When you walk into Athens Lunchroom it’s like a step back into history. The atmosphere, the feel, the food, the décor, the music, the drinks, the service … You’ll likely be greeted with a smile, or by name and enjoy a surprisingly elevated meal in what once was the original cafeteria for students of the centenarian Athens Schoolhouse. If you aren’t in the mood for an Ale-8 or sweet tea, you can enjoy a glass of wine or cocktail from their full bar. You’ll likely see local restaurateurs, Frank Bickel and his wife, Annette Jett, or a member of their staff, happily serving guests in the mom-and-pop-establishment. But don’t let the casual environment fool you; the team behind the scenes are seasoned veterans of hospitality, with a sincere love for the community, and the food and beverage industry.
In addition to quickly becoming a favorite for locals and neighbors, the convenience of being just off 1-75 is also great for travelers and visitors from other counties. On family trips, Annette is always scouring Yelp and TripAdvisor for local spots with a story to tell, adding, “We know we are that place and want to honor that.”
Annette’s love affair with food began at the early age of 14 with her first job at Cheese Villa, now the renowned Mousetrap in the Lansdowne Shoppes, while Frank’s first work experience started at his uncle’s iconic restaurant, Burger Shakes on New Circle Road. From there, Annette’s adventures eventually took her to DC and Chicago, where she spent years working in fine dining before settling back in KY in 2001 to open Annette’s Catering. Frank went West to Los Angeles, exploring the innovative food scene there through a variety of restaurants and catering, before permanently moving back to KY in 2004. Though the two had first met and dated in the mid-80s, it wasn’t until then, 20 years later, that they reunited, joining forces in business, and beginning a family of their own. Annette’s Catering ultimately grew from a small, start-up catering operation, to one of the city’s biggest of that time, along with multiple restaurants and a bakery. However, two kids and six years later, the couple closed their business to focus on family needs. Annette turned her attention toward the creation of a non-profit dedicated to education, engagement and employment for people with disabilities. Frank spent the next 10 years working in management for Ouita Michel, with the distinct privilege of assisting in the opening of both Windy Corner Market and Smithtown Seafood.
“As natives of Lexington,” Annette says, “we think this is a great city. But when we moved to this specific area about eight years ago, we liked being close enough to relatives and our hometown faves while still experiencing the growth and excitement of Hamburg and beyond. Our kids go to the same schools we went to, and compared to the big cities we lived in, everything is still just a short drive away.”
Athens Lunchroom is not just a Mom and Pop shop — it’s a family affair. So you’ll also see the owners’ kids (now teens) around. Their son, Charlie, works at the Lunchroom, and is following in his parents’ shoes — learning the industry at a young age. He’s particularly good at expo. “That’s one of the hardest jobs of the kitchen, yet he’s a natural,” says Chef Kenneth Sells, “it’s just in his blood.” You’ll sometimes see daughter Gracie, volunteering as a hostess and greeting guests. And of course, front-of-house favorites, Cat and Patty strive to make every guest experience memorable.
Any plans to change the name from Athens Lunchroom…. Now that dinner has been added to the menu? “Not a chance!” Annette laughs.“People get a kick out of coming back to where they once went to school and having a glass of wine or a nice meal in their childhood cafeteria. Even if this wasn’t your school, there is a looming nostalgia that is part of its charm. It doesn’t matter what you serve here, this will always be the Athens Lunchroom.”
The Lunchroom also relies on the combined experience of Frank, Annette, and Kenneth “to get back to our catering roots.” New catering menus are being launched and are available for service on- or off-site. The Athens Lunchroom is available for private parties when not open to the public. The Chicago Room and Schoolhouse Gym can be rented, and the Schoolhouse welcomes leasing for businesses of all types. A Chef’s Garden is on the way for the upcoming Spring.
Other Schoolhouse events include Yoga, Third-Thursdays for art; Holiday Events, Take-Home-Dinners, and more. In the near future, look for Chef’s Seasonal Dinner Parties, Saturday Morning Breakfasts, and a monthly Sunday Brunch. Once a month, Non-Profit Nights will support agencies in fundraising efforts.
Chef cooks from the heart, not from recipes.
