago, and now Smith has turned her passion for the farm into a thriving downtown business in Corbin called The Wrigley Taproom, where she serves up tasty recipes using locally raised beef, pork, poultry, and produce in a uniquely renovated space.

“I always had a hard time selling the things we produced on the farm for a good price,” she said.

“So I started cooking it, adding value, and selling at the local farmers market. That turned into sort of a food truck, and it just took off.”

The Wrigley Taproom

Mountain Women Network

Smith traveled to Harlan last fall to join other innovative women, fierce fire-starters in small town revitalization projects throughout Eastern Kentucky, at the Mountain Women Mean Business Conference. The attendees shared challenges, solutions, and tales about how they are fueling growth and excitement with their out-of-the-box ideas and tenacious spirits in the Promise Zone, a cluster of eight counties in Southeastern Kentucky where local leaders partner with the federal government to improve communities.

The conference was led by the Community and Economic Development Initiative of Kentucky, part of the UK College of Agriculture, Food and Environment.

“We were trying to capture a lot of the wisdom that is out there already in the field,” said Sky Marietta, CEDIK staff member and UK arts extension specialist. “If you go to our main streets in Eastern Kentucky, and you look at the businesses that are popping up over and over again, you will find that women are behind them.”

Smith said the conference was helpful to her in many ways, but she was especially impressed at how much other women entrepreneurs were willing to share.

“One thing women are generally very good at is being vulnerable,” Smith explained. “We aren’t afraid to share the good and the bad and to learn from each other. The time is now for us to hold each other up, to support each other.”

Kristin Smith "means business" in Corbin with her thriving restaurant, The Wrigley Taproom.

Mountain Women Have Purpose

One of the featured panelists at the conference was Mae Suramek. Her parents are Thai who settled in Chicago. While growing up in Chicago means she’s not a native Kentuckian, Suramek got here as fast as she could. Twenty-five years ago, she came to the Bluegrass state to attend Berea College. After graduating, she continued to work at the college as the alumni director and then worked as the executive director of a rape crisis center.

“I spent my days throwing (fundraising) events and asking people for money,” she said. “I just felt like something was off. I was very exhausted and felt like I wasn’t doing as much good as I wanted to.”

During a reunion, Suramek hosted about 30 people in her home and prepared a favorite meal from her childhood—her mother’s curry noodle bowl. She said every bowl was wiped clean, and the food seemed to really bring people together.

“After that, my husband Adam and I quit our jobs. Neither of us had ever worked in the restaurant business before, but we had a vision to create epic noodle bowls and change the world,” she laughed.

Thus began their venture of buying and renovating an old theater building and opening Noodle Nirvana in Berea. They brought Mae’s family recipes and began to source as many local ingredients as possible.

Each morning, Suramek makes her way to the restaurant at 4 a.m. to create the flavorful broths essential to their menu. She kept thinking about how the space was wasted and decided to explore a way to add value to the building. Once when visiting New York City, Suramek came across a shop churning out tiny donuts to long lines of customers. With no donut shop in Berea, it was a natural fit. So now the business is Hole and Corner Donuts in the morning and Noodle Nirvana in the afternoon. But that’s still not the whole story.

Mae Suramek took an unprecedented leap into running a restaurant that also supports local nonprofit organizations.

The first Tuesday of each month, they donate part of their proceeds to a nonprofit. They stick with one nonprofit each year so they can really make a difference.

“We also start all our employees at $10 an hour, so we can donate 100 percent of tips to our nonprofit,” she said. “At the core of what we do, we want to make sure our patrons know we belong to each other. We even put that phrase on the wall. It’s a daily reminder of why we quit our jobs and started a business with one of the highest failure rates and the lowest profit margins in the world.”

When she started, Suramek thought she might sell 30 noodle bowls a day. Currently they churn out between 700 and 1,000 bowls a week, far surpassing her initial expectations.

“We feel so fortunate that we have great people who want to be a part of something bigger than the daily grind,” she smiled. “Because, it’s not easy to work in food service.”

Mountain Women Lead

Marietta is taking her own advice to heart and leading the way in Corbin. She and her husband Geoff purchased and renovated an old department store building on Main Street. She operates a gift shop and bar on the first floor called Moonbow, paying homage to the phenomenon at local Cumberland Falls. Customers can purchase arts, crafts, and other items from local artisans and partners. The rest of the building serves as event and meeting space and a business incubator-style office space for local entrepreneurs.

CEDIK's Sky Marietta at her business, Moonbow, where she is showing women that starting and running their own enterprise is possible.

Already thinking of the future, the Mariettas purchased a building in downtown Harlan and plan to begin renovating it soon to try and be part of revitalizing another small town business district.

“We are really working on a duplicable business model for other areas of Eastern Kentucky,” she said. “We are trying to lead the way and teach women that they can do this, from learning to use technology and social media to understanding taxes and business practices.”

Women entrepreneurs in Harlan are following suit. Establishments like Sassy Trash, Roundabout Records, Harlan Yoga and Taco Holler are all woman-owned and paving the way for others to join the movement.

“Entrepreneurism is not just for the guys,” said Sandi Curd, Promise Zone coordinator and Whitley County farmer.

“Our Promise Zone women have seized the opportunity, gritted their teeth, and then taken the risk. The revitalization and diversification of our southeastern Kentucky economy takes everyone upping their game, and I am so proud of the mountain women who have seen fit to do so.”

Mountain Women Come Home

Smith hopes that the idea of having to leave to be successful will go by the wayside. She is glad for the time she spent away from home, because it gave her something that she can give back to Eastern Kentucky.

“Success called me back home,” she said.

There’s a long table in The Wrigley, made from wood Smith brought from the farm. It’s 24-feet long. They made it that way to encourage patrons to sit together.

“The most rewarding thing for me is watching community happen right here,” she said. “It’s actually happening. I see people sitting together, talking, finding solutions to local challenges, and just enjoying each other.”

There is plenty of room for other women at the entrepreneurial table. Smith said they just need to be willing to take a risk, test market their products and ideas, ask for help, and work together.

“Go for it,” she encouraged. “Do what you want to do with your life, with whatever skill you might have. But don’t be afraid to learn new ones.”