Steven Clements

UPDATED 7/5/12: Our headline has changed to Derby Museum from Churchill Downs to accurately reflect the parties involved.

In the brief space of five days, one of Louisville’s longest-running restaurant and catering businesses has gone from thriving to shuttered.

Clements Catering — which for 25 years, operated the Derby Museum Café and its catered events — along with its sister restaurant, Avalon Fresh American Cuisine, are now closed.

According sources close to the matter, a contract dispute between owner-operator Steven Clements and the Kentucky Derby Museum led to a work stoppage at the property on Wed., June 27.

On Sunday morning, July 1, Clements called his managers in for a meeting to say Avalon was closed effective immediately. The longstanding Highlands restaurant, known for its urbane feel, modern food and arguably the best patio in town, would not open for service that night.

Attempts to contact Clements to confirm those details were not returned. But Avalon’s chef, Patrick Roney said, in essence, “that’s basically what happened. (The Churchill Downs operation) was basically Steve’s big breadwinner, and when that shut down, it took Avalon with it.”

Roney believes the combined companies employed about 65.

Roney said he knew the loss of the operations at Churchill Downs was a significant blow to the company, but he said the closure of Avalon, whose kitchen he’s led the past four months, was still a surprise.

Avalon was just kicking off a barbecue, bourbon and Bluegrass promotion, and Roney’s crew was in the throes of prepping for it. After Clements delivered the grim news at 9 a.m. Sunday, Roney asked if he could take the food and use it to throw an employee appreciation party.

“Steve said that was fine, but that we wouldn’t be able to do it at Avalon,” Roney said. “But he said whatever I wanted to take for the party, we could have … Now all we have to do is find a place to do it.”

Hugs, thanks and goodbyes followed, Roney’s said, and then he and his sous chefs “met to drink several beers and talk awhile.”

My own take: I worked with Steve Clements 32 years ago when he was a captain at Casa Grisanti, where I was a peon busboy. Smart and serious, all business all the time, the driven Clements made clear back then that his stop at the venerable restaurant would be a short one since his goal was to own his own place.

Clements left Casa, traveled the country some, gained experience and briefly worked to open Sixth Avenue Restaurant, another long-gone Grisanti Co. offspring in 1981, before opening People’s Place in Louisville. The operation lasted about two years. In 1987, he launched Clements Catering and landed the contract to run foodservice at the Derby Museum. It proved a successful venture that produced the seed money to start Avalon about 15 years later.

In Avalon’s decade or so run, the irascible and inspiring Clements attracted and fired a slew of talented chefs who liked where Clements wanted the restaurant to go, but often found themselves at odds with the strong-willed owner.

Throughout those turbulent times, the food remained solid—the whole experience, really—even amid a radical change from white tablecloth dining to a more casual bistro about two years ago. Like many independent operations still reeling from the recent recession, Roney said Avalon’s business was trending nicely northward over the past several months—not surprising given Clements’ shrewd decision to run many women-centered drink and appetizer deals. (He knew his clientele well.) But maybe it wasn’t enough.

Which brings me to this assumption about the whole mess: I’m betting he’d had enough with the headaches of this difficult and trying industry and said, “To hell with it. I’m done.”

Clements and I had talked many times off the record about how hard it has become to earn a good living in the restaurant business. To him, as it does many owners, a good living meant an income commensurate with the stress and hours of the work.

Lately, however, Clements and many others have told me the stress and hours is mostly what they get: not the income. In some cases, they get little to none of the latter; many notable restaurateurs around town have told me their households have operated out of their savings accounts for years.

Not one to suffer a fool — ever — I bet Clements suggested, in so many words, that the Derby Museum get romantic with the horse it rode in on, and negotiations promptly went to pasture.

Whether that was a good or bad call, I don’t know. Only Clements knows.

Meantime, Clements’ former staff is looking for a place to hold its farewell party. Anyone willing to donate the space for a BYOB/BYOF event?

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Steve Coomes
Steve Coomes is a restaurant veteran turned award-winning food, spirits and travel writer. In his 24-year career, he has edited and written for multiple national trade and consumer publications including Nation's Restaurant News and Southern Living. He is a feature writer for Louisville magazine, Edible Louisville & The Bluegrass and Food & Dining Magazine. The author of two books, "Country Ham: A Southern Tradition of Hogs, Salt & Smoke," and the "Home Distiller's Guide to Spirits," he also serves as a ghostwriter for multiple clients.