While you’re getting ready to send a few Kentucky Derby souvenirs to distant friends, John and Sherry Hassmann are preparing to ship entire cases of Derby-Pies to the submarine U.S.S. Louisville. It’s a gesture they make twice a year, at Christmas and before the world’s most famous horserace.
“I served in the Navy, but on a surface ship,” John said. “When sailors and other military personnel visit Louisville, we give them gift bags. We just want them to know that we appreciate what they’re doing out there.”
The Hassmanns never lack ideas for filling those bags.
As owners of the three locations of A Taste of Kentucky, they’re experts at providing Bluegrass bounty such as bourbon balls and licensed Derby merchandise to people near and far.
A Taste of Kentucky opened in 1982 as a kiosk in Mall St. Matthews, and Sherry soon began working for its original owners. After the couple bought the business in 1986, she ran it for a decade before he joined her.
Today they have stores in Middletown, Mall St. Matthews and the AEGON Center. Some of their 15 full-time employees have been with them for more than 20 years.
“The AEGON Center store is aimed mostly at tourism and conventions,” John said. “We have good relationships with the nearby hotels, and being across from the convention center is very convenient.”
Orders are shipped to every state, with Texas and Florida among the leading destinations. The Hassmanns pay for shipping on items for active duty military personnel.
“This time of year is bigger than Christmas for us,” John said. “Companies and hotels are making corporate orders for guests who will be coming, and Derby party supplies are going everywhere. Orders received by 3 p.m. will almost certainly ship that day. We want people to get what they want as quickly as possible, so we have to keep decent inventory on hand.”
When one corporate client needed 20,000 gift packages containing four kinds of candies, the Hassmanns and their staff met the deadline without breaking their stride.
“We have hundreds of suppliers, mostly small local or statewide companies,” John said. “All of them are hard-working, talented people. We’ve worked with some for decades, including Kern’s Kitchen, which makes Derby-Pie.”
The couple is always on the lookout for new additions. Recent finds include gourds from artist Lynn Horine of Bedford, Ky., who uses paint and coils made of pine needles to turn the dried rinds into intriguing baskets.
St. Matthews artist Gail Corso paints “Derby Divas” onto stemware, and Holloway Farms of Middletown bottles their spicy Bloody Kentucky mix.
“We always shop Kentucky first, but some gift items are made elsewhere. Our focus is on Kentucky-made or -inspired,” John said. “People want julep cups, but they aren’t made here. Everybody’s Irish for St. Patrick’s Day, and every supplier is a Kentuckian for Derby.”
The Hassmanns have expanded by developing their own unique product lines, rather than just counting on suppliers, and are always amazed at the reach of the Commonwealth.
“We develop our own merchandise sometimes, including a line of ‘May the horse be with you’ products,” Sherry said. “While traveling on a Minnesota expressway, we saw a car with our ‘Talk Derby to me’ bumper sticker. We wanted to honk, but didn’t want to cause an accident.”
The couple estimates that they’ve sold more than 340,000 Derby-Pies, 500,000 bourbon balls, and one million Modjeskas. Their enterprise has earned them kudos such as the state’s Department of Agriculture’s Retailer of the Year award in both 2000 and 2005.
A Taste of Kentucky’s best-sellers aren’t something anyone would want to taste — horseshoes from Churchill Downs.
Since each one has bits of what John called “mystery material that’s probably good for your houseplants” still clinging on, it’s wrapped in plastic.
“We’re proud of our products, our suppliers, the customers who count on us, and our employees, who make things look easy,” John said, “Thanks to all of them, we’re still here after 30 years.”
A Taste of Kentucky, 11800 Shelbyville Road (Village Square, Middletown), opens at 9 a.m. and closes at 5 p.m. Monday-Friday, and opens at 10 a.m. and closes at 5 p.m. Saturday. A Taste of Kentucky, Mall St. Matthews, opens at 10 a.m. and closes at 9 p.m. Monday-Saturday, and opens at noon and closes at 6 p.m. Sunday. A Taste of Kentucky, AEGON Center, opens at 10 a.m. and closes at 5 p.m. Monday-Friday. For more information, visit www.atasteofky.com or phone 502.244.3355 or 800.444.0552.