When Krim Boughalem and Andrea Sims opened National Provisions in a former soft-drink bottling plant at National and Walton avenues in late 2013, it was a gamble.
Would Lexington learn to love — and pay a bit more for — the kind of fresh, European-style food that Boughalem grew up with in France?
The married couple thought so. Their first two Lexington ventures, Wine + Market on Jefferson Street, which they sold, and Table Three Ten restaurant on Short Street, which they still own, were successful.
But National Provisions was a much bigger play: 16,000 square feet of beautifully renovated space that now includes a bakery, brasserie-style restaurant, Beer Hall, wine shop and a large market with fresh, locally produced food and delicacies flown in from around the world.
The market, the last phase of the project, opened May 21. The couple said that, as with each of the previous phases, business already has exceeded their expectations.
"It's been pretty constantly busy," Sims said. "There has been a lot of traffic, and I think it helps that you can see the lighted cases through the window at night."
The market has fresh produce and specialty cuts of meat. The cheese counter has more than 100 varieties, many imported from Europe. There is a section of charcuterie (prepared meats) and a section of ready-to-eat salads, sandwiches and meals for taking home, which have been especially popular.
There is a case of pastries from the bakery in the next room, and a selection of Kentucky products such as Weisenberger Mill flours and corn meal. A seafood section and oyster bar will be the last part of the market to open, in September.
The center of the market has long, tall marble tables where customers may sit or stand to casually eat food bought at the market counters.
One side door of the market leads to the bakery; another to the brasserie. The back opens into the Beer Hall.
"With everything open now, the place really breathes well," Sims said.
Boughalem, 49, is the food expert, having learned the restaurant business in New York and London. Sims, 46, a Lexington native, trained as an artist in New York and France.
National Provisions' interior spaces reflect Sims' sophisticated design skills.
The former industrial building has been transformed into a variety of spaces that are rustically elegant and comfortable. The idea, Sims said, is to not just serve and sell good food and drink, but to create a memorable experience customers will want to repeat regularly.
"That's what it's all about, really," she said. "You walk in the place and you just want to be there."
Because National Provisions is located near downtown, just off Winchester Road near where it becomes Midland Avenue, it gets a lot of passing traffic. The couple said their biggest surprise has been the enthusiastic support of residents in the nearby neighborhoods of Mentelle, Bell Court and Kenwick.
"It's a much more committed clientele than we had at Wine + Market," Sims said. "People have been so excited each time another thing opened."
Part of that might be because National Provisions is the flagship of Walker Properties' mixed-use redevelopment of the National Avenue corridor, which last week was renamed Warehouse Block. It has received a lot of favorable publicity, including in The New York Times, which cited it as a good example of urban redevelopment.
One challenge National Provisions has faced is educating customers that they're paying more because the food is fresher and of higher quality than they might be accustomed to.
"That is a challenge, but I don't think it's because they don't understand," Boughalem said. "They've just never seen it. That's not the way American markets work anymore."
Educating suppliers is a challenge, too. Meat processors aren't used to the European cuts that Boughalem wants. For example, he said, American butchers usually produce about 34 cuts from a cow; in France, there are 92 cuts.
"People are used to seeing meat wrapped in plastic," he said. "We're going to show people what meat should look like. Our goal has always been to expand big enough to have our own full-time butcher and fishmonger."
Added Sims: "What we'd really like is our own full-time farm."