(Larry Wolken, the former owner of Turf Catering / Photo Courtesy of the Wolken Family)
In the spring of 1977, I was a wild-eyed freshman at the University of Kentucky. Had no clue what I was going to major in, but knew I was at the right school because of one important thing — proximity to Keeneland.
Seeing an ad for Turf Catering, I applied. What could be better than working at Keeneland … in any capacity.
With a love for cooking, I was placed in the main kitchen, on the ground floor, underneath the grandstand. The first day on the job, I met Mike Wolken, a member of the family that owned the catering company.
We have been good friends ever since.
When Mike’s Dad, Larry Wolken, who ran the operation, wanted to find me he had two options: a) he would check the kitchen first, which is where I was supposed to be; b) if I wasn’t there, he would walk out to the first television set.
There I would be, checking out the odds, or watching a race. More times than not, Mike was there as well.
We were young, and we loved racing. Now, not so young, but I still love racing. Thanks to Larry, however, we learned that while a love of racing is a fantastic thing, so, too, is taking care of business. And, it should come first. Actually, I think he said it “must” come first.
At the time, all I really knew about racing was that I loved to handicap, and loved to wager. Handicapping was a challenge I had unlocked as a young teen. The wagering just naturally followed.
Larry, who died March 30 at age 87, helped me begin to understand about the experience of racing, and he had it down to a science.
He showed me decades of charts, showing the weather for each day Keeneland raced. My favorite days for handicapping were when the track was sloppy. Larry, understandably, wished for sunnier days.
“People make their decision on attending the races at 8 a.m.,” Larry told me. “Tell me the day of the week, the weather at 8 a.m., the feature race that day, and I can predict the attendance.”
Larry and I discussed menus, of course, at Keeneland, starting with corned beef, burgoo and bread pudding.
He always laughed when telling me about how the company tried burgoo at Oaklawn Park, where it also had the catering contract for many years.
“It was so popular at Keeneland, I was just sure they would like it at Oaklawn,” Larry would say. “Even tried calling it Razorback Stew.”
“They didn’t like it.”
After a good old Arkansas boy was elected president, Larry carried a picture of Bill Clinton in his wallet. Loved puling it out to show folks.
After handing over the reigns of Turf Catering to his sons, Mike and Brad, Larry still attended the races and still did the thing he always did best … stroll through the dining rooms to talk to friends.
I always looked forward to those encounters, especially when he would take the time to pull up a chair, and tell a few good stories. Made me feel special. Never treated me like an employee, more like a friend.
I loved hearing him talk about the beginning of Turf Catering, about his days as a Thoroughbred owner, about the great horses he had seen run…
And, also, about something I came to understand so well nearly seven years ago when I entered the restaurant and catering business myself: it is not just about the food, it is also about customer service.
“We are in the hospitality business,” Larry told me 40 years ago. “Yes, we serve food, and that food has to be good, but we are just as much about how we treat our customers.”
I carry that lesson with me every day, that, of course, the customer has to enjoy the food, but, as importantly, the customer has to know they are appreciated.
Not only that, but Larry would explain to me that you also have to constantly let your employees know how much you appreciate them. You are, he told me, only as good as your employees.
I have attended a lot of racetracks, but none more than Keeneland. It is my hometown track, and it holds a special place in my heart.
I have also eaten a lot of racetrack food. And though I am biased, I can honestly say I have never had better racetrack food than what Turf Catering consistently dished out.
As a college kid, I was lucky to be in a place to learn about food, business, life, horses. Most importantly, I was fortunate to have worked for the Wolken family.
Years later, Keeneland publicity director Jim Williams hired me to conduct handicapping seminars for beginners. Inevitably, someone would always ask, “Have any tips for today.”
My answer was always the same: “Best tip at Keeneland is burgoo and bread pudding.”
When I told Larry that, he beamed.
When I am at Keeneland this weekend, and hear the call to the post, I will think of Larry Wolken.
I will have a cup of burgoo to toast his passing.