By McKenna Horsley,
Derby season is always a busy time for Nitro of Frankfort. Owners Sherrie and son Kyle Goebel said that perusing the store’s collection of Derby hats, accessories, outfits and more is a tradition for many women in the spring.
“We have people come from all over the world. There’s certain people who come every year that are from California and they go to the Derby every year… and people who come just because it’s on their bucket list,” Sherrie said.
Nitro of Frankfort has been at 220 W. Main St. for almost 19 years. In addition to the retail store downtown, dubbed Nitro of Frankfort, the Goebels also run Nitro USA, a company that designs and creates clothing for retailers and is based in Versailles, and another retail store there called Bluegrass Traditions. Nitro USA specializes in rhinestone appliqués and embroidery for ladies’ apparel, Sherrie said.
Before the store opened, she had a couple locations in Midway after she and her family moved back to Kentucky from Virginia for five years. Both Sherrie and her husband Thomas are from Louisville.
Nitro “accidentally” fell into retail, but it has been a blessing for the business, both Goebels said. When Sherrie came back to Kentucky, she looked for space to run the wholesale business and found it in Midway on Railroad Street. Other merchants in the area encouraged her to open a storefront to bring more people into Midway.
“People wanted more and wanted us to take on more in the retail end of it,” Sherrie said. “I was in two different places in Midway and I just outgrew them. I needed more space.”
Around 2000, Nitro of Frankfort opened on West Main. Before being Nitro’s home, the downtown building housed Farmer Hudson’s. Sherrie came upon the building while she was going to the Franklin County Courthouse and the only parking spot open was in front of the store. One hundred years before Nitro was in the building, Sherrie said that it was a dry goods and apparel store, which she found fitting.
The retail business allowed Sherrie to grow in her focus in customer service. She says that she always tries to listen to her customers’ needs and treats each one the same. In one of the Midway locations, Sherrie remembered a man coming into the store to look for a present for his daughter. She helped him pick out a planner and gift wrapped it for him. While making small talk with him, she asked if he was from the area and he was. He introduced himself as Brereton Jones, who had been Kentucky’s governor before Sherrie had moved to Kentucky.
Kyle joined the business about seven years ago and works mostly with advertising and publicity for Nitro. Since then, the business has grown to hold licensings for 23 universities, the Kentucky Derby, the Kentucky Oaks and more all over the country.
Nitro USA’s license for the Kentucky Derby has allowed the company to make official jewelry and other merchandise like shirts and hats. The jewelry features Derby logos, horses, roses and more items related to the race.
Sherrie said Nitro got the license by being in “the right place at the right time.” A few years ago, she was attending a trade show in Las Vegas and talked with someone who had a license for Derby glassware. That person introduced her to the person who approves licensing for the Derby brand, who said Derby was looking for someone to make jewelry. Luckily, Nitro had just launched state-themed jewelry and had a portfolio of work to show. They’ve had the Derby license for about three years.
“We are very fortunate in Kentucky; we get to have Christmas twice a year,” Sherrie said of Derby season.
Kyle attended the race for the first time last year and said that was when he started to realize what a big deal the event is to Kentuckians. For some, he said, it can be a once-in-a-lifetime event. The photos will also last forever.
The Frankfort location usually gets busier around Derby season as women begin to look for hats and outfits to wear to Churchill Downs. Nitro kicks off the season by putting hats on display during the second week of April and working with Kentucky’s First Lady to name a charity of her choice. Some of the proceeds from Derby hats go to her charity, a tradition Nitro has done for several years. Last year, First Lady Glenna Bevin chose Trooper Island, the Kentucky State Troopers’ summer camp.
“Trooper Island with state police was really cool because one of their posts is right here in Frankfort. It’s like right underneath our nose,” Kyle said.
The store usually carries around 200 hats and fascinators, with prices ranging from $48 to around $300, with most being on the lower side. As the season goes on, the Goebels order styles and colors that they might be running low on. Sherrie says that women who have been to a few Derbies typically choose a fascinator, while those going to their first Derby like to go all out with their hats. She expects bright colors like yellows and pinks to be in style this Derby season.
Nitro has an in-house hat decorator, Carla Canonero Phillips, that helps personalize each hat. Phillips uses her backgrounds as an artist and a flower decorator to enhance the hats. The store carries some hats that are already decorated, some that are blank and others in between. Phillips will also be at the store a few days a week during the season in case customers want to meet with her.
Helping women look and feel their best is an important part of the job, the Goebels said. When women come in for Derby and don’t know where to start, it can be fun to show them various looks to help them decide on an outfit before they walk out the door.
“To me, one of the important things is putting people in the right garment, in the right size, the first time,” Sherrie said.
One of Sherrie’s favorite stories about helping women find the right outfit is when former Lt. Gov. Crit Luallen came into the store to find something to wear to Derby and Oaks a few days before the races. She was supposed to give out the trophies, Sherrie said. It was a lot of fun for Sherrie to help dress Luallen because she was “tall, slim, beautiful and just great for big hats,” plus it was coming down to the wire and the outfit was going to be seen by people around the world. Sherrie said Luallen sent her a photo later of her wearing the outfit in the winner’s circle. Sherrie keeps the photo in her office.
Kyle said now is an exciting time to have a store in downtown Frankfort. The area is becoming more of a destination spot, with more businesses filling up storefronts. He says that there is a positive future ahead of Nitro.
Sherrie says that every seven years or so, she likes to change up the business.
“I feel like every seven years, you kind of have to do something different and reinvent the wheel to offer new and different unique things to your customers and keep them engaged.”