Lexington’s Alexandria Drive is a hub for small business owners.
At one end of the street sits Tortilleria Y Taqueria Ramirez, where tortillas are made daily and a commitment to homestyle Mexican food has made the dining spot known throughout the South.
At the other end, two young entrepreneurs hope to emulate this kind of success. Dip and Krupa Patel opened Yogikrupa Indian Grocers in Gardenside Plaza just six months ago, with ambitions of growing their business across the commonwealth.
These two examples, connected by the same street, reflect Fayette County’s growing international population.
More than 30% of Fayette County’s population is nonwhite, according to 2020 U.S. Census data.
Over the last decade, Asian and Hispanic populations have rapidly increased. Roughly 9.2% of Fayette County residents are Hispanic, a significant rise from 6.2% in 2010.
But that’s only part of the story of Fayette County’s diversity.
Isabel Taylor, executive director of Global Lex, the city’s international engagement center, tracks languages spoken through both city and Fayette County Public School data.
Name the language and someone in Fayette County speaks it.
“We count at least 44 languages from Asia, 27 from Africa, 19 from Europe and 10 from Latin America,” Taylor said.
City and school data shows Spanish is still the top non-English language. Swahili is second followed by Arabic, Nepali, French, Japanese, Kinyarwanda (an African language), Mandarin, Korean and Portuguese.
The Cardinal Valley and Gardenside neighborhoods along the Versailles Road corridor are some of the most diverse areas of Fayette County, census tract data shows. The Lexington Fayette Urban County Council District 11, which includes Cardinal Valley and Gardenside, is 20% Hispanic and 17% Black.
“We have a large Hispanic population. We have a large African population, as in from Africa, and then we have rednecks like me,” Will Anglin, a longtime Cardinal Valley resident who is on the Cardinal Valley Park Activity Board, said. “It’s full of normal people.”
On July 28, Lexington Herald-Leader staff and photographers spent 12 hours in Cardinal Valley and Gardenside to learn more about the area.
Here are the stories of some of the people and businesses in one of Lexington’s most unique neighborhoods.
Some interviews for this project were conducted in Spanish and translated to English by Herald-Leader reporter Cameron Drummond.
A new library and a new meeting space
8:00 a.m.: Marksbury Family Branch Library, corner of Village Drive and Versailles Road
The heart of Cardinal Valley is the Village Branch Library.
Started in 2004, the library at the end of the strip mall on Versailles Road is more than just a place to get books. It’s a favorite meeting place, a job training center, teen hang out spot and a provider of much-needed internet and computer access to a community that has little of both.
It needed more space.
By early 2024, the new library, soon to be called the Marksbury Family Branch, will open to accommodate the changing needs of the diverse Cardinal Valley and Gardenside neighborhoods.
“It will be three times the size of the former space,” said Anne Donworth, director of development, marketing and communications for the Lexington Public Library, as she donned a hard hat before entering the still-under-construction library.
The first floor of the 30,000-foot, $17.5 million library will be dedicated almost entirely to conference rooms and meeting spaces.
The back of the first floor will also have classrooms kitted out for virtual reality. People will be able to take classes in electrical, plumbing and other trades using virtual reality.
In the center of the first floor is a large staircase heading to the second floor. Much of the roof over that staircase is a large, beveled skylight, flooding the downstairs with natural light.
“We share one wall with the Save A Lot next door,” Donworth said. “We wanted to make sure that there was lots of natural light.”
The second floor will house the library’s book collection. The children’s section is at the front of the second floor, with windows overlooking the front entrance. Adjacent to that is the teen section. That’s what neighborhood kids wanted, she said.
“We have a lot of teens who come here after school with their younger siblings,” Donworth said. “They can sit here and then peek over and keep track of their siblings.”
Libraries have become much more than just books, Donworth said.
“It’s about the sharing of knowledge,” she said.
A leap of faith
10:00 a.m.: Yogikrupa Indian Grocers, Gardenside Plaza, Alexandria Drive
“Yes. We can get that for you,” said Krupa Patel as she stood at the cash register. The customer wanted a special type of leaf used in an Indian blessing ceremony. Patel, who is also the owner, assured the woman she will have the leaf by the time of the ceremony.
Krupa and Dip Patel opened Yogikrupa six months ago.
