Picking Elizabeth Lessner’s Brain

It’s certainly arguable that Elizabeth Lessner, CEO and president of Betty’s Family of Restaurants, is one of the most successful entrepreneurs in Columbus. The 36-year-old Windy City native opened her first bar and restaurant, Betty’s Fine Food and Spirits, in 2001 and has since maintained a steady stream of success with three additional establishments: Surly Girl Saloon, Tip Top Kitchen and Cocktails, and Dirty Frank’s Hot Dog Palace.

Herewith, the self-described purveyor of “good beer and delicious, kitschy meals” dishes on fear, the friends and family who keep her grounded, and the challenges she faces today.

Question: Did you always envision yourself as an entrepreneur?

Answer: Not at all. I worked in restaurants while working my way through college. I planned to get a degree in political science then go on to law school. There came a time when I needed to scale back on work so I could focus more on school, and I realized then how much I loved the restaurant industry. All this time I had been working toward getting a “real” job when, in fact, I already had one. I was well compensated and I loved what I did. The opportunities in this industry are endless.

I needed to make a decision: finish school or open a restaurant. Restaurant failure rate is notoriously high and it was a tough decision for me. My advisor at college begged me not to leave school and told me I was making a big mistake. I decided at the time −I was age 27− that I could put off my education and it was an ideal time personally to try to open a restaurant. I was single, energetic, ambitious, unmarried and had no children or other obligations. It was the right time for the risk. I’m so glad I went with my gut on that one.

These are sometimes the toughest decisions aspiring entrepreneurs have to make. The reward was well worth it for me. In fact, I’m enrolled back to school this fall− ten years after leaving. I tell people all the time, “School will always be there. Great opportunities and your energy, youth, and passion might not be.”

Q: Why did you decide to open your own restaurant?

A: I opened my restaurant because I truly loved the industry and I loved the climate in Columbus. Columbus diners appreciate new business and truly support quality, local, independent concepts. I was born in Chicago and spent my college years in San Francisco− two of the nation’s top restaurant towns. Living in both cities, I was influenced by interesting restaurant concepts, innovative menus, and fabulous industry people. After spending most of my working years in the industry, I felt I could open a concept that filled a missing niche in Columbus.

Q: What were the biggest challenges you faced when launching your first restaurant?

A: Money was the biggest challenge. Restaurant failure rates are among the highest, so banks aren’t eager to loan to new restaurant concepts from inexperienced operators. Securing a loan was impossible, so I had to rely on a home equity line of credit and my credit cards to finance the business. Once open, cash flow was also a challenge. There were so many needs and cash was really tight then. I remember scouring thrift stores for pint glasses when money was tight. We couldn’t even afford a new case of glasses to sell beer!

[Local Resource Database – Financial, Lending & Banking Resources in Central Ohio]

Q: Is your vision for your restaurants always clear? Who and what helps give you clarity?

A: My vision for each restaurant always starts out crystal clear, then quickly modifies as we get into the space and begin renovations. I tend to dream big. What I want, and what we can actually afford to be constructed, usually varies pretty greatly but we’ve gotten good at improvising.

Surly Girl Saloon - Lessner Opened in 2005 with Partners Carmen Owens and Marcy Mays.

A great example of improvising is at Surly Girl Saloon. My partners and I really wanted a great, big chandelier to greet our customers. We priced them and found that an ornate chandelier would cost much more than we could ever afford. My mother, Diana Lessner, is a buyer for Mary Catherine’s Antiques and an avid shopper of garage sales, flea markets, and auctions. She was able to find about ten brass chandeliers at sales, all costing $5 or less. Diana worked with an electrician to hang the chandeliers at varying heights to imitate an actual giant chandelier. She partnered up with our friends at the bead shop Byzantium and we traded beers for beads, and they helped us string the chandeliers. We ended up with a gorgeous chandelier that cost very little, but makes a huge statement. I’m extremely lucky to have a creative decorator mother!

For clarity, I surround myself with great minds and I am fortunate to have a lot of them in my life. My business partners and long-time friends, Carmen Owens and Amy Brennick, are the more logical, reasonable, and definitely more intelligent, voices in my life. They are great about keeping my feet on the ground when I get my head too far into the clouds. I have a great peer in Mark Swanson, president of Stauf’s/Cup o’ Joe/MoJoe Lounge. Mark is a great guy to call whenever I have a restaurant crisis of any kind because, chances are, he’s been there and has great advice for me every time.