That, combined with the labor of love the Cox and Mathis families have poured into renovating and reinvigorating the schoolhouse, to the love of hospitality, entrepreneurship and family that propelled Jett and Bickel to return to a family-run restaurant, the history that got us all to this point, and the future that is at hand can be summed up in one word. LOVE. It may take time, but it is worth the wait.
About The Chef
When Chef Kenneth Sells came into the picture this past May, “we were really just looking for the right fit,” explains Annette. “What we got was so much more. As a 30+ year veteran Chef, Kenneth’s skills and techniques exceeded our expectations, and to top it off, he has the integrity, skills and leadership qualities and personal vestment that you can only hope for. Plus he’s become part of our chosen family.”
“It would be hard to pinpoint one favorite dish,” the owners admit. “Hard to beat are the Chicken-n-Dumplings, or the Grilled Salmon with Chili Rub, the Shrimp Boil or even the Country Fried Pork Chops. But the lunches are just as good and fresh, and the Reuben, Cuban, Pulled Pork BBQ with Apple Slaw, Burgers, and Wraps are among some of the best sellers. The chicken salad, pimiento cheese and olive nut are old favorites from Annette’s Catering, as is the infamous Strawberry Cake available by the slice, or whole with advance order.
Chef’s mantra “Love Takes Time,” shows in the attention to detail and amount of care he puts into every dish he creates. He has elevated the menu and his passion for his profession shines through in his scratch-made foods, which vary from elegant dining to good ol’ country cooking.
A native New Yorker, Chef has a particular affinity for Italian food, but growing up on a farm in Western KY, he is no stranger to the love of country cooking and comfort food.”
The Lunchroom and Chef Kenneth can customize catering menus specific for your groups.
Note: The Lunchroom is offering a new program, From Our Schoolhouse to Yours, offering discounts to schoolteachers and staff members. We want our educators to feel seen, recognized and appreciated for their hard work. Jett’s mother and sister were tenured teachers, and Cox is an educator as well. It just feels right.
In 2019, the Athens Schoolhouse was purchased by Elden and Angie Cox, and David and Renee Mathis. Former students of the schoolhouse, Elden and Renee are siblings. Their parents and grandparents also attended this school, which was built in 1927. There’s a rich history here, and an Athens school of some form has been around since the 1800s. It even served as a Fayette County elementary school until 2006.
Frank and Annette found the Lunchroom through Angie. “Our families, including our parents, had always been friends through the years, and her brother, fellow Henry Clay Blue Devil and football teammate to Frank, was a dear friend of ours. When he passed away unexpectedly in 2019, we attended his celebration of life here,” Jett explains. “We remember how proud her brother (David) was of her and her family members for buying the building, and that resonated with us. We immediately felt a connection to the schoolhouse and to the mission the owners had of reimagining the space. The kitchen was phenomenal and really drew us in. Talks began with Angie and the crew about possibly running the restaurant, but we were a bit hesitant to dip our toes fully back into the food and beverage business. A few months later, COVID hit, and of course everything was on pause for a while.”
The Athens community was friendly and welcoming. People were happy to have the schoolhouse renovation in the works, and even supported a zoning change to allow for revitalization of the space.
In September of 2021, the Bickels took the plunge and the lease was signed. There was trepidation in opening a restaurant while the pandemic was still around, but it had subsided a bit. Everyone had spent so much time inside, at home together, and were ready to get back out there and socialize. The couple took their growth there slowly, and now the Athens Lunchroom is celebrating their 2-year anniversary in September of 2023. Like Chef says, “Love Takes Time.”
On Friday, September 8, 2023, Athens Lunchroom will debut the “Teachers Lounge.” The Lunchroom will be open all day, and feature happy hour specials, cocktails and pub food. New and existing patrons from Athens, Hamburg, and beyond are welcome — along with the teachers and staff from nearby schools.
The Lunchroom serves lunch Monday-Friday, 11am – 2pm.
Dinners are a hit on Monday nights from 4-8 pm, featuring Chef Specialties, in addition to lunch favorites.
The Lunchroom is also open on Saturdays and Sundays the 2nd weekend of each month during the Antique Show.
Follow events at http://athenslunchroom.com
This article appears on pages 8-9 of the September 2023 issue of HJ. To subscribe to digital delivery each month, click here.