Meridian Star

Columns

July 2, 2014

Gulf Shores surprise

MERIDIAN — “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 that was going on around me. After 32 years in foodservice 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. Ever.

    I backed against a wall and took it all in. I watched a dining room— actually, it wasn’t a room, but more of a pavilion that was open on three sides— buzzing with energy. Tables were filled with families who were laughing and happy despite the fact that they had just had to wait almost two hours for a table. Despite the scale and scope of this place, one of the larger operations I have ever seen, it was running like a well-oiled machine, and in the process of serving 4,000 covers that day.

    You read the previous sentence correctly, 4,000 covers. Not in a month or a week, or even a super busy weekend, but 4,000 covers (patrons served) that day! Those are theme park numbers, not for a restaurant within the park, but for the park itself. I wasn’t standing in the middle of the dining room at a theme park though. I was witnessing an average day in the life of LuLu’s restaurant in Gulf Shores, Alabama. Oh, did I mention that this was a Monday, typically the slowest day of the week.

    My friend, and New South Restaurant Group operations manager, Dusty Frierson, and I were in the middle of a research and development trip that had started in Seaside, Florida that morning and would end up in the Mobile Bay late that evening. 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, that the wait for a table would be, “One hour and 45 minutes.”

    “Excuse me?” I said. Surely I misheard that number. I don’t think I had ever visited a restaurant with that long of a wait time.

    “Right now it’s about an hour and 45. But if you two will just walk to the back bar in the main dining room, you can probably have a seat there. Though it usually fills up by six.”

    The back bar, it turns out, was one of five bars in the restaurant. All were two-customers deep. We walked past a gift shop that had lines of people at each register. Ladies were buying LuLu’s t-shirts, coffee cups and all sorts of branded memorabilia. Beyond the gift shop I could see a man-made beach, and what looked like a ropes course with hundreds of kids climbing and playing. One group was playing volleyball. Parents were visiting with each other, and drinking fruity drinks in plastic cups, while their children were playing. There was some type of water feature, too. 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 that there was another restaurant on the property?

    One should know that 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.

    I was in awe of the scale and scope of this place. We finished our appetizers and walked towards Lucy Be Goode’s. Bob Marley was jamming throughout the facility. We passed another dining room and another bar. They were packed as well. Everyone was having fun.

    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. To her credit, she never mentioned the scope and scale of her operation.

    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 entire 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.

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