By Robin Garr
It was a chilly, cloudy Saturday morning in January. The temperature was hovering around 37º. Even so, the sidewalk tables in front of Frankfort Avenue’s beloved Blue Dog Bakery & Café were filling up just the same, hungry travelers clad in parkas and mittens, eagerly awaiting a steaming coffee drink and pastry treat.
Inside Blue Dog’s warm, cozy space was jammed with more eager supplicants. Counter service would begin any moment, and they were ready.
“It’s always like this,” Blue Dog’s new owner Libbie Ackerman Loeser said with a smile.
Indeed. Blue Dog celebrated its 25th anniversary as a Crescent Hill fixture last June 22, and Loeser took the reins from former owner Kit Garrett just two months later.
Who knew? Outside Blue Dog’s staff, family, and friends, hardly anyone knew, and that was intentional. “Kit and I wanted to keep it low key, not publicize it,” Loeser said during a morning interview over an oat-milk latte and a fresh-out-of-the-oven chocolate croissant. “We didn’t want people to worry that a place is going to change. When you hear of a place changing. it’s like ‘oh, no’.”
Indeed, perceptions of change matter at a place with a tradition. “This is a magical place,” Loeser said. “There are so many regular customers here, and it’s good to hear how much this place means to them. It’s part of the fabric of their day-to-day lives, and it’s heavy, I see myself almost as a steward of a Louisville institution, not just an owner. We want to maintain the excellence with no obvious changes.”
She’s right about that. We’ve likely all seen a beloved spot falter after changing hands. Delaying the announcement was probably a wise move. So now, six months later, welcome to the new Blue Dog, a lot like the old Blue Dog, where much of the staff and most of the tradition remains … along with small, smart changes aimed at making this landmark even better.
Local culinary veteran
Here’s how the change happened. Loeser is a veteran of the Louisville restaurant scene whose culinary career started as an 18-year-old server at John Conte Coffee in Bashford Manor Mall. She moved on to Syd’s Bagels, Lynn’s Paradise Cafe, then Asiatique, ultimately going to Jack Fry’s where she worked in upper management during that Louisville institution’s ownership change from Susan Seiller to Stephanie Meeks.
Then she and her husband had children, and things changed. Restaurant life can be tough on a growing family, especially with night work involved. In 2010, Loeser left the restaurant business for a successful career in real estate. But she missed the restaurant world: The pace, the people, the environment.
Meanwhile, going into its third decade and with sibling Red Hog Restaurant and Butcher Shop drawing similarly faithful throngs just a few blocks down the avenue, Garrett was thinking about retirement. Divorced from Blue Dog co-founder Bob Hancock and with a quarter of a century in, she was ready for a rest if not full retirement – she remains owner and boss at Red Hog.
“I’d known Kit for a long time, and I knew she was about ready to have less on her plate,” Loeser recalled. When Loeser learned that Blue Dog was going up for sale, she said, with 15 years running her own realty business atop years of restaurant experience in both the front and back of the house, she knew she was ready.
“I would be interested.”
So, when Kit Garrett approached her to ask for help seeking a buyer, Loeser gave a quick reply: “I would be interested.” With a smile, Loeser added, “I think she was happy.”
Still, the conversation leading to the final sale took longer than a year, with time to figure out logistics, particularly since Blue Dog had closed its retail service during the pandemic and reopened with a counter service approach.
Loeser started putting in hours working at the café and bakery before the chang. “I wanted to get to know the staff on a one-to-one level,” she said, “not just show up one day saying ‘Hi, I’m the new owner.’”
Blue Dog’s staff includes up to 35 employees, including front-of-house, customer service, kitchen workers, and dedicated bread and pastry departments. Brittany Shah became head chef last autumn; Todd Hancock, co-founder Bob Hancock’s son, remains on staff as head baker, and his dad sill comes in on a night shift to bake lavash.
“Staff is the most important component of what we do,” Loeser said. “They’re dedicated. They have a real commitment to excellence.”
Does she foresee any significant changes? “When any new owner comes in you’ll see some things that need fine tuning,” she said, “but this is a well oiled machine, so we’re just improving systems within the business, figuring out how to grow it responsibly. A huge place for us to grow is wholesale and retail.”
Blue Dog has largely maxed out what it can do with dining room and counter service in the small, 90-year-old building, she said, and the Spanish Llopis wood-burning oven that made the original bakery a landmark is no longer in regular use; more modern bakery ovens get the job done at high quality more efficiently.
She does see an opportunity for growth in wholesale sales out of state. They’ve already got Blue Dog breads in some fine-ding establishments in Indianapolis, and they’re working to get more: “That’s a big place for growth.”
Blue Dog has already achieved that goal in Louisville, she said. Its familiar baguettes and other loaves are available at markets and many fine-dining restaurants. “We’re fortunate,” she said, “to have a loyal and dedicated base.”