Starting A Vegan Restaurant In St. Louis: Lulu’s Local Eatery

 In Food, Sponsored

The owners of Lulu’s, a popular plant-based and sustainability-focused restaurant in St. Louis, know all too well how difficult it is to pull off an eco-conscious concept, despite the demand and buzzy title. “We’re working in an industry that does not support what we do,” says co-owner Robbie Tucker, who runs the South Grand eatery alongside his wife, Lulu Loomis, the restaurant’s namesake.

Factory farming and fast food continue to dominate the U.S. food system, but Loomis and Tucker are dedicated to running a restaurant that reflects their personal values—despite the upstream swim. With vegetable-based dishes like sweet potato falafel and jackfruit carnitas tacos, they source produce from local farmers and offer approachable, homey food that attracts meat eaters and vegans alike.

Below, we talk to Tucker about Lulu’s origins as a food truck, how the restaurant puts sustainability into practice and what inspires their delicious plant-based dishes.

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What made you want to take the leap into the restaurant industry?
Lu and I traveled to New Zealand and Australia for a year to do a program called WWOOF, which is Willing Workers on Organic Farms. We traveled 10,000 kilometers down the east coast of Australia, staying with farmers and working with them in exchange for food and accommodation. That’s where we really learned the art of farm-to-table cuisine firsthand.

I am lactose-intolerant and have lots of food allergies, so Lu started cooking vegan for me. She’s been a chef for a long time—never in a professional sense before the restaurant, but she’s been cooking her whole life. We both moved down here from Chicago to open Lulu’s. I worked as a jazz musician and Lu worked in HR, and we both decided to quit our jobs and open the restaurant with the encouragement of some strong supporters and cheerleaders.

We originally had secured a space, but after we moved down here and were working on the logistics, the lease fell through. We started looking for other spaces to open up the restaurant and ended up going to a  Food Truck Friday during the summer. We were keen on that idea, so we searched Craigslist for months until we found a food truck in Phoenix, Arizona. We flew there, took the truck for a test drive, bought it and drove 30 hours back to St. Louis. We did the food truck for about three years and then opened up the brick and mortar so we could have our own commissary. The first day the restaurant opened, we had a line out the door. We realized we had something bigger here than we imagined.

Sadly, we sold the food truck last year and have just been focusing on the restaurant going forward. But it started off as just the two of us, and now we have a staff of over 25.

Sadly? Did you want to keep operating the food truck?
To be real, the food truck was a logistical nightmare. Nothing is worse than hearing your generator go out all of a sudden in the middle of Food Truck Friday. But I was sad, because it was the first chapter of Lulu’s for us. At that point, the truck was kind of my baby. I took care of it and worked on it and put a lot of blood sweat and tears into it.

We sold it to some kids in Cleveland, Ohio who were going to start a taco truck. They gave me a strange look when they drove it away and I was crying, but it’s just like anything. You pour your heart into something and I was just so thankful that it brought us to this point in our lives. I’m so thankful we were able to use it to catapult us to this place.

What’s neat about our story and the food industry is it’s really [about] what you put into it. Coming from Chicago, which is a very fast-paced city, to St. Louis, we were able to really put energy into the food. To get the type of acceptance and feedback we’ve gotten has just been amazing. We absolutely love it, and we pinch ourselves every day when we walk into our restaurant that’s full.

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How has your business evolved since you started?
We were one of the first 15 trucks on the streets back in 2012, just the two of us. Our first customer was actually the food editor of the Post Dispatch. It was definitely a little intimidating, but we sold out of food within two hours. Then we hired another employee who was with us for about four years. And as the company grew, we just decided to change operations and continued to set higher goals, as Lulu continued to expand the menu.

On the food truck, Lulu was able to try out lots of different menu items. If something didn’t work, we could just do it for a little while. What we ended up really focusing on was a seasonal menu, which we still do to this day. Going back to our roots of that trip to New Zealand and Australia, we really wanted to bring the community of St. Louis that kind of fresh, farm-to-table food. The best way to do that is to work with the farmers and use what’s available during the different seasons.

Why is a seasonal approach to the menu important to you?
Every time we switch our menu, we’re like, “We’re crazy! What are we doing? This is so much work!” [laughing]. But every time we get that first batch of butternut squash in for the fall season we always get excited. It’s fun for our staff, too—it keeps them engaged and challenged when they get to work with local vegetation harvested by the awesome farmers we’re working with.

What challenges have you faced, and what have you learned along the way?
We’re working in an industry that does not support what we do. The cost of compostables when we first started was astronomical, but we just worked it into our financials and made sure it worked. And I’m happy to say that the price of those continue to go down as other businesses get on board. We try to be an advocate for that. We understand that a Styrofoam cup is a lot cheaper than a compostable cup, but in the long run you can attract a smarter customer, and you’re going to be doing a much better thing for the environment.

What I’ve learned is that my wife and I, when we work on something together, we can do anything. I’m really lucky. Lulu is my best friend, my wife, my business partner and my soul mate. The reason I do the job is because we get to work and be together every day.

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What can plant-based food do for people?
It’s everything in moderation. Our food industry in the United States is so out of whack in terms of supply and demand in [the context] of health. We’re not against people who do eat meat and dairy. We just want to do our small part to offer a different option to those who want to explore other ways of eating that weren’t taught to us. We don’t believe in the traditional food pyramid—we believe that with a plant-based diet, you can get all the nutrition that you need to live a happy, healthy life, and coincidentally leave a smaller footprint on our environment. If you get really creative with it, you can get people really excited about that food. For example, sweet potatoes have been around for thousands of years, and all of a sudden people are excited about sweet potatoes. That’s really enough for us.

I think one of the biggest compliments we get is when people come in and eat our food and don’t know that we’re vegan—they think we’re a vegetarian restaurant. We try to be delicate with the word “vegan” because we don’t want to scare people away. We use terms like “plant based,” which promotes conversations. I think people are really surprised by how much protein is in vegetables alone. Humanity, for as long as we’ve been around, hasn’t eaten meat on the scale we do now ever before. This whole idea of the American dinner with steaks for every meal was never sustainable. This world will never able to accommodate [that]. More and more documentaries are coming out to show that not only is that kind of production not sustainable—[but] they’re using some really terrible business practices to try to keep up, [too].

Being a vegan restaurant, we really try to focus on the vegetables and not so much on protein substitutes. One of our summertime dishes has tofu, but more than anything we try to just make vegan cuisine very approachable to people. People know what a sweet potato is, but they don’t necessarily know what seitan is. That’s what I think is so neat—I would say 80% of our customers are actually meat eaters. You can’t deny something that tastes good.

All photos courtesy of Lulu’s Local Eatery.

This post has been brought to you in part by the mentioned organization. Thank you for supporting the companies that keep ALIVE growing. Photos courtesy of those listed.

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