After 14 years as one of Columbus' most popular and prolific restaurant owners, Liz Lessner abruptly packed her bags and moved to Oklahoma in May. Has the golden age of Lessner come to a close?
After 14 years as one of Columbus' most popular and prolific restaurant owners, Liz Lessner abruptly packed her bags and moved to Oklahoma in May. Soon after, the passionate, but impulsive, restaurateur began closing the very restaurants that made the Columbus Food League a beloved name. Has the golden age of Lessner come to a close?
It's 9 a.m. on an October Sunday and restaurateur Elizabeth Lessner has just posted a Vox article to Facebook about Jennifer Lawrence. The actress is done worrying about being liked. Instead, she's ready to conquer a new goal: equal pay for women.
The Lawrence article is one of hundreds posted by Lessner to a private Facebook group called "Everyday Sexism in Columbus, Ohio." Once a day, Lessner adds an article for perusal, a quote about Planned Parenthood or a satirical take about how women play themselves down in board rooms. Lessner's posts are well received in the 2,100-person Facebook group she helped curate in March. The progressive forum designed to raise awareness to the prevalence of sexism in Central Ohio has many rules: no trolling, no gossip, no egos. But being in Central Ohio is not a requirement, as Lessner's frequent posts originate from Lawton, Oklahoma.
After 14 years as one of Central Ohio's most popular and prolific restaurant owners and vocal community activists, Lessner abruptly packed her bags and moved to Oklahoma in May, leaving behind friends, foes and a vague plan to provide marketing support for lemon growers in southern California.
Lessner's foray into the restaurant world represented a new generation of entrepreneurs in Columbus. Her social media presence made her easy to follow, and she had a knack for creating low-key neighborhood spots with no-fuss, but reliable food that frequently made nationalTop 10 lists. Her restaurants often were destinations for visiting celebrities and, before long, she became a celebrity of sorts herself, rising to the top of the Columbus restaurant scene and earning a reputation as an outspoken champion for social causes.
Lessner's move west was not all that surprising to those who know her. Anyone who's watched her or worked with her since she opened her first restaurant, Betty's Fine Food & Spirits, in 2001 at the age of 27, knows she's a passionate but impulsive advocate for her causes, two of which-equality and the environment-she shares with the Comanche people of Oklahoma, a culture into which she is now wholeheartedly immersed.
But some can't help but wonder whether Lessner was running toward something, or away.
Betty's: The Beginning
After moving to Columbus from San Francisco in 1996, Lessner saw a vacancy in the Columbus bar scene, says longtime friend and business partner, Carmen Owens, who credits their intertwined lives-which started with Owens dating Lessner's brother-as a series of happy accidents. Much of the bar landscape in Columbus at that point had a skewed view of women, Owens says.
"Before Betty's, [bar owners would] be like 'We'll have a ladies night because wherever ladies are, dudes will go,'" Owens says. But Lessner wanted something different from Betty's. "She said 'Let's make it really comfortable, progressive and feminist.' We wanted [Betty's] to be comfortable for women, because then everyone's comfortable."
With Owens as manager, Lessner used Betty's to promote their progressive women-forward viewpoints. They hosted fundraisers for Planned Parenthood and gave condoms out in the bar. Lessner once even drove an employee to an abortion appointment.
"I was frustrated by the impasse women were having withreproductive issues," Lessner says. "Food is interesting, food is fun. But what has always fueled me is leaving a place better than I found it."
That philosophy would steer her into a number of previously untapped neighborhoods over the next 14 years, first under the umbrella of Betty's Family of Restaurants and then as the Columbus Food League. Each of the nine restaurants she opened between 2001 and 2014 had a different theme, from pirates and cupcakes to Columbus history and comfort food. The ownership group behind each restaurant was varied, but Lessner was always the public face and uniting voice behind them all.
