Don'??t underestimate Elizabeth Lessner just because she conducts business in jeans and tennis shoes. The owner of three hip restaurants is savvy and well-connected.
It's almost noon and Elizabeth Lessner has an appointment at the Columbus Community Development Corp. in Victorian Village to sign the loan for her latest restaurant venture-a downtown hot dog shop filled with kitschy photographs of '70s-era cops sporting a stunning array of questionable facial hair.
It hasn't been easy. First her financing fell victim to the mortgage crisis. Then the building on South Fourth Street, which she thought only needed a fresh coat of paint, had to be gutted to the studs. And her lawyer is still trying to track down an available liquor license so she can serve beer and Bloody Marys.
So even Lessner-already the owner of three successful Columbus eateries-could be forgiven for being nervous about the transaction. But she isn't. She isn't even thinking about it. Instead, she's focused on maneuvering her car through a maze of fallen tree branches. A mid September windstorm knocked the limbs loose and tossed them into the street the night before. Most of the city is without electricity. Traffic lights are out.
"I shouldn't even be on the phone with you right now," Lessner tells her accountant as a car whips through an intersection without stopping. "But I have to ask you one question-do you know when we're getting our electricity back? I'm annoyed. I feel like I'm camping."
A moment later, she frowns and drops her cellphone into her lap. Rumor is it could be a week before power returns to her neighborhood north of the Ohio State campus and she's frustrated by the thought of life without the Internet. But when she breezes through the doors at the development corporation moments later, the frown has been replaced with a smile and her arms are spread wide, waiting for embraces.
"Hey, thanks for giving us more money," she exclaims.
Loan officer Stephen Hikida chuckles. He knows what to expect. He's worked with Lessner before, when she opened the edgy Surly Girl Saloon in the Short North and the artsy Tip Top Kitchen and Cocktails downtown.
The restaurant and bar business is notoriously difficult. It swallows lives whole, demanding preposterously long hours and incessant headaches. It spits out the weak with little remorse.
Those who don't know Lessner might mistake her for one of the weak. She's only 34 years old and never finished college. She conducts business in jeans and tennis shoes. She reapplies her lipstick at boardroom tables. Her hair is streaked with whatever color she dyed it last. And when the loan papers are placed in front of her at the development corporation, she spends more time cracking jokes than reading the fine print.
"So now I'm pledging you my house," she says, fishing her purple Surly Girl pen out of her purse. "Actually, you can have it. I'm so sick of this house."
Lessner signs her name with a flourish and the tip of the pen skips off the paper and onto the table, leaving a mark. She grins, sheepishly scrubbing the mark away with her index finger. Nobody seems to notice or mind. Because, despite appearances to the contrary, Lessner is remarkably savvy about her business. Employees like her, other restaurant owners respect her and she has the ear of the city's biggest players, including Mayor Mike Coleman.
"I just don't know what to do with her," says Lelia Cady, legislative analyst to Columbus City Council member Maryellen O'Shaughnessy and a friend of Lessner's. "Everything she does is more perfect than the last."
So although Dirty Frank's Hot Dogs is now five months behind schedule and tough economic times are hitting the restaurant business, few doubt that Lessner will make it work. She certainly doesn't. As she leaves the development corporation for her next meeting, leaning against the heavy glass doors, she calls over her shoulder: "Come and eat a hot dog soon!"
It was insulting. Each time Lessner used the bathroom at her favorite campus bars, she had to walk by the poster. Even now, when she talks about it with her girlfriends, there's no need to describe it further. They know which poster she's talking about. The beer ad showed a woman wearing a silver bikini so tight and tiny it appeared to be painted on. "It was awful," Lessner groans.
It also was an impetus. Lessner had been working in the restaurant business since she was a teenager, waiting tables and tending bar, and she had grown increasingly tired of Columbus's Midwestern, man-friendly bar scene. By her estimation, few of them bothered to provide more than a poster of a scantily clad woman, an Ohio State University pennant and Bud on draft.
