The Bluebird Takes Flight:The Creation of Stanford’s Bluebird Café

By / Photography By Jason McKinley | October 01, 2014
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Bluebird Cafe in Stanford Kentucky

In late 2011, my husband, Jess, and I could look around our small, historic downtown on the southern edge of the Bluegrass and be happy about many of the changes that had taken place over the years. In the previous decade and a half, the county seat and headquarters of First Southern National Bank had been revitalized into a quaint small town.

Buildings were renovated and repaired, our local drugstore and soda fountain was bustling with business and retail shops were open and successfully drawing customers into town. Our own Kentucky Soaps & Such had just expanded into two storefronts on Main Street.

bluebird statue decor

The Wilderness Road Guesthouses, our fully furnished cottages, had finished restoration of the fifth house and were now open for nightly rental. And, in partnership with the city and county, the street where the guesthouses sat four-in-a-row had been lowered, utilities buried and new streetlights put in place.

Much had been accomplished by a strong private and public partnership. Still, one key thing was missing: a downtown restaurant.

With the guesthouse business growing, we needed a place for overnight guests to eat breakfast. We also wanted a lunch spot so that when folks came into town for the day to shop, there would be a place to eat.

Chef William Hawkins of the Bluebird Cafe in Stanford
Chef William Hawkins moved to Stanford to help launch the Bluebird Café.

Jess and I live on a farm and have always raised an organic garden and preserved our own food so we could enjoy the summer goodness in the winter. Our son, Preston, began talking about “sustainable farming” and “local food” a few years ago and it all made sense to us. We were supportive and excited about the efforts of Preston and his partners to create Marksbury Farm Market, a processing plant and retail butcher shop.

Now we had both the demand for a local restaurant and a place to supply it with pastured meat, handled humanely and without antibiotics or hormones.

We had a perfect spot for the restaurant. Well, perfect if you have a whole lot of vision. It was a nice corner location in an old Victorian building next to the bank. The only problem was that there wasn’t a floor, just a bunch of dirt and rock where a floor should have been. Actually, there wasn’t much of a ceiling either. But it did have two good walls, and our architect had proven time and again he could create something out of very little.

All we needed was a chef. But it couldn’t just be any old chef. We needed someone with business skills and a track record of success. We wanted him or her to be a partner with us—as my husband says, “someone who would be with us at the celebration table or at the aspirin bottle.”

And we knew not every chef would jump at the chance to stop mid-career and move to a small town in rural Kentucky. But we hoped there was somebody out there tired of the rat race and ready to come to a place where they believed in a farm-totable experience and closing on Sunday for a day of rest. We hoped.

Jess’s bright young assistant, Brock, was a recent graduate of Centre College and we collaborated with him on a job description outlining who and what we were looking for. Brock suggested posting it on Monster. Com. We agreed, but honestly, I doubted that the person we were looking for was even out there.

Chef William Hawkins was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease while mid-career at Victoria National Golf Club near Evansville, Indiana. The doctors tried the best and most widely prescribed medicine, but Chef Bill was allergic, prompting his search for an alternative cure.

One afternoon, a farmer came in to pitch pastured and natural meats to Victoria National’s restaurant. Normally, Chef Bill didn’t take sales calls, but sensing the man’s authenticity, he decided to take the meeting, all the while thinking the natural food movement a bunch of bologna.

plated meals from Bluebird Cafe

The sales rep offered a sample box of steaks, which Chef Bill took home to grill. Struck by the superior flavor, he was on the phone with the rep that night to establish a prime vendor relationship. He still didn’t buy into the health benefits, but the meat sure tasted better.

Because a chef eats where he works, Chef Bill noticed over time that he was feeling better on a diet of pastured meats. He discussed the change with the sales rep, who confirmed that people who switch to grass-fed meat often feel healthier. Chef Bill began shifting his diet to only hormone-free, antibiotic-free and natural foods and he kept recovering; nine medicine-free years later, he is still symptom free. The golf club was supportive of the menu changes. Until the club ownership changed.

Chef Bill began putting out feelers, quietly, to find another position that fit his values. When he discovered the ad on that advertised the creation of a small-town restaurant with a focus on local foods and sustainable agriculture and that would also be closed on Sundays, he printed it out and carried it around in his wallet for two weeks.

He googled Stanford, Kentucky, and found very little. There were a few images of an old courthouse and an interesting motel sign. So he closed the computer and tried to forget about it. He didn’t need to uproot his family and change his job. Afterall, his golf club was rated 25th in the country. But the ad kept calling.

Conflicted about the opportunity, Chef Bill wondered how Stanford could possibly be a good fit for his family. Or could this position be the answer to his prayers? After a couple of weeks, he finally called the number and reached Jess’s assistant, who facilitated a meeting with us. We invited the whole Hawkins family to dinner so we could visit with all of them.

Chef Bill arrived with his wife, Mandy, and their children, William, Betsy and Josh. We liked them immediately, and Chef Bill said later his family felt just as comfortable with us.

As we worked out details and finally made an agreement with a handshake, Chef Bill told us that when he gave notice at the club, they wanted to counter offer and questioned him on his new contract. When he said there was no contract, only a handshake, they were floored and thought he was crazy to leave.

Chef Bill officially came on board and worked with our architect to design the kitchen and create what would be known later as the Bluebird Café.

Just weeks before the restaurant was set to open, I was lying in bed and realized that we had never eaten Chef Bill’s food. I sat up in bed and woke my husband. “Do you realize we have never had his food?”

“We haven’t?” he said. We shared an anxious laugh about it and went back to sleep. It was too late now. We’d have to have faith.

The Bluebird Café opened in late February 2012 and that was the first time we tasted Chef Bill’s food. We were not disappointed. He struck just the right note by giving a gourmet twist to traditional local food with farm-fresh ingredients.

The open kitchen design is part of the bustling feel of the restaurant. Changing original art shows decorate the walls. The Bluebird is a little bit of city in the midst of farm country. Chef Bill knows his customers and is a part of the community. Service is emphasized and there is often a wait list. But with shops to explore just across and down the street, even that’s not a hardship. Dinner is now offered on Friday and Saturday nights. There are plans to expand into the adjacent space to offer group meeting space, overflow and a wood-fired pizza oven.

Stanford is the second-oldest city in Kentucky. Fort Logan, just a mile away, is one of the three original forts in Kentucky, along with Fort Boonesborough and Fort Harrod. Our area would have been the site of the first farm-to-table meals in frontier Kentucky; the Bluebird is just continuing the tradition.

Bluebird Café 
202 W. Main St. 
Stanford, Kentucky 
Hours: Monday–Thursday | 7:30am– 4pm 
Friday–Saturday | 7:30am– 9pm

Marksbury Farm Market 
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