According to owner Jeff Miller, Luella’s Bar-B-Que’s secret to pandemic success was cultivated through years of community service. (Plus, the North Asheville location’s former life as this popular ‘50s-era eatery.)
Q: Tell us a little bit about your business.
J.M.: Luella’s Barbecue has been open since 2007, so we’re 13 years old in Asheville now. Our current location on Merrimon Avenue has been there since 2009, 11 years. We offer barbecue: chopped pork and brisket and ribs. Before the pandemic, we were really focused on exceptional hospitality and a great environment to serve our barbecue in, and it really became a fixture in the North Asheville neighborhood. In 2016, we opened a location in South Asheville as well. That location, where I’m actually sitting right now, is currently still dark, but the North Asheville location has been rocking with takeout and delivery.
Q: What has been the impact, financial and otherwise, of the pandemic on your business?
J.M.: Company wide, between the two restaurants and our catering arm, we have 85 employees and went down to 29 now, but I feel lucky to have those 29, because we’ve got one location that’s still dark, and then the other [factor] is that catering, that whole world has changed. 15% of our revenue was catering, all these destination weddings… So that’s big business for us. And so that has been rebooked or canceled, and now we’re trying to figure out how to get along with the boxed meals and individual servings stuff.
Our revenue at North though, we’ve had about a 25% drop in business. We built that back up. Initially we were down 50% from the same time last year, at the end of March. But we’ve really adapted our model. We’ve signed on with more delivery partners, and the location there, too, is just dynamite. It used to be an A&W back in the ‘50s, so it’s really designed for that drive-in restaurant experience—it was really built for that, literally. .. Sort of back to the future, it’s really gone back to the roots of what that property is for, and this really is the future of restaurants, at least for the foreseeable future.
So signing on extra delivery partners, having been there and been sort of a neighborhood [staple] for several years—people really came out looking for comfort food. We’ve adapted our menu some there, too, to make things easier: more family packs to make it easier for people to order larger meals and have a better value. We’ve added a sweet tea brined whole chicken to the menu which is turning out to be really popular. We’re constantly adapting and changing.
The nice thing about barbecue: It’s comfort food, it’s pretty good value to most people, but also is it travels well. Take-out has always been a pretty big part of what we do. But going from making takeout 15% of your overall revenue to 100% of your revenue, there’s a lot of unseen changes that have happened inside the building.
Q: In addition to barbecue traveling well and it just being a sensible food to order right now, and that the location is sort of primed for it, what else would you guys attribute your relative success to right now?
J.M.: Well, I feel like people have always felt connected to Luella’s. I have a hard time articulating what that means. We’ve been able to connect with people in our neighborhood. We’ve always put a lot of our money back into the community. I think it starts with our philosophy and our mission.We really have always felt that if we’re going strong because of the community, then the community needs to grow stronger through us as well. We always try to feed that cycle. And what happened initially when the diners slowed down and we weren’t sure, the first couple of weeks, how things were going to go… we had groups that we were normally sponsoring calling us. I was floored. All of a sudden we’re the benefactors. People wanted to come out and support Luella’s because Luella’s was there for them… And so I think that the way that we’ve embedded ourselves as a provider of the community, that’s really come back.
And quite honestly, people enjoy our food… Other operations that have tried to make it through this, they don’t have the dining room event space, or they don’t have TV screens, or they don’t have the internet or the jukebox or whatever it was that people loved—now it’s just the food. And so if the food’s not that great, people are not going to be coming back. And so I think that this is something that doesn’t get written about very often, but people really enjoy the food at Luella’s.
I sent a letter out last week to our patrons that basically was thanking them for the level of support that we’ve received, but also letting them know what it really means to the business and what it really means inside for the people that are working in the business, showing up every day. We had an amazing response, we had tons of feedback. So, again, I think that people are wanting to support Luella’s because of what we’ve been doing.
Q: Why did you start your business, and what makes it different (outside of the pandemic)?
J.M.: Luella’s story is an evolution, as with any restaurant. My background is food. I came out of fine dining kitchens and was kind of like a travelling chef back in the ’90s, traveling the country, working for great chefs. I was always really focused on food and leadership and putting teams together. But at one point, I decided that I just really wanted to have a casual food restaurant and to provide that same level of care and service and food to the people that was so often attributed to higher-end restaurants, to do that in a family setting. So that’s really what I set out to do.
But in the end, it evolved into how to be a better employer. All of a sudden, Asheville — pre-pandemic — we weren’t necessarily competing for customers so much… really we were competing for employees. So then it was really about how to be a better employer. And particularly in barbecue, you don’t find many career cooks in the barbecue world. There’s a few—there are definitely passionate people that want to work the pit—but by and large, it’s a different demographic. So it really became how to be a better employer and how to make sure the community is benefitting from our business, so that we can benefit from theirs. I kind of changed. So it became more of a holistic approach to running a business. And we still pay a lot of attention to the food as well, of course.
I think just the feeling that people get from their experience with Luella’s was really the distinguishing factor, and that comes through the people that we’re hiring, the way that treat them and train them and make them feel like they’re a part of the team. I think that’s why we’re sustaining business, that level of hospitality.
Takeout – Pickup