My two best friends, Lelia Cady and Miriam Abbott Bowers, are my early morning email buddies. We frantically email back and forth −most mornings as early as 5 a.m.− solving any crisis du jour. My mother has been a great influence when it comes to decorating and visuals, and simply bouncing off crazy ideas. Finally, my husband, Harold LaRue, is wonderful at translating my cloudy ideas into tangible projects.

Q: Were you ever fearful about going into business for yourself?

A: Absolutely terrified! I think you have to be. It helps you to succeed. If I wasn’t scared, I wouldn’t have worked so hard. Fear is a great motivator. Because my home was the collateral for my loan, I literally risked losing the roof over my head if I failed. Once I made the decision to move forward, though, the fear subsided a good deal. It’s taking the first jump that’s the most terrifying. Leaving a comfortable job or career to go out on your own is a scary thing!

Tip Top Kitchen & Cocktails - Lessner Opened in 2007 with Partners Chuck Hootman and Tim Lessner

Q: What is the best part about being your own boss?

A: You know, everyone is accountable to their business, so it feels like I do have many bosses. My role is to serve my managers and staff, and make sure that our customers leave happy and come back. In a way, they’re all my bosses!

I do enjoy the freedom to work odd hours, and constantly create and improve on new and existing projects. My best work happens in the wee hours of the morning– midnight to 4 a.m. It’s nice I can adjust my schedule to accommodate my strange working hours. Creative time is worth more than money to me and I feel very blessed that I do have time in my life to create, albeit in the middle of the night!

Q: What is the worst part about being your own boss?

A: Being accountable to so many regulatory agencies can be very overwhelming for an independent operator with little-to-no administrative infrastructure in place. We are accountable to dozens of agencies such as the Ohio Division of Liquor Control, Columbus Public Health, Ohio Bureau of Workers’ Compensation, Occupational Safety and Health Administration, Ohio Business Gateway, Ohio Department of Jobs and Family Services, the list goes on and on. The learning curve for handling public regulatory agencies to a new small business owner is daunting.

[Local Resource Database – State & Local Governmental Resources in Central Ohio]

I feel a tremendous deal of responsibility all of the time to our staff, and to our customers, that can also be quite overwhelming. Our company is run by humans and humans make mistakes sometimes. Recently, I got a complaint from a vegetarian customer who was accidentally served a beef hot dog instead of a vegetarian hot dog. The customer was clearly upset and sick. It had been many years since she had ever eaten meat. I was so upset by our mistake, I got physically sick about it!

Dirty Frank's Hot Dog Palace - Lessner Opened in 2009 with Husband Harold LaRue

Q: What are the biggest challenges you face today?

A: Prioritizing my time in meaningful ways. I’m always prospecting for new opportunities, but I also have a responsibility to my partners, employees, and customers to sustain, grow, and evolve the existing restaurants profitably. Balancing my ambitions with my existing obligations is a constant struggle. Also, finding a good work/life balance is a tremendous challenge to any restaurant owner. Thank goodness my husband is also in the business or we would never see each other!

Q: Is there anything professionally that has gotten easier over time?

A: Being a seasoned restaurateur involves a lot of pain and torture, that’s for sure! With time comes confidence. When I started out, I am quite sure I made every mistake possible. But the good thing is I’ve learned a lot since then. Every bit of the business becomes easier for me with each passing year, but it’s taken a lot of mistakes to get here.

Q: You’ve established four thriving restaurants. What do you consider the keys to your success?

A: A solid support team of positive friends, advisors, and mentors that you trust, that you can rely on to give you honest, reliable advice, and who truly want to see you succeed, is paramount.

A great lawyer and a great accountant that specializes in your area of expertise. This is where people love to save money and it’s the one area you don’t want to compromise.

[Local Resource Database – Legal Resources in Central Ohio]

Becoming active and engaged with my industry organizations. My affiliation with the Central Ohio Restaurant Association and with Columbus Dine Originals has enabled me to become friends and peers with other restaurateurs. We can share best practices and band together on important issues affecting our industry. Some of my very best friends and mentors have come from my engagement with the restaurant industry trade groups.