She longed for nightspots like those she had known while living in Chicago and attending community colleges in Seattle and San Francisco. They were built on a foundation of thought and wit. She had a hunch Columbus would support that kind of creative and independent business, so when she was 25 and a student at Capital University, she began building one in her head. And then Lessner, who had chosen Columbus because it was big enough to be diverse and cheap enough to live a comfortable life, borrowed $100,000-in part by maxing out credit cards and taking a home equity loan-to open Betty's Fine Food & Spirits in 2001.
Seven years later, Betty's is a hit. It's trendy without being tacky, homey without feeling like mom is watching over your shoulder. It strikes the right balance between comfortable and cutting edge.
In an obvious wink and a nod to the poster, classic pictures of bygone-era pinup girls beckon from the walls, and a menagerie of ceramic animals stares down from a shelf above the bar. The beer and cocktail list is long with unique concoctions and at night the line at the bar to buy one is typically two deep.
It's quickly become the kind of business that defines a neighborhood, the kind locals recommend to visitors and newbies. Two twentysomething transplants from Pennsylvania found Betty's just a few months ago when they were scouring High Street for food after a long Saturday night of drinking. It was past midnight when they stopped at a bar and grille and then a pizza shop, asking if the kitchens were still open. At both places, they were told, "Nope, try Betty's."
It's the path many regulars have taken to Betty's, the cool and sassy older sister in Lessner's restaurant chain. Farther up High Street, in the lower-rent section of the Short North, Surly Girl Saloon rocks a little harder, with one co-owner, Marcy Mays (formerly of the popular band Scrawl), booking the live entertainment and another, Carmen Owens, pouring beer with attitude. Since the opening in 2005, the music and the Old West bordello décor have attracted a diverse crowd. "It's cool to see grandmas sitting next to roller girls sitting next to guys in business suits sitting next to punk rockers," Owens says.
Tip Top Kitchen on Gay Street, which Lessner owns with her brother, Tim, opened last year. It's classier than her other two establishments, with an old Columbus motif, a business lunch crowd and a hopping happy hour (not to mention the black-and-white photo of Mayor Coleman that could be mistaken for historical without a close look).
Each theme was deliberate, the product of Lessner's personality and business sense, as well as collective brainstorming that in some cases went on for years before coming to fruition. "When Liz sets her mind to something, it's not only going to be that something, but it's going to be 10 times better than you imagined that something being," Owens says.
But that hasn't stopped the whispers of Lessner's growing too big too fast. They started quietly when Dirty Frank's fell behind schedule and got a little louder when the neighborhood grocery store she had been promising the Short North failed to find a home.
Lessner ignores them. Dirty Frank's is coming along and she's still searching for an affordable spot to sell fresh flowers and produce. Besides, the whispers could be viewed as a form of flattery. Don't some people secretly want those at the top to fall?
It's late. Lessner's lost. She briefly consults her directions, which she's scribbled on a waitress pad from Betty's, before calling Amy Brennick, the company's chief operating officer.
"Help," she pleads into her cellphone.
Brennick, a former cook at Betty's, has arranged for Lessner's co-owners and managers to meet at Matrix Integrated Psychological Services at Easton for an employee-assistance program orientation.
Translated for those who don't speak business, Lessner's company is providing its employees with free mental healthcare, and the bosses are going to find out how it works. It's a project Lessner has been toying with for months. She already pays employees more than minimum wage and allows them to buy into a healthcare plan. But the restaurant and bar business is notorious for straining emotional health. Depression, domestic disturbances and drug and alcohol abuse are rampant. "If you're not in a good spot in your head, you can't be a good employee," Lessner reasons.
