Elizabeth Lessner is building her Columbus food empire with eight restaurants across the city and more concepts on the way. While her name is well-known around town, behind her is a team of jack-of-all trades rockstars that share her same passion and drive.
As any small business or entrepreneur knows, the reigns come with a lot of different duties. While you may just want to turn out great plates of home-style food all day, there are bills to be paid, restaurants to furnish and inventory to be kept. However taking a peek behind the scenes at the Columbus Food League, Lessner has developed a team that thinks of each other as family, and while they may not know what any given day will bring, are right where they want to be.
“There is an over all feeling that we are one big family,” says CFL Area Director, Steve Heighton. “We all share our successes together and learn from mistakes we may have made along the way.”
In addition to Heighton, at the core of Lessner’s team are Lara Ranallo, general manager of Surly Girl and unofficial executive chef of the CFL (all that’s missing is a job description), Harold LaRue, IT guru and fixer of all things that plug into the wall, and Jenny Pryor, cake baker and bar manager of Dirty Fank’s West.
All have experience in corporate realms, but prefer the flexibility, camaraderie and fun that come with being part of a small business.
“Small businesses are able to change direction more quickly,” LaRue says. “As such, they can nimbly respond to changing trends, customer needs, and other industry variables, including cost increases, without a lot of wasted time and energy. Sure, it can be more difficult to grow your business without easy access to funding and other types of support, but it’s more rewarding when you do accomplish something.”
Ranallo likes the character a small business can bring to the kitchen. “We can get away with a lot of quirky things that most corporate restaurants wouldn’t tolerate,” she says. “Whether it be funny names of menu items or using unusual ingredients to make the craziest flavors of infused booze, we’re one of a kind. That’s what makes us great.”
Each role at the CFL is often one of a kind, encompassing a little bit of everything.
Heighten finds the varied experience helpful in his role. “My role is always evolving,” he says. “I do anything from managerial duties to help hosting and serving at different restaurants. I feel this always keeps me in touch with what is happening in the locations, as well as understanding the roles and needs of my staff and guests.”
Ranallo’s experience in a corporate hotel kitchen made her miss the from-scratch menu of smaller, local restaurants. She was able to take the skills she learned and apply them at the CFL, and in an environment where she was excited about the opportunity to learn and grow. Now, she’s directly involved in developing menus and recipes across restaurants.
“You learn to problem solve really quickly when you work in a small place,” she says. “Some nights are mellow, and other nights are full of broken equipment and leaky ceilings while trying to crank out large orders of food, but at the end of the day, my job is to make sure everything is getting taken care of. It can be exhausting at times, but I couldn’t imagine any other job. It would be too boring!”
Behind-the-scenes behind-the-scenes is Lessner’s husband, LaRue. If it’s IT or technical, he’s the man to research, install and keep it running, things that are often forgotten or costly for small businesses. His role allows him to combine his original career passions while bringing Lessner’s visions to life.
In a business where it’s all hands on deck all the time, LaRue sums up why they all choose to do what they do.
“Ours is a community-based business model, with an emphasis on improving our city, the surrounding neighborhoods, and the lives of our employees. This makes all of the risk, sacrifice, sweat and tears worth it,” he says.
For more information, visit columbusfoodleague.com.