Surviving on ever-changing South Limestone proves a tough task for local business

Restaurants and shops line South Limestone in Lexington, Kentucky. Photo by Jordan Prather | Staff

Emily Laytham

The beginning of a new school year brings many things.

Sometimes, it takes them away, too.

In the case of dining options close to campus, the new semester both giveth and taketh away.

A construction-filled summer has left students with several new shopping options to choose from along South Limestone, which has for years hosted student haunts like Two Keys Tavern, The Local Taco and Tin Roof. But returners and Lexington natives may want to ensure their favorite restaurant is still on the strip before they celebrate the newcomers.

Among the fallen South Limestone restaurants are the world’s only blue and white Arby’s, previously housed at 507 S Limestone; popular quick eatery Limestone Pizza, previously at 543 S Limestone; breakfast spot Hanna’s On Lime, previously at 214 S Limestone; health food counter-serve NiceNPan, previously at 547 S Limestone; and Lexington staple Sav’s Grill, previously serving West African cuisine at 304 S Limestone. (Sav’s Chill will remain at its current location on South Limestone, while Sav’s Grill will re-open soon on East Main Street, according to the restaurant’s Facebook page.)

The vacated Arby’s and its attached lot now lies unused, though its stalwart blue-and-white sign remains. Similarly, the building that housed Sav’s Grill until mid-summer has yet to be occupied.

In a sense, change around UK’s campus is business as usual. But recent developments have been drastic enough to impact even hallmark businesses that have called South Limestone home for decades: Sav’s Grill, a local favorite, thrived on the strip for 11 years before vacating the location this summer.

Lexington city Councilman Jake Gibbs, whose district includes the Limestone area, said restaurants near campus have likely been impacted by UK’s newest student center, which opened its doors in 2018.

“Sav said his business had gone down significantly since they re-did the student center,” Gibbs said, referencing comments that Sav’s Grill owner Mamadou Savane made to the Lexington Herald-Leader. “There’s just so many food options in the student center now.”

UK spokesperson Jay Blanton said the university is “committed to a deep sense of partnership and collaboration” with businesses in the area, as shown by UK’s commitment to purchasing locally sourced foods.

But partnership doesn’t eradicate competition.

The student center’s diverse dining options include Panda Express, Chick-fil-A and Subway, as well as the Champion’s Kitchen buffet-style dining hall. With a meal swipe, most UK students can grab a completely cashless meal from the student center, and those without a meal plan can buy lunch or dinner for under $10. Those prices, paired with the student center’s ease of access, may be hard for nearby restaurants to beat.

Thus, the South Limestone food flight.

For many, the frequency of failed restaurants in the area may act as a deterrent. But for Moh’d Masadeh, owner of the newly opened Taza Mediterranean Grill, the vacancies are an opportunity.

Masadeh opened Taza Mediterranean Grill this summer, in the space previously housing Limestone Pizza. Although he was warned of the fierce competition he would face with UK dining, Masadeh said he isn’t at all worried.

“We offer something different from what’s offered on campus,” Masadeh said. “Also, we offer a competitive quantity, a competitive price, for the students. I’m unconcerned.”

Masadeh is so unconcerned, in fact, that he’s revving up for a second culinary expedition on Limestone. Directly beside Taza Mediterranean Grill, in the space that once belonged to NiceNPan, Masadeh is planning to open a Taza café specializing in pastries and drinks. That opening is planned for the second week of classes.

Masadeh’s sentiment is shared by a few other Limestone business owners, as not all restaurants are fleeing the scene – some are making bold returns, like the renovated McDonalds at 357 South Limestone that recently doled out a year’s supply of Big Macs to 100 customers or Crumzz Bar and Grill, which reportedly closed for good during the Spring semester. The restaurant is now projected to re-open in September.

Changes are not all doom and gloom for South Limestone dining. Ironically, Pazzo’s benefited from the amount of construction and business vacancies in the area this summer. According to Kamari Chisholm, a Pazzo’s server, business recently boomed as construction workers regularly ducked in for the pub’s affordable lunch special.

Construction workers were in no short supply this summer because construction defined South Limestone. Alongside the dramatic McDonald’s renovation, workers bustled to complete the newly minted mini Target at 500 South Upper Street, just steps from South Limestone proper. In the other direction, construction for a new parking garage in the old Kennedy’s Book Store space heated up, and even further down, the new UK law school was completed – just in time for the Fall semester.

Sqecial Media owner Mary Morgan said South Limestone’s recent changes have been so obtrusive that customers have expressed difficulty making it in to the store, which has peddled novelty books and gifts at its current location for over 40 years.

But there’s an upside to change, too. According to Morgan, business at Sqecial Media also spiked this summer. Her guess as to why is as good as anyone’s, although she doesn’t rule out an assist from retail giant Target’s new place in the neighborhood.

“I see a lot of people going over to Target. I don’t know how many of those people stumble in here, but hopefully quite a few,” Morgan said.

CD Central owner Steve Baron said he is also cautiously optimistic about the new Target and its affect on nearby businesses’ sales.

“I think it may function as an anchor… for the neighborhood,” Baron said. “In Lexington, there isn’t a great culture of people coming downtown to shop. They might come downtown to drink or go to a restaurant or show, but there isn’t a lot of retail. Having a well-known store like that… will hopefully bring people downtown to take advantage of some of the other stores in the neighborhood.”

One of those “other stores” is CD Central – a retail vanguard of South Limestone, like its neighbor Sqecial Media. For the past 20 years, Baron has slung music in the store through a variety of formats, including CDs, vinyl records and cassette tapes. Even as the music industry has changed drastically with streaming in recent years, CD Central has stood strong.

The same cannot be said for several of its neighbors.

“This is the biggest flurry of activity we’ve had at once (in the past twenty years). The area’s almost unrecognizable,” Baron said. “We (Sqecial Media and CD Central) are like the little pocket of consistency.”

Baron said that CD Central’s business hasn’t been impacted by recent change, but the never-ending spiral of “out with the old, in with the new” has become tiring nonetheless.

“The next big project is going to be the parking garage where Kennedy’s book store was,” Baron said. “Now, I kind of liked having Kennedy’s there. And now it’s going to be another parking garage, that probably will not be open to visitors without UK parking permits… I’d rather have seen a nice retail store there.”

Morgan agreed with Baron’s annoyance: “The construction has been messy. It’s been frustrating. And oh, it’s been excessive.”

Fortunately, or not, with the student center attracting thousands of UK students and dollars every day, that frustrating construction may come to an end soon if restaurateurs decide the juice isn’t worth the squeeze on South Limestone.