By Marie Bradby

Customers can choose from plenty of desserts and pastries: Dobos torte, flourless chocolate torte with caramel icing, and a strawberry buttercream cake topped with dark chocolate ganache (center, front to back).

The first five years in business for blue-chip caterer and restauranteur Susan Hershberg were really lean. Some of the thousands of followers she has built over the years might remember the first little place she had, Chef’s Choice on Frankfort Avenue, where a hundred people a day would crowd in for the food. It was 1988.

“Because the menu changed all the time—which has been a theme of mine throughout the years—you didn’t know what the food would be, but you knew that it would be fresh and delicious,” Susan says.

Even though she and her co-owner “went in when it was dark and left when it was dark,” they made very little money.

But things began to change in 1995. It was her seventh year of business and she owned Wiltshire Pantry in St. Matthews on Wiltshire Avenue. She was working on her own, having bought out her business partner. That year, “we doubled our revenue. We had all these years of barely seeing any growth in sales and once we survived the five-year mark, all of a sudden people realized we were legitimate.

Patience has been the driving force behind Susan’s success. 

“If you can hang in there for five years, you will see a return on your hard work. My business after that point really started to grow and saw a dramatic shift.”

The business grew so fast that she had to stop serving in the small dining room on Wiltshire and used it for prep space for the catering.

Rather than follow a specific plan, she relied on networking as a method for expanding the business.   

Fast forward to 2016, Susan, 52, has long ago outgrown the space in St. Matthews, and now owns the Wiltshire Pantry Bakery and Cafe on Breckinridge Street in the Highlands, Wiltshire on Market in NuLu, and the new Wiltshire at the Speed, set for the grand re-opening of the museum in March.

In 2015, she generated revenues of $3 million, a 50 percent increase from 2014, and with the addition of the restaurant and catering service at the Speed, will double her full-time staff this year from 28 to nearly 60 employees. How’s that for a history major who loved to cook as a little girl and helped her mother roll out dough to make appetizers for parties?

A genuine love for the job fuels her motivation. 

“I never had this grand plan of first I’m going to do this or that,” Susan says. “I never had a five-year projection. I had a strong work ethic and loved to cook. It was about building relationships with my clients and my staff.”

An ever-changing menu adds an element of unpredictability to the dining experience.

Tell us about Wiltshire at the Speed. The cafe will be a wonderful creative outlet, but catering is really our priority there. Most restaurants don’t survive after five years because it’s very hard to operate a small, independent restaurant profitably, particularly one that would be open only during the day as a destination restaurant. The catering will be the key to making it work. We’ll work with local producers, premium ingredients, and talented chefs to complement people’s experience at the museum.

What do you love about the restaurant/catering business? It’s still fun. I love being at the restaurant. I love seeing people coming through the door, people who I have great connections with: I catered their wedding, or their anniversary party, or their college graduation. My clients are now multi-generational. They come to Wiltshire for all their special events. I have a great team of people who have worked for me for 30 years and now their kids work for me. I never wake up in the morning and say I don’t want to go to work.

What was your concept that would set you apart? We change our menus constantly. When you call us for an event, we customize each menu from scratch—what you love, what style you want based on what is locally sourced and available. We provide products from our bakers—our breads, pastries and desserts. Everything we bring to the table is artisan made.

Mini potato latke with house cured salmon, fresh dill, and caper crema. 

What was your first break? When we got added to the approved list of caterers for Gardencourt (wedding venue). That made a huge impact. Suddenly we had this flow of brides coming to us for their weddings. That was about 1993.

How did you get start-up capital? I borrowed from family, and I paid it back in the first five years. When I bought this property on Breckinridge, I had to borrow again. I had used all my money buying the building for Wiltshire on Market. I also got a low-interest METCO loan. (The Metropolitan Business Development Corporation (governs metro government’s small business loans for facade, accessibility and gap financing).

Despite tough times, Susan’s problem solving skills and good instincts have kept her businesses afloat. 

What’s the best advice you’ve been given? Don’t borrow more than you can afford to pay back. I was always cautious about the way I expanded my business. When I opened Wiltshire on Market, I got another METCO loan to put in the kitchen. But I also needed heating, air conditioning, and dishes, so I maxed out a credit card with zero interest to pay down in 14 months. It was tight. I worked that cash flow every week. It’s about paying attention to the numbers. Until two years ago, I did my books myself. I write and sign every check myself. You have to pay attention to the amount of money coming in and the money going out. Don’t buy anything you don’t need. The other advice is never get behind in your taxes, even your sales tax. You collect it all month long, and turn it in the 20th of the next month. People who get behind are often unable to recover.

What are the biggest tests you’ve faced? Making it through critical times in economic downturns. I had to really tighten it down in 2001. No one entertained for what seemed like an eternity. The phone just didn’t ring. Because I didn’t have terrible debt, I made it through.