When the bar leasing the first floor of Bob Estes' downtown building closed three years ago, he took a chance that he could reopen the space as a Prohibition-theme nightclub.
Thanks to his diverse business background and the experience his fiancée, Joy Breeding, had in hospitality management, Parlay Social has done well, recently adding lunch service on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays.
Now they hope to build on that success by making more contributions to the revitalization of the Cheapside district behind the old Fayette County Courthouse.
Estes and Breeding are working to reopen Shorty's Urban Market, 163 West Short Street, which opened in May 2011 but closed two months ago. They are doing minor renovations to the market, which they plan to reopen by Christmas.
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They also are remaking the former Shorty's wine shop next door into a cocktail bar and taproom featuring locally brewed beers. If business is good enough, they can use second-floor office space for additional food and beverage service.
Next year, they have more ambitious plans: add a fourth floor onto the historic Southern Mutual Trust Building, where Parlay Social is located at 149 West Short Street, and open a rooftop restaurant with an expansive view of downtown.
"It has been interesting to learn the hospitality industry," Estes said. "It's not easy, but I say a lot of times that this is not rocket science; I know what rocket science is."
Indeed, he does. The 52-year-old Lexington native and Eastern Kentucky University graduate spent most of his career in the aerospace industry, working in satellite launch operations for companies such as Boeing, Lockheed and McDonnell Douglas.
Estes was a mission controller for payloads carried on several NASA Space Shuttle and Space Station missions. During ebbs in the space program, Estes worked at a variety of other jobs. He built homes and spent time as Circuit Court Clerk in Jessamine County, appointed to fill his mother's vacancy when his father became ill.
Estes was working as an aerospace consultant when he bought the Southern Mutual Trust Building in 2008, both as an investment and so he could convert the third floor into a low-maintenance condo where he could live when he wasn't traveling.
He changed career paths after falling in love with Breeding and downtown living.
The city's Courthouse Area Design Review Board last year approved Estes' proposed design for adding a fourth floor to the Southern Mutual Trust Building. But it will be a big job — including cutting into his third-floor condo so the elevator shaft can be extended upward.
"Can you imagine eating up here on a nice evening with this view of downtown?" Estes said as we stood on his roof.
Estes, who is president of the Cheapside Entertainment District Association, thinks there is a lot of opportunity downtown for entrepreneurs with a disciplined business approach and good customer service.
"I'm big on processes and standard operating procedures," he said. "I learned that in the space program."
Estes said he has received a lot of support in reopening Shorty's from city officials, the building's landlord, Brian Hanna, and the market's original investors, led by Lee Ann Ingram of Nashville. Estes said Ingram left him a beautifully renovated building to work with. So how does he plan to succeed where others failed?
"We're going to focus on quality, but watch the price point," he said. "I don't want to make it such a boutique place that I eliminate customers."
Estes plans to stock a lot of Kentucky Proud products, especially things such as Sunrise Bakery bread and Lexington Pasta. He is talking with Lexington Farmers Market about its growers supplying produce for the market and its deli. Estes also plans to offer take-home dinners.
"I'm really trying to find some great cooks," he said. "I'm looking for a grandmother type who's used to cooking for a big family and knows how to spice food."
Cheapside's bars and restaurants have done well for several years, and Estes said he thinks downtown is ready for retail.
"I'm getting the feeling out there that there's a village of people who want Shorty's to be successful," Estes said. "In my lifetime, there's never been a more exciting time to be downtown."