However, high turnover makes employee-friendly initiatives such as healthcare fruitless and financially unfeasible for most small business owners. Many don't bother, and the current pricing structure doesn't help. Independent restaurants can't buy healthcare at the same reduced rates that corporations can. Lessner, the president of the Central Ohio Restaurant Association, and Gail Baker, the group's executive director, recently traveled to the national convention with an agenda to get the disparity addressed.
Many in the industry celebrate Lessner for this kind of passion-for her mantra that restaurants should leave their communities better than they found them. It's the kind of reputation that invites a bit of eye-rolling, however. Some doubt her benevolence, wondering if it's shtick or inauthentic. But the city's Urban Ventures coordinator, Mike Brown, says you only need to spend about five minutes with her before such doubts melt away.
"She doesn't say, 'I care,' " Brown says. "She does care. There's this ease when you're talking with her. She's not fake, it's not bullshit. She goes out and lives what she's preaching."
Lessner owns a humble house near campus, and she drives an old Acura with wires shooting out of the dashboard because the radio has been stolen three times in as many months and she's tired of replacing it. Her money goes back into her business. So does most of her energy. At the program orientation, Lessner fires off questions like an angry trial lawyer. She wants to know if substance-abuse programs extend beyond the company-funded six sessions of therapy. She wants to know if anyone in the office speaks Spanish. She wants to know if domestic partners, as well as spouses and children, are included in the plan.
Perhaps in an effort to assure her, perhaps in a nod to her burgeoning reputation in the city, the owner of Matrix stops in to shake Lessner's hand before the program concludes.
She smiles and, as is her way, cracks a joke. She glances over the room full of 1940s-era antiques and says, "This office is so nice it makes me want to create a problem."
Three people, separately and without knowing anyone else had said it, described Lessner as a "force of nature." It's a description that brings to mind tornados and hurricanes, the kind of fierce and unrelenting storms that leave trails of destruction in their wake. But it's the wrong image, because Lessner isn't a brutal force. She's more of a daylong, steady rain, the kind that seeps into the soil and makes things grow.
Partly, she's a product of her own initiative, but partly she's a product of impeccable timing. The Betty's pinup girls are a frequently cited example. Other bar owners tried them back in the 1970s, before postfeminist sentiment made sex symbols iconic and empowering. Lessner's instincts told her 2001 was the right time to try again. And she applies that same intuition to all aspects of her business.
"If I only had a whole district of Lizes, we would certainly be the SoHo of the Midwest," Short North Business Association president John Angelo says. "She wants to see things continually evolve."
"Liz knows how to take things and make them global," adds Diane Warren, the owner of Katzinger's Delicatessen in German Village. "Instead of just doing it in her own world, she has this incredible ability to spread ideas around." Warren likens Lessner to-of all people-comedian Jon Stewart. It's odd, she knows, and she immediately throws her hands up in defense of her analogy. "Not to say Liz is as funny as Jon Stewart, 'cause she's not," Warren says. "But she has a way of taking an issue and making you want to think about it. She can take a controversial idea and present it in such a way that you don't feel like she's talking down on you."
Years ago, before the environment turned into a moral issue and Al Gore became a Nobel Prize winner, Katzinger's started to separate recyclables from its trash. It was a small, almost imperceptible, change in policy. They simply figured it was the right thing to do. Today, with Katzinger's as an example and Warren as a mentor, Lessner heads the recycling committee for the Mayor's Young Professionals Commission. It's part of her job to convince other restaurants that adopting the environmentally friendly policies Katzinger's has adhered to for more than a decade is good business.
It's one of more than a half-dozen examples Warren can tick off that she believes illustrate Lessner's commitment to causes bigger than herself. She's also president of the Central Ohio Restaurant Association, a member of Warren's local independent restaurant group (Dine Originals) and active in city issues, including politics.
Lessner is unabashedly liberal. She once handed out condoms from behind Betty's bar and stacked Planned Parenthood literature in the bathrooms. But she has a soft touch and a let's-do-the-right-thing attitude that allows her to cross party lines.