“We named it Yogikrupa because yogi is a religious figure in our culture and Krupa is my wife’s first name,” Dip Patel said as he waited for his wife to finish talking to customers.
It’s not just faith but hard work that led the two to start their first business. Krupa Patel graduated in 2021 with a degree in public health. Dip Patel has worked for more than 10 years in the grocery and retail business, working E-commerce for Walmart.
“We also relied on our families,” Krupa Patel said. Her father and brother are both entrepreneurs. When the two first floated starting a business, Krupa Patel’s father stressed the two had to do their research. Always put the customer and their experience first, he told the two young entrepreneurs.
“We try everything we sell,” Dip Patel said. “We are the customer.”
They chose Gardenside Plaza because it’s easy to get to. Alexandria Drive is less busy and easier to navigate than Nicholasville or Richmond roads. Kroger is across the street. Everest, a Nepalese and Indian restaurant, is also in Gardenside Plaza.
“A lot of our customers go to Kroger for basics and then come here for Indian food,” said Krupa Patel.
Their customers are not just from Lexington, Dip Patel said.
“We have people who come from as far away as Somerset and Corbin,” Dip Patel said.
Books, Play-Doh and donuts
11:00 a.m.: Village Branch Library, Gardenside plaza
Rayan Uredy, 19 months old, stomped his light-up shoes on the floor as he listened to Holly Brooks and Guliana Benites sing “Head, Shoulders Knees and Toes.”
Brooks began toddler story time with a song and introduction in multiple languages: Spanish, French and Swahili. It’s deliberate. Everyone and every child is welcome at Village Branch, Brooks said.
After story time, the group moved to a table to make various creations with Play-Doh. Rayan giggled as he mushed, contorted and turned the malleable dough into his own toddler masterpiece.
While toddlers made creations on one side of the library, another librarian was on the phone speaking Spanish. A man with a manila envelope full of documents had walked in the door. He needed help tracking down a government document.
Since it opened in 2004, the librarians and other staff at Village Branch have always been a community resource. Need to know how to complete a GED? They can help. Don’t understand your child’s homework assignment? Done. Need help navigating the internet? They can do that too, said Jennifer Smith, the branch manager of the library.
While many of the toddlers were busy at the Play-Doh table, a woman walks in with a box of donuts. She handed it to Brian Hocevar, assistant branch manager, and walked out.
“She said it was because we are always so nice to her when she comes in here,” Hocevar said.
El Alazan Western Wear grows along with community
1:00 p.m.: El Alazan Western Wear, locations on Alexandria Drive and East New Circle Road
After diligently taking the time to steam and reshape his cowboy hat, Cesar Ramirez is off.
The owner of El Alazan Western Wear moves in all directions, showcasing the variety of products sold at his western apparel stores.
From boots and belt buckles, to cowboy hats, shirts and jeans, seemingly every kind of clothing need can be satisfied at El Alazan.
Ramirez, who is from the state of Guerrero on Mexico’s Pacific coast, opened the first El Alazan location on Alexandria Drive in 2014.
A second El Alazan opened its doors on East New Circle Road in 2022.
“I feel very proud to do what I do, because I do it with a lot of heart,” Ramirez, speaking Spanish, told the Herald-Leader. “I like that when people visit El Alazan, they feel, well, proud to be where they are.”
Nearly a decade into his time as a business owner in Lexington, Ramirez speaks fondly about outfitting multiple generations of family members in the area.
“I want people, or young people today, to continue with some traditions,” Ramirez said.
When Ramirez speaks of traditions, he’s talking about things like handmade belts with silver, and the Mexican and Central American technique of embroidering decorative patterns onto belts.
Ramirez said when El Alazan first opened, the majority of his customers were Spanish speakers.
Now, he estimates it’s more of a 50-50 split between English and Spanish-speaking customers, in part thanks to the high-quality products he sells including Ariat, a well-known apparel brand for equestrian and other work industries.
El Alazan’s location on Alexandria Drive is less than four miles from both Keeneland Race Course and Red Mile.
Ramirez said Cardinal Valley’s role as a hub for Lexington’s Spanish-speaking population was a reason why he chose to open the first El Alazan location in that neighborhood.
“It is an area of hard-working people, responsible people,” Ramirez said, adding that he’s seen Cardinal Valley expand in population over the years. “Good brothers. Good parents. Good community.”
