Editor’s Note: The past year has been an historically challenging one for restaurants everywhere, in rural and non-rural places alike. As diners begin returning to the table, the Daily Yonder is spotlighting chefs and restaurateurs who are lifting up rural food traditions and creating vital community spaces across rural America. If you know of a person or place worth featuring, email us or let us know using the form at the bottom of this article.
The Wrigley Taproom & Eatery strives to CARE for and NURTURE our community in mind, body, and spirit, one INSPIRED plate at a time.
– message written above taproom door
Featured prominently at the center of the Wrigley Taproom & Eatery in Corbin, Kentucky is a 24-foot community table running the full length of the dining room. It’s crafted from barn wood reclaimed at head chef Kristin Smith’s family farm, and it sets the stage for a convivial gathering spot with a deep sense of place. The Wrigley has the feel of a casual public house. Diners get up from their tables to order at the bar, stop to chat with neighbors, and table-hop to visit with old friends.
As in many rural areas and small towns, this local restaurant is more than just a place to get excellent food. “The Wrigley is a vital gathering place, where people break bread together, celebrate, and grieve,” says Smith. Marriage proposals, retirement celebrations, and funeral receptions have all been hosted there.
Since 2014, Smith has crafted this farm-to-table restaurant in a town of 7,200 people. She has developed the Wrigley into not only a vital communal space, but a celebration of regional cuisine and a cornerstone of the local economy.
Food at the Center, From the Beginning
Smith grew up in Williamsburg, ten miles from Corbin. In her family, food was at the center of gathering, celebrating, and livelihood. She grew up curing hams with her grandfather and canning tomatoes with her mother. Food is in her DNA.
For Smith, it took going away to realize what she appreciated about home. Time spent living in China after college, experiencing a foreign culture and cuisine, caused her to reflect on her own food culture. “I was homesick for cornbread and soup beans,” she says. “I realized I really love and am proud of my Appalachian culture, for the first time in my life.”
Back in the U.S., she ventured to California and was introduced to the farm-to-table movement. She wondered why this kind of dining was not happening in Kentucky.
Those two culinary revelations influenced Smith’s decision to return to Kentucky as the sixth generation of her family to run Faulkner Bent Farm. After working with friends to coordinate a new local farmers market, she learned the prices for her aged beef and heritage pork sold directly were beyond what many folks in the areahere were willing to pay. So she began selling prepared dishes and entrees at the market instead, including tacos and more, and soon she couldn’t keep up with the demand.
The role of the farmers market as a business incubator was huge. There, she cultivated her brand, developed connections with local producers, and built up her clientele, all in a low-risk setting. When she began exploring opening a restaurant and found the Wrigley’s building, she could immediately see its potential. “The bones were gorgeous,” she says. “I knew if I didn’t try, I would regret it for the rest of my life.”
“Farm-to-Fork,” Accessible to All
Smith is not a trained chef and says she earned her culinary degree in her mother’s and grandmother’s kitchens. When she decided to open the Wrigley, she sought out mentors who graciously opened their galleys to feed her education as she traveled across Appalachia and the South to get a taste for the cuisine.
The Wrigley has an ever-changing menu so seasonal flavors are showcased at their prime. Smith highlights Kentucky gastronomy in dishes like the Appalachian Sundae: a Weisenberger Mill cornbread cake and house-made buttermilk ice cream smothered in sorghum chocolate sauce, topped with bourbon spiked whipped cream and spiced pecans.
“There is a stigma with the farm-to-table concept that it is only for rich people,” she says. “We are redefining it as farm-to-fork and making it accessible to everyone.”
Smith is serious about buying local. In 2019, the Wrigley sourced 40 percent of their ingredients locally and paid over $100,000 to local agricultural producers and farmers. Her projection for 2021? The Wrigley will contribute $130,000 to the local economy. During the pandemic, Smith found another benefit to local sourcing: as food shortages swept the industry, her Kentucky suppliers stayed consistent.
“Buying local food is a homerun,” says Smith. “It keeps money in our community and provides the highest quality ingredients for the restaurant. It just makes me really happy.”
The Wrigley has become a beloved community asset thanks to Smith’s intentionality. It is an anchor of Corbin’s historic downtown and has helped encourage development in previously empty storefronts, which are now near a 100 percent occupancy rate.
Smith pays close attention to local needs and preferences. She says when the pandemic began, people hungered for comfort food. Now, her chopped salad is in high demand as people look to lose some of their pandemic weight gain.
The Wrigley has struck a delicate balancefound that tricky balance between dining innovation and familiarity. About half of the menu is static with dining staples like anthe Americano burger made with aged beef from the family’s Faulkner Bent Farm, which Smith still owns and helps run to this day. That leaves room on the chalkboard menu for more innovative and seasonal dishes.
While there are challenges that come with running a restaurant in a small town, Smith wouldn’t have it any other way. “I set my roots here because all communities deserve a great restaurant, with fresh food grown by their neighbors, and a table welcoming to all,” she says.