Betty's and Surly Girl brought food to uncharted territories of the Short North (long before it became home to Chipotle and Anthropologie). When she opened Tip Top on Gay Street in 2007 (a restaurant she was certain would break her financially), Lessner became one of the first independent restaurateurs to take a risk on that area. The 2009 opening of Dirty Franks on South Fourth Street spearheaded a small mecca of food and entertainment establishments in a once-quiet part of Downtown. And 2012's opening of Grass Skirt Tiki Room helped bring action to the Discovery District. With the opening of a second Dirty Franks last year, this time on Columbus' West Side, Lessner says, "I put a hot dog shop in a place where no other restaurant would go, and still haven't gone. We gave people in the Hilltop area something to be proud of."
As she developed the Columbus Food League, her causes grew. "We were doing 75 community partner days a year. If it has to do with women's rights, women's health or animals, we were probably involved," Lessner says. Through the restaurants, Lessner and her partners (who currently include Owens, Nick Ailabouni, Michael Hermick and her brother Tim Lessner) found unique ways to support their shared causes. They encouraged patrons to cycle to Tip Top for two-wheel happy hour, played only local music on the jukebox at Dirty Franks and committed to providing health care to her team members, even though that wasn't a typical job perk in the industry. She and Owens opened the Surly Girl parking lot to the Columbus Music Co-op for the annual Here Comes Your Weekend Parking Lot Blowout to raise money for health care for local musicians.
Lessner's reputation grew quickly and she didn't shy away from the spotlight, effectively using social media to broaden her reach. "I recognized that I have a voice and I could use it," she says. "My voice sort of stood out there." That voice earned her influence and she became a voracious critic and advocate alike. She fought the city on parking-meter price hikes and stood up for her fellow Gay Street businesses when the city tried to bill them for street beautification efforts. Her protest led to stakeholder advisory groups who collectively helped draft new regulations.
"One time I was really angry at the city. I don't remember what I said. It wasn't very nice. Cleve [Ricksecker, executive director of both of Downtown's special-improvement districts, the Discovery and Capital Crossroads districts] said, 'Liz, you don't have to yell so loud anymore. People hear you. You don't have to jump up and down and scream anymore. People are listening.' It took me three more years to realize what he was talking about." She pauses, "Columbus is very small."
As Lessner's influence increased, the frequency and volume of her messages did, too. She challenged the organizers of HighBall, the Short North's annual Halloween party, over an ad she viewed as demeaning to women and an appropriation of gay men. She had strong stances on political signs on public thoroughfares, Italian Village development projects, City Council, Andy Ginther and the Columbus School Board.
"There is a role and was a role for Liz," Ricksecker says. "Every community needs people who are public and blunt. If anything, Columbus doesn't have enough people like that. What the public discourse lacks right now is the presence of people who have the freedom to say what everyone else is thinking."
But in 2014, Lessner began making headlines for a different reason. Her restaurants were closing. In the span of 16 months, she shuttered Betty's and Surly Girl and sold Jury Room. Online, former staffers began whispering of mismanagement. Concurrently, she was engaged in two lawsuits involving Eartha, her zero-waste composting company started in 2010 with former partner Mike Minnix. On top of that, she was recovering from the removal of three tumors from her liver and additional lymph node work on her lungs (the usually outspoken Lessner is more guarded about discussing her personal health issues).
By the time Surly Girl served its last Frito Pie on April 20, 2015, Lessner already was looking west.
The 15,000-member Comanche Nation is centered in Lawton, Oklahoma, just north of the Texas border. Cousins to other Plains tribes such as the Apache and Navajo, the Comanche people gather in a ceremonial powwow nearly every weekend. Several generations of Comanche gather in full headdress for drum circles and dancing competitions in a celebration of nature. As a sovereign nation, they have their own rule of order, making decisions by unanimous vote rather than consensus, and live in an egalitarian society of shared wealth and shared property.
Lessner describes her first encounters with the Comanche with a sense of awe-their stunning tribal regalia, mesmerizing drumming and traditions such as elders running east to greet the sun every morning. (Her enthusiasm wanes when she discusses the culture's challenges, including alcohol abuse and extreme poverty.) As she describes the wonders of a powwow, it's easy to draw comparisons to the sense of community she helped curate at Surly Girl's Parking Lot Blowout.