Mangonadas and more to eat at El Lounge
2:00 p.m.: El Lounge, shopping complex at intersection of Alexandria Drive and Devonport Drive
With temperatures soaring past 90 degrees, business at El Lounge, an ice cream shop near Alexandria and Devonport drives, was steady.
El Lounge (located just a few doors down from El Alazan’s Cardinal Valley store) was first opened in 2014 by Montzerrat Centeno and several friends as the Latin Lex Lounge Community Center for children.
Turning a profit proved difficult with that setup, though, and by 2015, El Lounge was in place to provide the Lexington community with delicious Mexican sweet treats.
Mangonadas — a sweet and savory fusion featuring a mango sorbet, chamoy sauce and Tajin chili powder — is one of the most popular items purchased at the shop, which is owned and operated by Centeno.
In addition to Mangonadas, other popular items are dorilocos (a wild combination that includes Doritos, cucumber, Japanese peanuts, pork rinds and chamoy sauce, among other items) and esquites (Mexican corn salad).
But if you ask Centeno, the best thing sold at El Lounge is the yogurt, which comes in a variety of flavors and is paired with a fruit cocktail.
Centeno said a distinguishing factor of Mexican ice cream and sweets are the “crazy flavors” offered.
“We put spicy stuff on everything,” Centeno said.
Certain parts of the week provide inflection points for business: It’s particularly busy on Sundays following church services and during the week when soccer games are played at nearby parks.
But there’s never a bad time for ice cream.
“We are at the heart of the Latino community,” Centeno said. “The community is friendly, it’s close ... When any Latino has a new business, we know, because we’re going to support them.”
From tacos to tortas at the Tortilleria
3:00 p.m.: Tortilleria Y Taqueria Ramirez, shopping complex at intersection of Alexandria Drive and Devonport Drive
In 1985, Laura Patricia Ramirez and her husband, Alberto, moved to the United States with a young child.
The domino effect of that decision nearly four decades later? One of the most authentic dining experiences in all of Central Kentucky.
Located in the same shopping complex as El Alazan and El Lounge, Tortilleria Y Taqueria Ramirez is a staple of the region’s Mexican food scene.
Tortilleria Y Taqueria Ramirez started as just a tortilla-making operation and grocery store, before catering to a need for homestyle, Mexican food in the area.
“We started adding more and more (menu items) because we really saw a lot of need for people to sit down and say ‘Hey, we can eat something ... That we (normally) don’t eat here,’” Laura, who runs the restaurant, said.
“It’s pretty nice, getting to experience it and seeing your parents, what they worked for ... Definitely stressful ... But I love it,” added one of their sons, Christian, who works at the restaurant.
Tortillas are made from scratch daily at the establishment, where you can order everything from traditional tacos al pastor (pork) to a torta de tripa (intestine sandwich).
Another must-eat item is the menudo, a traditional Mexican soup that includes cow’s stomach in a broth, garnished with lime, onions and peppers. It’s commonly consumed as a hangover cure.
“For me, cooking is something that I love,” Laura said.
Clippings from magazines and newspapers, along with plaques, furnish the walls behind the counter, helping explain the restaurant’s popularity with Lexington’s non-Spanish speaking population.
But Tortilleria Y Taqueria Ramirez has helped foster a strong sense of community for Lexington’s Spanish-speaking residents as well.
Centeno, the owner of El Lounge, spoke glowingly (and unprompted) about how those at Tortilleria Y Taqueria Ramirez and other Latino-owned businesses have helped her, from sharing new ideas to sharing plastic cups.
“It’s kind of like a little Mexico,” Laura said of the Cardinal Valley neighborhood. “You go to the grocery store, you go to the bakery, you come to the Tortilleria. It’s (all) pretty close, and that’s how it is in Mexico ... That’s what they call it here, ‘Mexington.’”
A license to drive
4:40 p.m. Global Lex, 1306 Versailles Road
Gaston T. Ngandu Sankayi rummaged through some papers in the back conference room of Global Lex as he got ready for his 5 p.m. driver education class.
One of his pupils walks in early: “Bonjour,” he said as he readied a large computer viewing screen for tonight’s class.
Sankayi, the African specialist for Global Lex, teaches multiple driver education classes per week. Tonight’s class is in French, a common language for African refugees. He also teaches driver education classes in Swahili.
