“So ladies, if you’re looking for a man who is into local sports, loves to eat, is athletic and good to his fellow man while maintaining his ‘manliness’ – then Louisville is the place you really want to be right now,” Mayor Greg Fischer joked at the ribbon cutting marking the $5.8 million Hyatt Regency Louisville  renovation last Thursday, April 19.
The Mayor was referring to the recognition that Louisville has received recently including Zagat naming Louisville one of eight “Awesome Foodie Getaways Around the World ” (the only North American city named), the recent successes of Kentucky’s basketball teams, and of course, GQ proclaiming Louisville as the ‘Manliest City in America ’ in their March issue. “Our goal here in Louisville is not to be the biggest, but the best – just like Hyatt,” Fischer added as he stood with the Vice President of Hyatt, David Philips, and General Manager Donna Marquez delivering a ceremonial plaque to mark the grand re-opening.
Two weeks before the opening festivities, Louisville.com was given unprecedented access to view the progress of the renovations, and as the assigned reporter I was reluctant to report for duty. What I know of the inner-workings of the hotel industry is limited at best; opening night at a restaurant is organized chaos (writing a review during opening is unfair to the Chef), I can barely keep track of the coming-and-goings of Fourth Street merchants, and the re-opening was scheduled the week before Thunder, on my birthday no less. With the Kentucky Derby Festival  just around the corner, why would I want to visit the half-finished renovations of a hotel, meet and greet with some executive mucky-muck (who no doubt would explain how great everything will look if they ever finish), and then be hustled back to Fourth Street to pay for parking on the mere hopes that they hit their April 19th grand re-opening deadline. All it took was one phone call to my home by that executive mucky-muck to make me realize how mistaken and cynical I had been.
At a pre-arranged meeting, General Manager Donna Marquez (a.k.a. executive mucky-muck) agreed to provide me with a tour of the renovation’s progress and her energy and excitement was palpable. It was obvious she had all the standard highlighted details; including this being the first renovation in the hotel’s 34-year history which carried a price tag of $5.8 million dollars. That among the changes, which include a new front entrance and a state of the art 1200 square-foot Stay-Fit Fitness center, the centerpiece was to be a restaurant and lounge named “Sway” (short for Southern Way). The restaurant, which was shrouded behind false walls and plastic sheeting, promised to be a ‘new, modern three-meal restaurant’ based on the farm-to-fork concept complete with a lounge that would be a hot new space for networking. All of this was interesting but was included in the original press release. It wasn’t until I asked about the glass sculptures behind the renovated front desk did Donna’s eyes light up and this hotel General Manager became the proverbial ‘kid in a candy store’ who was bursting to explain where not just each piece of candy, but every flavor originated.
Beginning with the front desk, Marquez explained that they had decided to replace it with individual ‘pods’ – not because they were just modern and elegant, “we wanted to create something that allowed our guests a more personal first experience, plus some of our staff could hardly see over that big old desk that had been here for years. So we had to get rid of the thing.” Behind the pods there is artwork designed locally by Kenneth von Roenn of Architectural Glass Art of Louisville, and while describing, Donna became equally excited about the votive that the staff had also personally created via Glassworks . “They are so cool and neat, you want to see?” she said leading me into the administrative offices to view the beautiful one-of-a-kind colored votive candle holders that her staff had glass blown for the new look of the hotel.
“We had been looking for decorative votive for the tables which ran about $30 a piece when Glassworks  offered to allow our staff to create them in-house.” It was clear as she arranged individual candle-holders across a board room table that she was not only proud of the end-product, but beamed about her staff and all the creativity and hard-work they brought to the table (literally). In the telling of how great the staff had been during the transformation she explained that they were allowed to be as involved as possible including each department selecting the uniforms they would wear not only based upon the look, but by those who had to wear them “for appearance and comfort-sake”.
Leading me into the food and beverage training that was still concluding after a long week, Marquez bragged about two employees in particular, Kathy Graves and Linda Rameriez who were servers who started with the hotel 34 years prior when it originally opened. “They are truly a part of the history of this place.” Marquez was giddy about the impending re-launch of her hotel, but was genuinely proud of her staff – as every improvement was followed with a story that included an employee who was integral in making it a reality. It is true that the improvements the guests will see are impressive, but in Donna’s eyes it was the staff, which she plans to grow by 30 to 40 employees very soon, that made it a reality.
We continued our tour into Sway , where I was introduced to Eddie Carroll, the Director of Engineering for the renovation project. He was standing amongst exposed wires, blueprints, and the dust covered floors which led from the bar area to open doors on Fourth Street that he described as their “front porch.” He pointed to timbers that were collected locally, sliding barn doors that created private dining areas that would eventually seat 97 guests. The bar will seat an additional 54 customers.
