By Allison Law
In February 2020, Lucy’s – a modern, upscale casual eatery in south Auburn – enjoyed its best month financially. Its menu of sharable plates and classic entrees, familiar but elevated (their best-selling Juicy Lucy burger features bacon and onion marmalade, poblano aioli and sharp white cheddar), along with artisanal cocktails and comfortable atmosphere kept the dining room and outdoor spaces filled.
Owner Lisa van der Reijden and her staff continued to operate as long as they could, but with mandated public health restrictions and wary diners, van der Reijden and manager Nicholas Kellard knew their service perspective had to change.
“Not just our service perspective, but our whole mentality,” van der Reijden says. “I was terrified that I was going to lose the business. I just thought, I can’t think like this. I have to adopt a service mentality. What can we do to serve everybody, and hopefully still keep as many jobs as we possibly can?”
They had to pare back most of the front of house staff, but kept the kitchen team and started an adopt-a-doctor, adopt-a-nurse program, which allowed companies and individuals to purchase meals for hospital and health care workers. It was one small way people could give back to those on the front lines of the COVID crisis, while helping to keep Lucy’s afloat.
Kellard also engineered a curbside takeout menu, which took advantage of a double window in a corner of the restaurant. That window spot never caught on with diners, who complained that it was either too cold or too hot. But it became a perfect service window for walk-up customers.
“God knew exactly what we needed, because we opened that window,” van der Reijden says.
Then the staff added a pre-order Sunday family supper, which serves 6-8 people and is picked up in the late afternoon. The takeaway service was so popular that it continues today, even now that the dining room has reopened. (A recent Sunday offering was Penne a la Carbonara, served with local artisan greens salad and rosemary Parmesan focaccia.)
The customer base largely continued to support the restaurant, which took advantage of its Southern-style patios and porch swings to allow waiting patrons to enjoy the spring weather. But Kellard thinks the atmosphere they’d cultivated in the pre-COVID era – one of coming home and being welcomed – also played a part.
“It wasn’t, here’s your food, have a nice day,” Kellard says. “While waiting for your food, we can serve you a cocktail, you can sit on the porch, they’d bring their friends and sit in their distanced groups, but still be able to have that Lucy’s atmosphere, just slightly changed and slightly adjusted.”
Van der Reijden is originally from St. Louis; she and her husband, who is in the hotel business, moved to Auburn 18 years ago. When he started his own company and their future in Auburn seemed secure, she knew it was time to sink her teeth into a new venture.
At the time, she had an interior design firm, but had several years of restaurant experience in larger cities. She’d long admired the building that now houses Lucy’s. Her now-business partner, Austin Singleton, called one day to ask for her help in the design of the restaurant he wanted to open in the space.
“I said, no, I don’t want to talk about the design! That’s my building. I want to open a restaurant there!” They met to talk, and decided to open the restaurant together that day. Lucy’s – the name is a tribute to her dad, who always called her “Lucy” and who died 10 years ago – opened in June 2018.
“I was like, I just want to build the place that I want to go with my friends. A place that loves people, and that when they come in we recognize them, and they feel that they’ve come home.”
From the beginning, an important component of Lucy’s has been its bar, and it’s only grown more popular in the 2 ½ years Lucy’s has been open. “We have, by far I think, the best cocktail menu in the state,” van der Reijden says.
In November, the restaurant’s head barman, Neil Cooper, was named Alabama’s 2020 Bartender of the Year in a competition held by the Alabama Restaurant and Hospitality Association. His cocktail creations change seasonally and, like the menu, feature some classics with twists. Lucy’s also has wine on tap, as well as a wine bottle list curated by a master sommelier.
Cooper has his own following, and the attention from his recent award has only increased the interest in the bar area. But due to public health restrictions, they’ve had to limit the seating there, so Kellard and van der Reijden both talk about expanding the area and/or making it more efficient.
Another COVID casualty is Larder at Lucy’s, the private event space adjacent to the restaurant. Corporate lunches, rehearsal dinners, bridal lunches and other events were either canceled or postponed, creating yet another hurdle for the business.
But there are other bright spots. In December, Lucy’s won the Chamber of Commerce Association of Alabama’s Gold Award in the emerging business category. And, as van der Reijden says, “We’re doing good, we’re coming back. We’ve had very strong months” since COVID.
Looking ahead, van der Reijden thinks about another location, but industry uncertainty and staffing issues are always a concern. “Finding the right people – that’s just the heart of this industry.”
It is hoped that the $94.5 million Tony and Libba Rane Culinary Science Center at Auburn University, anticipated to be completed in early 2022, will help meet the demand for trained professionals in the hospitality and culinary industries. Lucy’s will be a part of that new venture; van der Reijden says Lucy’s will be going into the food hall planned for the center in downtown Auburn.
2300 Moores Mill Road Auburn, AL 36830
Closed Mondays 5 to 9 p.m.
Tuesday-Thursday; 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 5 to 10 p.m.
Friday; 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 5 to 10 p.m.
Saturday; 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Sunday, with supper pickup from 3 to 5 p.m.