Drivers education classes are one of the top needs for Lexington’s growing African refugee population. There are more than 2,000 Congolese families in Lexington alone, but that number is likely low and inaccurate, Sankayi said.
“This is not San Francisco or New York, you have to learn to drive,” Sankayi said. Former Fayette County Attorney Larry Roberts encouraged Global Lex to start the driver education program after seeing many African refugees with traffic violations and involved in accidents.
Sankayi is also working on other projects to help African refugees. He recently started a cooperative where 35 African families are learning to grow African fruits and vegetables with help from the University of Kentucky and Kentucky State University.
“There is not only food insecurity but there are problems with digesting American foods,” Sankayi said.
Right before 5 p.m, five people walk into the Global Lex conference room. One is holding a phone. He handed it to Sankayi.
“Yes. This is Gaston,” he said. “Yes, they all made it here okay.”
The group of African refugees got lost, the person on the cell phone explained. Hopefully with Sankayi’s help through the next few weeks, they will understand how to find their way in Lexington. They will learn the rules of the road, practice for their driver’s test, and also learn English road signs.
“The road is talking in English,” Sankayi said.
A big red box and a movement
5:30 p.m.: Corner of Alexandria and Cambridge drives
Cynthia Buckner walked to the Little Red Blessing Food Box in front of her home with a bag of groceries and carefully stacked fresh vegetables, pre-made meals and toiletries inside.
“If it means more people can eat, then I do it,” Buckner said.
The Fayette County Public Schools para educator started the Little Red Blessing Food Box during the coronavirus pandemic. Many of her neighbors had lost their jobs. She worried people would go hungry.
Friends helped her build the Little Red Blessing Food Box, which isn’t so little. It stands more than four feet tall. She and others in the neighborhood keep it stocked.
“There were kids from the apartment up the street who came down with a stroller and a back pack with food,” Buckner said.
Buckner plans to retire in the next few years and hopes to turn the Little Red Blessing Box into a nonprofit and get boxes in other areas.
It’s already paid for itself.
Buckner needed gutters replaced on her house. She knew someone who knew someone in the neighborhood who did gutter work. He came to her house and later called her with his estimate.
“I’m afraid it’s going to be expensive,” he told her. Buckner held her breath. “It’s free,” he said. “You do so much for the community.”
People sometimes think of Cardinal Valley as a place with a lot of crime. There is crime in the area, Buckner said. But there’s a lot of good, hardworking people, too.
“We take care of each other,” Buckner said.
Dancing with presidents
6:00 p.m.: Arthur Murray Dance Studio, Gardenside Plaza, Alexandria Drive
There’s been a lot of change in Gardenside and Gardenside Plaza over the past 30 years.
But the one constant has been Hunter Lisle, franchise owner of the Arthur Murray Dance Studio.
As a shy 15-year-old, Lisle took lessons at Arthur Murray in Gardenside Plaza several decades ago. His mother wanted to learn to dance and took her then-introverted teen with her.
He loved it. It brought him out of his shell. Dancing stayed with him but there were detours before it became his profession. Lisle first went to UK to play soccer, traveled the world and then returned to Lexington. There was an opening in Gardenside Plaza for a dance studio. The former Arthur Murray franchise had long since closed.
He took the space and opened in 2001.
“We are the biggest Arthur Murray studio in the world. And it’s right here in Lexington,” Lisle said.
Lisle, trim and dressed in a bespoke suit and tie, chatted with both new customers and longtime Arthur Murray studio clients as private dance lessons started. The shy kid is gone. Dancing has taken him to television and to the White House.
He’s taught three presidents how to dance (but he can’t really talk much about it). He’s also been a longtime collaborator with the TV program “Dancing with the Stars” — and has the photos to prove it.
Friday nights are busy at Arthur Murray. Private lessons start at 6 p.m. There are multiple classes and then at 9:15 p.m. is a practice dance party.
“The room is filled,” said Ozlem Eva Davis, who attended classes at the studio 13 years ago and returned three months ago to resume lessons.
“Everyone is so friendly. And it’s so diverse,” Davis said of the people who come to the studio.
Dance provides connection and community, Lisle said.
“People want that connection,” Lisle said.
Many people don’t think they can dance. Lisle has seen so many dance naysayers in his decades-long career.
They are wrong.
“If you want walk in the door, you can dance,” he said.