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Creating Conversation Stoppers

Lucia Watson, CLA alumna and entrepreneur
December 12, 2014

Lucia Watson

Lucia Watson
Lucia Watson
The company:
Lucia's Restaurant,
Lucia's Wine Bar,
Lucia's To Go

The mission:
To serve fresh, local,
sustainable food

You won’t find “Grandma Lulu’s Coffee Grounds” on the menu at Lucia’s Restaurant, but a hint of Grandma’s spirit runs through every pan-seared steak and every warm bruschetta that comes out of the restaurant’s kitchen.

That’s because owner Lucia Watson’s attitude about food was nurtured in part by her grandmother, who cooked on a wood stove at the family’s Rainy Lake cabin, a spot so remote that a round-trip grocery-store run meant an all-day trek by river and road. So when supplies ran low, Grandma simply created with what was available.

“She was good at making do with what she had,” Watson says of her grandmother. “It made me alert to the fact that food is precious. It’s been one of my guiding principles, and why I’m so into local food and why I treat the food so lovingly and seasonally and respect the farmers. It’s a really precious thing.”

“It made me alert ot the fact that
food is precious,” says Watson. “It’s
been one of my guiding principles.”

On the corner of 31st and Hennepin in Minneapolis’s Uptown, neighborhood, Lucia’s Restaurant is a Twin Cities icon of high-quality, sustainable food. Together with Lucia’s Wine Bar (the first wine bar in Minneapolis) and Lucia’s To Go catering service next door, it claims almost the entire block, replacing the hardware store, clothing store, and hair salon that Watson bought and transformed into her nearly 30-year-old operation.

This is not a career she envisioned when she majored in French at the University of Minnesota. Maybe, she thought at the time, she could be a translator. But when she moved to Washington D.C. after graduation, she not only taught French, but also worked at a “really fancy French restaurant,” she says. “I just loved it! I thought, ‘Gosh, this is so much fun!’”

And so it was that when she came back to Minneapolis, she in turn worked in a restaurant, launched a catering business, and ran a kitchen at a Minnetonka art center. By the time she “got the bug” to open her own restaurant, she knew something about every ingredient of the operation, from cooking to serving to clean-up. When she moved into the old hardware store on Hennepin, gutted it, then put in a kitchen and 36 seats, she knew exactly what kind of place she would run.

“I wanted really fresh, really accessible food,” she says. “Most important, I wanted it to be the best. I call it ‘conversation stopper’ food, the kind that, if you’re in a deep conversation when your food comes and you take a bite, you stop and say, ‘Oh, wow, this is so good!’ It just stops the conversation. And that’s what I always really wanted.”

But in the tradition of Grandma Lulu, the ingredients in that conversation-stopping food had to be as “on hand” as possible. Watson makes this happen with what she calls a hierarchy of purchasing.

“First, I try to buy local,” she says. “If that isn’t possible—when I can’t get lettuce in the winter, for example—then I buy organic. If I can’t get either of those, I will at least try to get something that is sustainable or has integrity. If I can’t buy from a local farmer or butcher, for example, I’ll at least buy from a locally owned meat company. It still might be commodity meat, but I can ask, ‘What practices does that brand of meat use?’ And they’ll know.”

Over the years, many of the people who have worked for her have gone on to start their own restaurants, and she still gets multiple requests for advice on how to do just that.

“The first thing I ask,” she says, ‘is, ‘Have you ever worked in a restaurant? If you haven’t, you need to go wash dishes. You need to serve. You need to understand that this demands 80 hours a week.’”

But about Grandma Lulu’s “Coffee Grounds:” One of the Watson family’s favorite stories about Grandma Lulu is how one day, with supplies running low, she mixed some leftovers with a menagerie of off-the-shelf ingredients and baked it. When it came out of the oven, one cousin said it looked “like coffee grounds.” It tasted so good, however, that it certainly would have qualified as one of Lucia’s conversation stoppers. If you find a copy of the cookbook Lucia published in 1995, you’ll see the recipe. The only ingredient missing is the wood stove.

What she says:

“To young people who want to be entrepreneurs, I would tell them that, no matter what business it is, find the best people in that business and learn from them. Wherever you go, latch on to the key person and learn as much as you can. You kind of have to be aggressive about that.”

“Initially, starting a business is hard. It’s hard to pay people—like good accountants, for example.
So learning about business along the way is important. Your passion may be the business, but you want to earn enough to support your passion.”

“I never feel like I can rest on my laurels. It doesn’t matter if someone had a great meal here a year ago. You’ve got to cut it right now. I really try to install that in my staff.”