Lessner dishes on Columbus Food League’s present, future

A lot has happened since The Metropreneur profiled Elizabeth Lessner a little over two years ago.

During that time, her restaurants’ parent company rebranded itself as the Columbus Food League (it was formerly Betty’s Family of Restaurants) and announced plans for three additional eateries: a second Dirty Frank’s Hot Dog Palace in Westgate, the Franklinton Tap Room, and the Grass Skirt Tiki Room, which opens today at 105 N. Grant Ave. in downtown.

In our latest interview with Lessner, below, she talks about why Westgate is ideal for Dirty Frank’s, where she’s considering opening establishments (hint: she’s thinking beyond Central Ohio), and what contributes to the CFL’s success.

The Metropreneur: After all these years in the restaurant business, is it difficult coming up with new concepts?

Elizabeth Lessner: We are all easily inspired and new concepts are constantly being developed. We love what we do. We usually have several concepts waiting in the wings at any given time.

Creating concepts is the easy part and the most fun for us. Most of our work is DIY and limited by the spaces we occupy −old buildings− and our budget. We’re frugal; spending millions on leasehold improvements just isn’t in our DNA. As a result, we sometimes spend years negotiating and developing concepts based on what we are able to do on our own.

Because we do all of the decor completely on our own, it does spur creativity. That part is cool.

[M]: There seems to be a lot of buzz about the Grass Skirt. Do you think that’s because you’re an established restaurateur here in town, so people are naturally curious about your next venture, or do you think it’s because of the tiki concept. Or both?

EL: The nostalgia for the Kahiki has been a big source of the enthusiasm, for sure. Really, though, who doesn’t love the idea of escaping life with a tropical drink for a few hours? We always wanted to open a tiki bar, but we never had the right space. Secretly, I think we all hoped someone else would open one that we could enjoy!

In Ohio, we have long, gray winters. For many of us, there’s not time or a budget for a Tahitian vacation. However, most of us can escape a few hours to enjoy a tropical drink and some Polynesian comfort. I think this appeals to people. We go to bars to escape and decompress.

[M]: How much did the Kahiki influence your concept for the Grass Skirt?

EL: We all have fond memories of birthdays and special occasions at the Kahiki so nostalgia plays a big role. We all wish the Kahiki were still open. Kahiki is an institution and I don’t think it can ever be replaced.

The major source of inspiration for us came from smaller tiki bars we found and loved in Las Vegas, Chicago, Miami, Maui, and New York. Kahiki truly was in a league of its own.

[M]: The Columbus Food League restaurants are very popular. What do you think CFL does that makes its establishments stand out from the competition?

EL: I think that our customers know how much we care about and love our city. Columbus is filled with creative people and a really cool spirit of collaboration I’ve not seen anywhere else. If we can provide a space to spur conversation, creativity, inspiration and some fun, we feel like we’ve done good.

[M]: What made you decide to open a second Dirty Frank’s?

EL: I love Westgate. It’s exploding with potential. It’s an exciting place to be right now. Right now −hopefully this will change quickly− there aren’t a lot of restaurant options in the area. We also know that there are a lot of families in Westgate. Since we took over a former hot dog shop, it made sense to build another Dirty Frank’s there. We felt the neighborhood could use an inexpensive place for families and everyone else to enjoy a dog and a beer or slushie.

[M]: Would you ever open a restaurant outside Central Ohio?

EL: Part of our success comes from having a really strong connection to the neighborhoods we are in. We love downtown. We love the Short North. We love Franklinton. We love Westgate. We know each area well and have spent hours of time getting to know each one.

We have been prospecting some possible opportunities in Cleveland, Ann Arbor, Athens, Ohio, and Cincinnati. While I’m really excited about the Over the Rhine area of Cincinnati right now, we still have so much more to learn about the neighborhood.

[M]: What’s next for the Columbus Food League?

EL: We are focusing on the Franklinton Tap Room right now. Building three restaurants in about a year’s time is our biggest growth spurt to date. If we can get through this phase, we’ll be psyched to start dreaming again.

To learn more about the Columbus Food League, visit ColumbusFoodLeague.com