"It was hard for me to believe that egalitarian societies really exist," Lessner says about her experience prior to living among the Comanche. "It was hard for me to believethat there's a lack of need for the material side. And they have a focus on the environment. If I wanted to learn, why not go to the oldest people?"
Her journey west started with training among Wisconsin's Oneida Nation, and then to Arizona's Gila River to learn about tribal sensitivity. Her husband would stay behind to work, and her partners would operate their six remaining restaurants. Lessner landed in Oklahoma during the last week of May to begin her work with Spectra, the food-service provider for a number of Oklahoma casinos, four of which are owned and operated by the Comanche. Profits are used for schools and hospitals and, as a result, Lessner says the state of Oklahoma does not have to pay for health care or education for the Comanche people.
At Spectra, Lessner spends time fine-tuning restaurant concepts and menu development within the four casinos, working to incorporate local traditions such as fry bread, Indian tacos and buffalo into the mix. She's also involved in the hiring and training of tribe members for leadership positions. "One day," she says, "my job will be replaced by a native tribal worker."
In her words, Lessner tells the tale of leaving Columbus and heading west as a journey of discovery. But in the pauses between the words, and the tone of her voice, one hears another, unspoken explanation. Lessner went to the tiny village of Medicine Park, Oklahoma, to heal.
The Art of the Ending
Closing Betty's wasn't easy for Lessner, who still cries openly when asked about the restaurant.
"It was a loss, a divorce," she says of the decision to shutter her first restaurant so she could spend more time managing the others and reevaluating the option to open more. "I was heartbroken. It was my life for 15 years," she says before adding, "It's helpful to be away and have some space to grieve."
And that narrative, that sense of loss, is recurring among others who have been through similar things.
Restaurant closings happen. Restaurant mogul Cameron Mitchell has closed half a dozen of the 75 restaurants he's opened throughout the years. "I don't like to think about those closings too much," he admits. "If you're closing a restaurant, it's painful. It's tough to do."
While Betty's and Surly Girl had peaceful, if drawn out closings-Betty's didn't close until seven months after it was announced-the sale of Jury Room came with operational issues that some say started before it opened.
"Starting [restaurants] is my favorite part," says Owens, who runs Grass Skirt. "But maintaining them becomes a whole other thing." The same strengths that make Lessner an ambitious business partner also lead to challenges, says Owens, who calls Lessner a dreamer and admits she struggled to keep up with Lessner's "next big thing."
"She would invite all of us along, [but] I would be like, 'No I don't want to open another restaurant. I have my hands full with this one,'" Owens says.
None of the Columbus Food League restaurants felt more challenges than Jury Room, which closed its doors in January 2014 after three rocky years. The restaurant's former kitchen manager, Catie Randazzo (who stayed just more than a year), remembers opening the restaurant with no menu training and a kitchen manager who left in the middle of the first shift. Later, the books were off due to employee theft, and the prices on the menu did not reflect ingredient quality. Even though she and Lessner clashed at times, Randazzo doesn't regret her time there.
"I'm absolutely glad I went through that. It showed me how to not run a business, to always be honest, to not stick things out so long when you know they're not good," says Randazzo, who now owns Challah food truck. "It gave me the strength to go off and do my own thing.
"I feel like [Lessner] could have remained successful. When Betty's first opened, it was the shit. She lost focus of what was important. She was putting people who weren't capable of being in charge, in charge."
Others, including banquet server Laura Schmidt, who worked at Jury Room from its opening to its close, are still angry. Schmidt says her paychecks regularly bounced, and that on paydays the first to get to Kemba Credit Union to cash checks would be paid. "On the Thursday prior to Jury Room's closing," Schmidt says, "there was a sign on the door saying that payroll wouldn't happen." While jobs were offered at Chintz Room, Schmidt says Lessner told the media before telling her staff that they were still employed.
