KFC eleven
Courtesy Jefferson County PVA

A little more than a year and a half in, the KFC Eleven concept store in the Highlands is officially dead, as WHAS-11 first reported over the weekend and Yum! Brands — corporate parent of the finger-lickin’ chain — confirmed to IL on Monday. The company is planning to sell the building at the corner of Bardstown Road and Baxter Avenue; they’re not saying for how much, though it was last assessed at nearly $1 million in late 2013.

After decades of KFC dominance on that corner, the neighborhood gateway is suddenly wide open again. And while it’s perhaps impolite to furnish the marriage table with the funeral feast, the chatter about its future is already loud and growing.

Most of the speculation is not about what will ultimately land there but what kind of restaurant it will be. Lori Beck, co-owner of Holy Grale and Gralehaus, which abut the KFC property, suggested a socially sensitive fried chicken spot — no hormones, no frozen foods, no chickens shot full of antibiotics.

“But honestly, my dream would be to see it turned back into a German-style biergarten, like it was way back in the day,” Beck says.

In the 1870s, the corner — and much of the block stretching southeast to Grinstead Drive — was Zehnder’s beer garden and tavern, according to historian and Eighth District Metro Councilman Tom Owen. The tavern, formerly the home of Dominic Zehnder, was surrounded by outdoor drink and dining space, as well as a bandstand and a crude bowling alley that more resembled modern-day cornhole.

The biergarten went the way of KFC Eleven in the early 1900s, and shops were constructed on the block, Owen says. Eventually, the corner became a service station. “It’s always had a business use, at least the last 150 years,” he says.

What comes next could be determined, in part, by what came before. Development in the historic area is strictly governed by the Bardstown Road Overlay District committee, which has say over structural or architectural changes to properties in the neighborhood, as well as any potential demolition.

“We’re all looking forward to seeing what’s in store for this important site,” says committee chair John Warmack, an architect and partner at Design Plus.

There are also more practical considerations. The structure has limited parking in an area dense with restaurants and bars, where parking is already a problem. That limitation might help drive a different kind of food concept there, says Highlands Commerce Guild vice president Aaron Givhan.

“I do see a trend in that breakfast-lunch crowd,” he says, mentioning the expected opening of Eggs Over Baxter later this month. “I don’t know how many you can support up and down the strip, but I do see high demand.”

Charlie Dahlem, whose firm The Dahlem Company owns the property that houses Starbucks and Walgreens across Baxter Avenue from the KFC Eleven, says he expects the high-profile spot will draw out a creative restaurant concept.

“I was surprised that they weren’t going to put something else in there,” he says of Yum!, adding that his firm looked but isn’t interested in the spot. “Obviously the structure sets itself up pretty nicely for a restaurant, but the parking doesn’t.

“It would have great presence on the road there at the split,” Dahlem adds. “Somebody I think will come up with a cool restaurant concept for that space.”

There’s long been talk of a boutique hotel — along the lines of 21c or the soon-to-open Aloft downtown — going up in the Highlands, which Owen says he fully supports. But while this location is desirable for such a project, its footprint is not.

“I think it’s a very hard site to redevelop since it’s an awkwardly shaped piece and only sits on a half acre,” says Reed Weinberg, principal at PRG Investments. “The building is relatively new. Sure looks like a good spot for a Chipotle or other type of fast-casual concept. I would think any new user, if it isn’t a Yum! concept, will re-use the building.”

Gant Hill, whose eponymous real estate firm handles a significant amount of historically sensitive adaptive reuse and redevelopment, says not to be surprised if another big-name brand comes knocking.

“It’s a great property,” he says. “I would not be surprised if another national brand took over, as it has a wonderful location and is equipped with a drive-thru.”

Givhan, of the Commerce Guild, is hoping for the opposite of that.

“Every store that opens that is corporate is one spike against the independents,” he says. “I think to keep the Highlands original, we need to have an original restaurant there.”

So is Maggie Cassaro. The former board member of the Original Highlands Neighborhood Association echoes Beck’s sentiments, saying she hopes a developer or restaurateur will establish an outdoor-oriented space where people can gather and enjoy the neighborhood.

“I would love to see it go back to an outdoor green space where neighbors and passersby can pause for a light bite from an outdoor grillmeister and a brew,” she says. “Fire pits can accommodate the winter patrons. No smoking allowed.”

The trick will be something with a fast enough turnaround to keep parking — and seating — turning over, but of a high enough quality that the neighborhood will support it (KFC Eleven, Yum!’s attempt at that, obviously didn’t cut it). And who knows, maybe it will become a hub for that Baxter-Bardstown streetcar we’ve all longed for. Could certainly help with the parking.

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Stephen George
Stephen George is news editor of Insider Louisville. He is a former editor of LEO Weekly and the Nashville City Paper, and a former news editor of the Nashville Scene. He has written for various other news and culture publications and is happy to be back in Louisville.