04/01/2015 10:23AM

End of an era as Keeneland opens without Turf Catering


Seventy-nine years ago, Central Kentucky horseman Hal Price Headley shook hands with Chicago-based concessionaire Joe Wolken, and a partnership for the ages was formed. The mastermind and co-founder of Keeneland Racecourse took a leap of faith that day during the depths of the Great Depression that a small, family-run business called Turf Catering could provide food service worthy of the model track he was building in the heart of Kentucky horse country. “World class” is what Headley was looking for, and world class is what he got.

Keeneland visitors have since become accustomed to excellence – in highest-caliber racing, with a culinary experience to match. For eight decades, fans have witnessed a procession of champions, from Whirlaway to Wise Dan, to Coaltown, Round Table, Spectacular Bid, Northern Dancer, Alydar, Go for Wand, Azeri, and Gio Ponti, ridden by the world’s best jockeys and handled by legendary trainers. And while they may or may not have recognized the amicable, well-dressed men popping each afternoon into concession stands and sweeping through the track’s many dining areas, fans came to know their food like a personal friend – the delectable bread pudding with Maker’s Mark bourbon sauce ... that bubbling burgoo stew ... mouth-watering corned beef and cabbage. It was an experience to savor; Headley and his successors would have it no other way.

From 1936 through early 2015, Turf Catering was the track’s only dining reference point, having served fans as well as the jocks’ room, backstretch workers, international visitors to high-octane horse sales, and attendees of countless special events. That, however, will no longer be the case when Keeneland opens Friday for its 78th spring meet, the first in the track’s history without Turf Catering. Management exercised a contractual buyout in February, with a plan to provide in-house service under the name Keeneland Hospitality. To ensure a smooth transition, Turf’s equipment, recipes, and 50 full-time employees became part of Keeneland’s new enterprise. It is a bittersweet end to a long road traveled, but it was time, the Wolkens say.

Ah, but those 78 years that began with a handshake and a signed letter back when names like Hitler, Roosevelt, Lindbergh, and Gehrig dominated the headlines; when a gallon of gas cost 10 cents; when unemployment was 17 percent; when the stock market inched past 180. Spanning eras from art deco and zeppelins to smartphones and iPads, rarely has a partnership been so successful, so enduring, and so filled with mutual trust.

The beginning

The Wolkens’ racetrack dining career was born in the Roaring Twenties when brothers Joe and Bill opened a pool hall/lunchroom near Chicago’s Wrigley Field, offering racetrack bookmaking on the side. The grandfather and grand-uncle, respectively, of the latest generation of Turf proprietors – Brad and Mike Wolken – were themselves children of the 19th century, probably Russian-born, though nobody knows for certain.

Each brother listed Wisconsin as his birthplace on the 1940 census, an innocent untruth, according to Joe’s son Larry, who unearthed his late father’s naturalization certificate along with evidence of arrival through Ellis Island under the name “Wolkenstein.” Once here, the “stein” was dropped, and two newly minted Americans set out to live the dream.

The Wolken lunchroom endured the early Depression, with family lore indicating possible crossing of paths with Chicago’s mob. According to Joe’s grandson and third-generation Turf president Brad Wolken, Bill enjoyed the races at Hawthorne, in Al Capone’s stomping ground of Cicero. One day, he complained about the track’s food to owner Tom Carey, who snapped back: “Think you can do better? If so, you’ve got the next meet.”

“From there,” said Brad, “they were recommended to other facilities: Oaklawn in 1934, Keeneland, Alamo Downs in Texas, and Fair Grounds. Around Chicago, they had it pretty well wrapped up at Arlington Park, Hawthorne, and Washington Park in [south suburb] Homewood.”

While the company became “Turf Catering,” racing wasn’t its only game. During Chicago’s “Century of Progress” World’s Fair of 1933-34, almost 50 million visitors strolled past Wolken-run Orange Crush soda booths, staffed entirely by redheads in quirky Bill Veeck-promotional fashion. By the ‘40s, Bill Wolken had moved west to handle Rose Bowl concessions and there formed his own business, leaving Joe and associate Ben Koppel with Turf.

Fast-forward 20 years. The partners were aging, with Joe suffering an ultimately life-ending illness. Larry was running his own Chicago restaurant when he received a visit from Keeneland’s then-president, W.T. Bishop.

“W.T. Bishop came up during Arlington and wanted to talk,” Larry recently recalled. “He told me if something happened to my father, that would be the end of Turf. He was the glue that held things together but was getting old, and his health wasn’t great. I had to get involved.”

Larry headed south, where he quickly gleaned that all was not well.

“Dad always said, ‘You’re only as good as your last sandwich.’ But I could see problems right away. For one thing, the burgoo was bad, more like a vegetable soup, so I told chef [Joe] Marlow: ‘Make it good or drop it.’ ” To this day, Turf’s burgoo remains a Keeneland classic, simmered up each race day in 70-gallon kettles.

Former track president Louis Lee Haggin II offered the young concessionaire some words to live by: “Regardless of who’s in charge at Keeneland, you want to produce quality. Quality is the name of the game here.” Wolken never forgot.

Following his father’s 1965 death, Larry bought out Koppel and stamped his own energetic imprint onto the company. Time passed, the generational wheel turned, and by the mid-1970s, Wolken’s own sons, Brad and Mike, were fresh from college and ready to come aboard.

“There was rapid growth back then,” Brad remembered. “Those were golden years. But my dad had people working for him who had worked for our grandfather ... guys in their 60s. Dad knew he had to bring younger people in. Mike and I could see we needed to get into the business quickly.”