Lessner, who says cash flow issues are common in restaurants, asserts that every employee was paid in full and that those last Jury Room checks were paid from her personal checking account. "I'm not proud of it," she says, remembering the delay in pay. "From 2012 to 2014 I wasn't earning a paycheck. [Not taking pay] is very common in restaurants. You lose your savings, you can lose everything. You will often suffer financially before you harm your staff. It's important to me that I honor all my obligations.
"People don't realize how hard [operating restaurants] is. One person ripping you off can close your restaurant," Lessner says. "[The city] can take away your parking lot [like it did at Tip Top] for a month. You can have a bad, snowy winter. I've made a lot of enemies, but I've always been forthright and honest at the situation at hand."
When asked about a rumor that she moved into Comanche territory to avoid tax issues, Lessner laughs. "I wish it were that simple that you can do that. There is no [back] tax issue right now that I'm aware of," she says. "Betty's transferred the liquor license to Chintz Room. There was something related to our license. That's the only obligation. If it was that simple [to evade taxes], it would be awesome, but there's nothing to hide from."
Neither Lessner nor her former partner Minnix will say much about the now-settled lawsuit over Eartha. According to public records, Lessner requested financial damages from Minnix, accusing him of skimming loan funds, sharing trade secrets with a potential buyer and attempting to consult on behalf of Eartha after his departure from the company he co-owned with Lessner.
For Minnix, who started the company in 2009, leaving Eartha was painful. "When I got the email [about the lawsuit], my heart fell out of my chest," he says. "I thought I was going to be sick. I don't have any children, but it was like they were taking my child away from me, and I would never see it again."
Still, he remembers his initial interactions with Lessner fondly. "Honestly," he recalls, "[the business proposition from Lessner] was something out of a dream. I was scared and nervous. But it felt good. If I was doing [Eartha] by myself, I would have been some weird guy picking up food scraps. But with her, it was newsworthy.
"I hope she's doing all right. [If I saw her, I'd] say 'Go get it, do your thing, be you.' I sound like Mr. Rogers, but it would be 'I hope you're all right.' Two years ago, it would be different. But I'm happy now. I sort of moved on."
Lessner admits it can be isolating in Oklahoma, without her husband by her side. LaRue, who works in Columbus as a union stagehand, has an unpredictable schedule and visits when he can. And while the pair placed their Hideaway Hills home on the market in October, she has no doubt she'll return. "Right now, I believe I'm in the right place, but I know better than anyone else that no one ever really leaves Ohio."
For now, open Oklahoma skies and weekly powwows are just what Lessner needs. "I think that we all are really aware when we need a change," she says. "When your life is under a microscope, you really need to be in a different place. When you're not learning and not growing, you have to find a way to do that."
As evidenced by her continued presence on Central Ohio social media sites, her passion for activism has not diminished.
"There's a hell of a lot of poverty in Columbus, especially among women, and it's largely ignored by city leaders. Columbus's infant mortality rate and economic segregation rates paint a shameful picture of Columbus and it nags at me. It's hard to get excited about designer corndogs when your neighbors are literally starving or freezing."
That said, Dirty Franks, Tip Top, Chintz Room and Grass Skirt are still a huge part of her life. On a visit during the holidays, she plans to spend time at each of them, and hints there will be Dirty Franks news soon.
But will Oklahoma have changed her? Time will tell. "I know that I'm a hot head," she says. "I think about it every single day. I've offended people along the way, and hurt them. I feel bad about that."
Randazzo sees her in politics. "I don't think her heart is in restaurants anymore. Her heart is in politics. She had one foot in [her restaurants], and one foot out. She didn't want to let people down. Maybe she felt that she had to live up to the reputation she made for herself," Randazzo says.
Owen says it's always been about empowerment for Lessner. "We never started restaurants to be restaurant moguls. We started them to create safe spaces, to impact customers and impact staff. To watch people grow and develop throughout the CFL systems has been awesome," Owens says. "I just trust her to know what she's doing; that she has the creative drive and the smarts to make something happen. And whatever that is, I guess that's up to her. She still knows what's happening in Columbus before I do."