Operations manager Brennick says no one would fault Lessner if she ran her businesses quietly and shied away from city politics. In this town, she's seen influential types decline their chances to make a difference. "Columbus is wicked easy," she says. "I think people lose interest in politics. They become complacent because you can live a nice little life here and never be engaged."
Lessner, though, has embraced the opportunity her reputation has given her. She constantly forms what she calls strategic friendships-relationships based on what people can do for each other. Her friendship with Cady began that way. Some call it manipulative. Warren calls it effective. "She instinctively knows who the network is and how to use it," she says. And she's not afraid to share her network with others. Angelo, who arrived in Columbus about three years ago, has formed a wide web of contacts in the city, in part because Lessner introduced him.
But Lessner is the first to point out that the network doesn't always love her back. Sometimes, in her zeal for change, she goes too far, pushes too hard. Recently, she fired off a biting e-mail after leaving a meeting of the Young Professionals Commission because one of the members had printed dozens of copies of a computer slide show. She felt it was an enormous waste of paper. Lessner won't repeat exactly what she wrote and grimaces at the thought of it.
Brown, a member of the commission, is more forgiving. Sometimes you have to yell loud to be heard.
"You don't get Hawaii without a volcano," he says.
For restaurant owners, lunch always comes late-after the noontime crowd has thinned. This day's rush at Tip Top Kitchen has been more of a stampede, since the windstorm knocked out electricity and made it impossible for many people to cook at home.
Lessner and her brother join Brennick at a corner booth in the downtown restaurant, where it's relatively quiet. Paperwork is splayed across the table. It's an ironic scene, considering Lessner's electronic rant and that this is a meeting about GreenSpot, the mayor's environmentally friendly program that is supposed to inspire residents to live and work greener.
But the irony is lost in a flurry of brainstorming for the Betty's chain. Biodegradable takeout boxes should replace Styrofoam. More beer should be served on draft and fewer in bottles. Hand dryers will be installed in all bathrooms to replace paper towels. Employees should bike to work when they can.
Cady arrives just as the trio finishes and Lessner, who had appeared slightly exhausted by her day of meetings, suddenly fills back up like a balloon.
She and Cady frequently search for ways to combine Cady's political savvy with Lessner's spunk and reputation. Their latest venture is a Surly Girl-themed fundraiser for Cady's boss, O'Shaughnessy, who would end up winning her race for Franklin County Clerk of Courts.
It fills two needs for Lessner: getting women involved in politics and helping to elect "a badass lady." But she and Cady struggle to stay on task. They have too much to tell each other, too many ideas to float. And Cady, realizing she has an opportunity to talk about her friend, can't stop dropping compliments.
"Columbus is ready for Liz and Liz has a lot to offer," she says, wrapping her hands around one of Tip Top's mismatched coffee mugs. "Sometimes life goes on and on and then it intersects at just the right moment."
Lessner gasps. The praise reminds her of a story she's been dying to tell. Her name has been in the news so much lately that she's started to receive odd requests from strangers. One woman, knowing of Lessner's connections in city politics, asked if she could help solve a sewer problem. The sewer stunk.
"What are you, the ombudsman to the world now?" Cady yelps.
Lessner chuckles at Cady's crack, but the truth is she likes to help. When Rachel Widomski, a bartender at Haiku, was run down and paralyzed by a customer who drove off without paying his tab, Lessner and Angelo helped raise money for her care. She allowed a Betty's cook to launch his catering business from the restaurant's kitchen. She plays the music of a sometimes-server who owns a recording studio in Clintonville. And she even ended up making a few calls to the city about that offending sewer.
"But it's weird," Lessner says. "What do I know about stinky sewers?"
Cady unwinds a hand from her mug of coffee and points a finger at Lessner.
"It's flattering," she corrects her. "Because people think-hey, this is a person who gives a shit."
April Johnston is an associate editor for Columbus Monthly.