Then-22-year-old Brad had just graduated from a Colorado hotel/restaurant management program and was newly wed to Elaine Ross. In 1974, the young couple pulled a U-Haul from Denver to Hot Springs, Ark., to oversee Turf’s Oaklawn division. When that meet ended, they promptly headed north to Keeneland, a freewheeling routine that continued until the ‘80s with the arrival of children and overlapping race meetings. At that point, Brad settled in Arkansas, while Mike remained in Lexington. At both tracks, business went on without a contract ... on an annual handshake, so to speak.

Though Turf Catering became nationally noted for its food, it never attempted to reinvent the wheel.

“It wasn’t incumbent on a racetrack chef to try something different all the time,” Brad explained. “When customers come back, they delight in having the same things they had before. We didn’t have that celebrity-chef atmosphere people are enamored with now, of constantly making changes and trying foods we weren’t known for. We’ve been successful doing the same things over and over again, and doing them really well.”

Through the years, Turf fed most everyone who was anyone in American racing – great jockeys, top trainers, a smattering of Hollywood royalty, and the real deal when Queen Elizabeth visited Kentucky in 1986. (“I have a picture of myself shaking hands with her,” says Larry. “She was cordial. I got her a gin and tonic.”)

Change of model

According to Brad Wolken, from the 1930s into the ‘60s, racetracks were disinclined to invest in concessions. It was more cost-effective to farm it out to specialists like Turf.

“They didn’t want to buy equipment for 20- or 30-day meets,” Brad said. “When Fair Grounds ended up with 100 days of live racing in the ‘60s, they became the first of our tracks to internalize food and beverage. Suddenly, the business-model economics changed. The longer you’re open, the more food becomes something you might want to run yourself.”

Simulcasting proved another game changer.

“Customers at simulcasting facilities aren’t that interested in a high-quality hospitality experience,” Brad said. “They don’t want frills; if they get hungry, a hot dog is okay.”

Wolken estimates that per-capita spending on simulcast dining is roughly one-fifth to one-third that of live-racing customers.

“Simulcasting drove a nail in the coffin of the concessionaire business, but what hammered it home was electronic gaming, which most tracks need now to survive,” Brad said. “That means you’re open seven days a week, year-round, and still providing service, probably at a loss. We used to rent trucks to haul stoves, dishwashing equipment, plates, and silverware from Keeneland to Oaklawn, then back again. Once dates overlapped and when simulcasting came along, we had to make huge investments to set up permanent facilities at each location. It became more expensive and less profitable.

“Also, there came to be a marketing aspect – offering food at discount to attract people for gambling. Las Vegas-type 1960s promotions with inexpensive all-you-can-eat buffets are popular at tracks with gaming. Using food as incentive doesn’t leave much room for a service partner. Concessionaires almost become dinosaurs at that point. Most tracks today use management companies instead.”

In 2000, Oaklawn took concessions in-house, but Keeneland remained a Turf Catering stronghold.

“We always felt secure that if we did a good job, they’d keep us here,” Brad said.

At the same time, the Kentucky track was undergoing changes of its own, including the installation of a new management team. Having experienced the Oaklawn split without a contract in place, the Wolkens knew what difficulties that could create. They approached Keeneland with a business plan.

“We showed them the industry standard for such relationships,” Brad explained. “It would give us a guaranteed number of years in return for investment already made and investments going forward. If they wanted to buy us out at any time, there was a way they could do that. But the concessionaire would get paid for investments made at a depreciating amount over each year. That appealed both to us and to Keeneland. It was a 12-year contract that went 11 years.”

The Wolkens were not surprised at Keeneland’s buyout decision. In fact, they supported the idea once the Breeders’ Cup came into play, with the event coming to Keeneland on Oct. 30-31.

“We could have looked at it as a bonanza,” Brad said. “But we had Keeneland’s best interest in mind as well as our own. The Breeders’ Cup would require an unknown amount of additional investment to do it right, and Keeneland was going to do it right – Keeneland-style. The amount of work [and investment] required for those few days, changes in menu, changes of equipment, then selling it back for a depreciated amount, would have been a wash for us. Maybe even a negative. But for Keeneland, those are great long-term investments. It made sense. We called it a win-win.”

For Mike Wolken, who lived and breathed Keeneland for decades, the change will be especially personal – and poignant.

“It was special, the kind of relationship that just doesn’t exist anymore,” Mike said. “We were there for 79 years, and what a run we had. I’ll miss the day-to-day contact with employees, relationships built over the years, the action, the camaraderie. The track is like a little city in terms of diversity – from people living in tack rooms to those lunching in corporate suites. Mostly, I’ll miss the excitement of being part of something unmatched in this country. Keeneland offers the premier guest experience, and food has been a part of that.”

“It was a friendly parting, it really was,” Larry reflected from his home in Hot Springs. “It was the end of a long contract, and they followed it to the letter. They have their own ideas on how to run things but never said a bad word about how we did it. There were a lot of great years. What more can you ask?”

The timing is right for parting; no fourth-generation Wolken waits in the wings to assume control. Once themselves the young guns, Brad and Mike have crossed the threshold of 60 and have grown children of their own. Dan Wolken, Brad and Elaine’s Atlanta-based son, is a national sportswriter for USA Today, and they have three grandchildren.

Eighty-four-year-old patriarch Larry Wolken retired as Turf Catering president in the 1990s and with his wife has since traveled to every continent – though their lives today revolve largely around family. Business continues under Brad and Mike’s management, servicing the Hot Springs Convention Center year-round. But for the first time in 80 years, there is no “turf” left in Turf Catering. And so it goes.