Robert St. John
Special to the Daily Journal
Don’t stand in front of the kitchen door, sir.” I stepped to the side as the server hurried by with a full tray of fried seafood baskets. I moved just in time for another server to rush out of the kitchen with an overloaded tray of boiled shrimp, fried fish, burgers and crab claws.
I know the restaurant business well enough not to stand in front of the door that leads to, or from, the kitchen, but in that moment I was dazed, disoriented, and trying to process everything going on around me. After 32 years in food service and tens of thousands of restaurant visits, eating, researching and writing about restaurants throughout Europe and all across this country, I had never seen anything like this place.
I backed against a wall and took it all in. I watched a dining room buzzing with energy. Tables were filled with families who were laughing and happy despite the fact they had just had to wait almost two hours for a table. Despite the scale and scope of this place, it was running like a well-oiled machine, and in the process of serving 4,000 covers that day.
I was witnessing an average day in the life of LuLu’s restaurant in Gulf Shores, Alabama. And it was Monday, typically the slowest day of the week.
My friend, and New South Restaurant Group operations manager, Dusty Frierson, and I Mobile Bay late that evening and we hit Gulf Shores’ Intercoastal Waterway around 5:30 p.m., parked the car as close as we could get to the Homeport Marina, and were notified by a parking lot attendant wearing a LuLu’s staff T-shirt, the wait for a table would be, “One hour and 45 minutes.”
Ms. Buffett’s famous brother’s music was playing loudly throughout the facility. Everyone was happy. Everyone was having fun. No one seemed concerned about waiting two hours to be seated.
We made our way to the back bar and ordered fried crab claws and boiled shrimp appetizers because we had 7 p.m.reservations at Lucy Be Goode’s. Did I mention there was another restaurant on the property?
One should know my expectations were low. Any restaurant doing that kind of volume would have to have a slip in quality and service. Not so on my visit. The crab claws and boiled shrimp arrived blazingly fast and were excellent.
We finished our appetizers and walked towards Lucy Be Goode’s. I had eaten lunch with Lucy Buffett a few years ago in the Purple Parrot Café. She and I exchanged cookbooks and talked about the restaurant business. I don’t remember the specifics of our conversation, but I probably mentioned the challenges of operating our business – four concepts in one building – but I had no idea what she was dealing with on a daily basis.
That, I learned, is very typical of Ms. Buffett – smart, humble, gracious, fun and a true Southern lady. She opened her first restaurant over a decade ago in a building that was nothing more than a small seafood shack on Week’s Bay and has grown it into a massively successful restaurant/entertainment/retail operation where she was recently named the top retailer in the state of Alabama.
I am a restaurant junkie. It’s my livelihood, but it’s also my hobby. I’ve never seen anything like Lulu’s. It’s more than a restaurant; it’s a party for the entire family, and it couldn’t have happened to a nicer lady.
Robert St.John is a restaurateur, chef and author of numerous books.
Robert St. John