Emily Wolff Builds a Culinary Empire in Covington

The self-described creative entrepreneur uses her restaurant experience, fine arts background, and passion for historical preservation to breathe new life into MainStrasse Village.
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Emily Wolff, a self-described creative entrepreneur, uses her restaurant experience, fine arts background, and passion for historical preservation to breathe new life into Covington’s MainStrasse Village.

Photograph by Angie Lipscomb

Why Covington?

When I graduated college pregnant with twins, we knew if we wanted to start a restaurant, we had to do it now, and we had to do it here. Covington was the perfect place—we could run Otto’s downstairs and live upstairs, and get to be part of the tradition of this little German village where, historically, everyone lived above their shops.

How would you describe your philosophy when you tackle a project?

I love to be in a space, to just sit in a room and take it in. If the building is falling down, I love it—I’ll find some beautiful staircase or great window, and all of a sudden, the whole design boils down to, “How do we make this historic piece shine?” From there I kind of approach design as a painting, so I’ll stand back and think about composition the same way I would on a canvas. Is the light moving through correctly? Does it need a pop here? And ultimately it all comes down to, “How do I feel in the space?”

What are your major design goals?

It always comes back to storytelling. Over at The Standard, in that front room, there’s a mural of [the garage’s former owner] and his wife, and it’s made of receipts and tools, all things we found while renovating the space. It’s that play of I can see what this was, and then I can sit in that space and be part of what it is now.

What have been some of your biggest challenges?

Well, with Mama’s [Wolff’s new Italian restaurant], this space used to be a restaurant. People in this community already had the experience of walking through these doors. I’d just stand at the front doors and I’d look at this space and think, What do I have to do so that when you walk through this door, it swings open and you say, “Oh, this is Mama’s. I’m at Mama’s house now.”

You seem dedicated to stabilizing and preserving the neighborhood, not gentrifying it. How have you maintained that goal?

I think mostly because I have a love for buildings that are falling apart, you know, it’s not disruptive. It’s bringing life back into something that has essentially lost its heartbeat, bringing back that pulse to the community. For my rental properties, I make sure my rents are affordable for the community here. I want my bartenders to be able to live down the street.

What is next for you?

Right now, the magic I create, it’s for everyone to enjoy. These spaces are for the public. But I keep thinking, what if I got to create a space that’s just for myself and my family and get to be very choosy about who gets to come into that space with us. That intimacy seems super cool. I would like to use my forties to create that.

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