ST. LOUIS — A restaurant success story is something to celebrate any time, but it’s especially important during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
The hospitality industry has been hit hard with about 11 million employees affected. The National Bureau of Economic Research predicts only 15% of restaurants will be able to stay open if the pandemic lasts just another few months, which almost certainly will happen.
So, there’s an extra-special reason to celebrate when a restaurant shuts down – and finds a way to reopen.
That was the case with Lulu’s Local Eatery.
It’s a happy ending story for St. Louis in a year when we could really use more happy ending stories.
The South Grand Avenue restaurant delighted crowds with a craveable vegan, plant-based menu. The atmosphere was bright and airy, like the house photos you like on Instagram. And customers could make themselves at home at the bar that featured ping pong tables.
But the food truck-turned-brick-and-mortar restaurant announced it was closing for good in June to the shock of south city neighbors and foodies throughout St. Louis. The owners said it was mostly due to health reasons.
While they penned the final chapter in their Lulu’s book, they left it open for someone else to pick up.
"We would love for someone to continue this vision of sustainability that we've poured our hearts and souls into. Our turn-key business, including branding, recipes and equipment, are officially for sale,” a June social media post read.
A woman named “C” saw it and picked up the phone.
“I think I was the first person who reached out. I saw the post like it was early, early in the morning. And then I called the brokers right away because I was interested,” C told the Abby Eats St. Louis team on a recent podcast episode. We’re calling her “C” in this story; it’s short for her real name. She’s very private.
For C, the listing intersected with a fork in the road for her and her family’s business. It made her decision to buy not only timely but necessary. She said she had always been the helper at her family’s business. She was ready to branch out with her own ideas.
“I always thought that we should do a vegan restaurant, vegan plant-based restaurant because personally, I think that is the direction of the future,” C said.
As a longtime fan of Lulu’s, she’d seen the restaurant in action. She’s said she’s confident the model works and that she could keep making it work.
“It's important that you maintain the main value in principle,” C said, adding that she could tell as a customer the restaurant’s priorities of sustainability and that the owners cared about the environment and animals. “I do think those are the core values and which I want to work and maintain the same.”
She says fans of the original Lulu’s will still find some of the same items on the new, smaller menu, but she does want to add her own flare.
“I'm taking a small turn on a couple of things, like adding a couple of fusion dishes to the menu because I'm a minority. I'm Chinese. So, I want to see some of my characters in the menu,” she said.
There is one thing Lulu’s fans might miss when the restaurant reopens: the ping pong tables. C said she’s thinking about taking them out to accommodate more seating. Space is a premium in these days of distance dining. She said removing the ping pong tables could make room for more dining tables and seats.
As for opening up a restaurant in the middle of a global pandemic, C said her family is definitely concerned, but she’s ready for the challenge.
“I kind of just tell them that I know; I'm ready. This is a good opportunity. But also, I didn't really have a doubt that this is a good time to do that because it may already have something valuable. So, it's a good investment value,” C said.
She’s working to hire back the employees who were let go and get the restaurant open as soon as possible. She doesn’t have an official open date just yet.
Until Lulu’s doors swing back open again, C is enjoying feeling the love – and a little bit of the pressure – from the St. Louis food community.
“I’m very excited,” she said, adding that customers have been reaching out to her on social media. “I can't even express my gratefulness … leaving me comments about how happy they are that we're continuing the business and how they're excited and how just happy there are for me. And all this stuff is just very overwhelmingly sweet, and I am very grateful.”
This story is a companion piece to the Abby Eats St. Louis podcast episode called “From goodbyes to a good buy: The new owner of Lulu's”. You can download the episode for free and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. We've included links below to some of the most popular podcast platforms.
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