(Kentucky Department of Agriculture photo by Chris Aldridge)

By Chris Aldridge, Kentucky Proud Connection

A Taste of Kentucky was Kentucky Proud before the Kentucky Department of Agriculture's marketing program even existed.

Nearly 30 years ago, A Taste of Kentucky was born in Geri Morgulan's basement in Louisville. At the time, then-First Lady Phyllis George Brown was traveling the country promoting the sale of Kentucky crafts at famed retailers such as Bloomingdale's in New York City.

Morgulan and the late Harriet Pitluck adopted Brown's promotion of Kentucky products on a local level in their new business venture. When A Taste of Kentucky was incorporated in November 1983, Sherry Hassmann joined the business, opening a kiosk at the Louisville Galleria, a former retail complex in downtown Louisville at the current site of Fourth Street Live.

Hassmann's association with A Taste of Kentucky led to her and her husband, John, to buy the business in 1989.

"I was forced into it," joked John Hassmann, who joined the business part-time while working as national sales manager for a company in Louisville. "I've got a background in retail."

John came aboard full-time in 1996. He manages A Taste of Kentucky's three stores and deals with the business' largest money-maker, corporate gifts for clients and employees.

"We deal with some of the largest and most prestigious businesses in the state and Louisville as well," John said, naming two health care firms, Humana and Kindred, as examples. "Last December, we shipped over 30,000 packages."

A Taste of Kentucky's best-selling product is the iconic Derby Pie, a Kentucky Proud product made by Kern Kitchen in Louisville. Since its beginning, A Taste of Kentucky has sold Derby Pie.

"Day in and day out, we go through thousands of those every year," John said. "We ship them all around the country. They ship very well because they can go up to 10 days unrefrigerated."

To give sailors overseas "A Taste of Kentucky," the business sends Derby Pies to the crew of the USS Louisville nuclear attack submarine.

"I'm a Navy veteran, and 10-12 years ago, we began a relationship with the USS Louisville," John said. "We send them quite a few cases of Derby Pie so every one of the sailors can have one. It's an opportunity for us to let them know that we appreciate their service."

Once a year, the captain of the USS Louisville, one of his officers, and three to four sailors visit A Taste of Kentucky's headquarters at 11800 Shelbyville Road in Middletown's Village Square shopping center.

"If their schedule permits, they try to make it around the Derby," John said.

A Taste of Kentucky's website, www.ATasteofKentucky.com, lists 123 Kentucky Proud products on its website from 25 Kentucky Proud businesses.

Many of the Kentucky Proud products are featured in A Taste of Kentucky's popular Christmas gift baskets. "This time of year, we probably sell about 8,000," John said.

"We're so fortunate to have so many creative people here in Kentucky," John said. "There are always new products for our customers."

John said being a member of Kentucky Proud "has been great" for his business.

"The whole Kentucky Proud concept couples with the buy local movement," he said. "The Kentucky Proud promotions have made people aware of local products, and they are a constant reminder of the unique, quality products we have available in our own backyard."