Eddie’s excitement rivaled Donna’s as they were equally proud that they tried to hire only local contractors, designers, and architects. Standing just outside the inviting ‘front porch’, Eddie spoke about the length they had gone to install innovative green infrastructure; working with MSD and the city to include special pavement surrounding the hotel that allows storm water to soak into the soil, as well as drains designed to capture rainwater and send it directly into the ground rather into the sewer system saving the city of Louisville thousands of dollars each year. Proud of every detail, Eddie and Donna explained the ‘what-will-go-where-when/if-it-arrives’ scenarios, all the while jokingly taking dinner orders from construction workers for that night’s service (from a kitchen still shrouded in shrink wrap). Eddie even knew the exact location of the covered bridge from where the wood for the columns were collected, “We’ll be ready. I haven’t missed a deadline yet so you better get your order in now if you want to eat,” Carroll said with a sheepish grin that was simultaneously honest and hopeful.
Although I knew that the Hyatt Regency Louisville  had a restaurant in the spire, which was modestly popular in the eighties, I was surprised to discover that the Hyatt hadn’t had a working lobby bar/restaurant is several years. “We had one years ago, but then Fourth Street Live!  opened up,” Marquez explained. “We decided if we were ever going to go back down that road and compete with the likes of Gordon Biersch (who’s also moving into Fourth Street this month), Doc Crows and the rest that downtown has to offer, we wanted to make sure we did it right.”
The Executive Chef of Sway, David Barrett, who moved here from Chicago and is a veteran of Hyatt explained his mother was born and raised in Middlesboro, Kentucky so he “grew up in Chicago on Southern food, from pork chops to chicken fried steak with greens, fried apples…all that great Southern food.” Barrett says it’s that tradition of family dinners that inspired the menu at Sway.
Barrett is determined to adhere to a local seasonal menu built upon the pillars of the community and the ethical treatment of animals using only range-free chickens, cage-free eggs, free-range pork and starting an organic recycle program wherein all the cooking oils are recycled into biofuel.
Adhering to the promise of a community focus, Sway will feature foods from Kenny’s Farmhouse , Marksbury Farm  and Chaney’s Dairy and Farm , among other local farms, dairies and butchers. The menu will include dishes such as sweet potato vegetable hash with egg and salsa, fried green tomato sandwich, shrimp and grits, and the signature fried chicken. “I’ve eaten a lot of fried chicken in my life, and this is the best,” says Chef Barrett remarking how they brine thier chicken for twelve hours before they fry it.
Other dishes on the menu  include Bourbon Barrel Ale Shrimp ($11), New York Strip Steak with smoked Woodford Reserve bourbon shallot sauce ($28), sustainable salmon with a wild mushroom broth ($22), bacon cheddar grit fritters ($7), fresh fried pork rinds ($7) and desserts inspired seasonally by Girl Scout cookies ($7).
Two-weeks after my initial visit, on April 19th, the grand re-opening was a tremendous success. Members of the media and VIPs were invited to the ribbon cutting ceremony and tasting to include original bourbon cocktails paired with fresh fruit juices from the bar that boasts sixteen beers on tap including those from local breweries. The Mayor was there to give a speech, Donna Marquez took the podium and beamed a sincere ‘thank you’ to almost everyone mentioned here. The evening concluded with the invitees enjoying a prepared dinner that exceeded expectations in a brand new restaurant which we joked was very unique in a fung-Sway, way.
The launch party was fantastic, (complete with a flash mob of current employees) but it was not nearly as impressive as learning about what-and-who it took to get to that moment. Of course, there were lots of meetings, ideas, concepts and money necessary for the implementation, but the vision to give back to the community and all the details which will endure without notice was what struck me as the most impressive accomplishment of Donna Marquez, Eddie Carroll and their tireless teams. Many of the renovations surrounding the thousands of people who will stay at the Hyatt Regency Louisville and enjoy the local southern fare at Sway – from the breathable pavement stones, to locally sourced lumber, to the creation of jobs, to glass blown votives that adorn each table created by the staff – those details may be seen, but hopefully the hard work and stories into every detail will also be felt.
“It’s about the community and the employees, it always has been, and if anything we wanted to showcase who and where we are most of all,” Marquez explains.
The passion, determination and pride of the Hyatt staff may not appear on the company balance sheet, but to hear Donna give praise to each staff individually before and after the re-opening ceremony, to her nothing would count without it.
The Hyatt Regency Louisville is located at 320 West Jefferson Street, reservations can be made by calling 502-581-1234, or by visiting www.louisville.hyatt.com. 
Sway  is open Monday-Friday for breakfast from 6:30-11a.m.; lunch from 11a.m. until 2 p.m.; and dinner from 5-10 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays Sway is open from 7a.m. through 10p.m. The bar is open Sunday through Thursday from 11 a.m. to midnight; and on Fridays and Saturdays from 11-2 a.m.
For more information about the Hyatt Regency Louisville, Sway, and the hotel’s transformation, visit www.hyattregencylouisville  or call 502-581-1234.
(Photo: Kit Helton)