Photo | Shane Rice
LUCY “LULU” BUFFETT • NAPPIE WINNER – QUINTESSENTIALLY BALDWINBEST BEACH BAR: LULU’S
BY ALYSON SHEPPARD
Quintessentially Baldwin: Lucy “LuLu” Buffett
When Lucy Buffett is coming, people turn their heads. Maybe it’s her animated laugh, her neon pink tank top or her string of glistening white pearls that catch their attention. Or maybe it’s her commanding aura, an indescribable pull that has made Buffett the most recognizable restaurateur this side of Interstate 10 and, according to Lagniappe readers, the most “Quintessentially Baldwin” character of the year.
“I’m gracious. I’m grateful for the success,” she said. “People think they know me because of my last name. But I like to say the most interesting thing about me is not that Jimmy Buffett is my brother.”
Buffett, 65, is the proprietor of the Gulf Shores institution LuLu’s — winner of the Nappie Award for “Best Beach Restaurant” — a high-volume eatery and entertainment complex on the banks of the Intracoastal Waterway. Now in its 15th year, LuLu’s has proven that it has staying power. Its atmosphere is lively, its drinks are unnaturally colored and its food is unapologetically deep fried. LuLu’s sells an aspirational, permanent-vacation lifestyle that Buffett herself bought into at a very early age.
Born and raised in West Mobile, the daughter of shipyard workers, Buffett grew up idolizing the coast. To her, Baldwin County residents had an enviable sensibility: they could easily be at the beach or out on the bay, cooking seafood and drinking fruity libations.
“The whole coastal lifestyle is about working really hard and then recreating on the water,” she said. “The dream of every working person was to get over the bay. Baldwin County was a place I always wanted to go, and it was a dream that came true.”
As a young woman, Buffett moved away from Alabama, but she came back 20 years ago to care for her ailing parents. At the time, she was bankrupt. A self-taught cook, Buffett’s first money-making effort was a restaurant on Weeks Bay. It lasted a few years. Another try, a farm-to-table restaurant, went out of business.
“I’m not afraid to try and I’m not afraid to fail,” she said. “As an entrepreneur, I get to hold all the success. But I also hold all of the risk and all the debt and all the failures.”
In 2003 a developer convinced her to invest in a dilapidated plot on East 25th Avenue. There were no roads, no marina and no palm trees here. So she brought the beach with her, filling the 20-acre property with white sand and painting everything in bright, beach umbrella hues. LuLu’s was born.
“When I started, I was like, this is going to be easy,” she said. “We’re going to sell a lot of beer and make a couple of cheeseburgers, but no. It’s been a grind for me.”
At the beginning, it was just her and a handful of employees. When they got busy, they’d ask their best customers to help them clean tables in exchange for free plates of fried shrimp. Over the years, as the restaurant’s popularity exploded, she added volleyball nets, ropes courses, an arcade and lots of live music. These days, if patrons have to wait two hours for a table — not uncommon on a Friday night — they can stay entertained way beyond voluntary cleaning duties.
Today, Buffett is still grinding. She recently opened LuLu’s spinoffs in Destin, Florida and North Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. She now employs nearly 1,000. But the Gulf Shores location, which she lovingly refers to as The Mothership, is where her heart is.
“Do I like making money? Absolutely. But the decisions are always, ‘What’s best for LuLu’s?’” she said. “You have to remember what you’re resting on. And that is the power of LuLu’s, which is beyond me. There’s no brand-building if you don’t deliver.”
She still wakes up down the road — she has a house in Perdido Key — and looks over financial reports. She still shows up on the restaurant floor and checks ticket times. If a table is waiting for food longer than 12 minutes, she says there’s a problem. Her current concern is getting the three restaurants running smoothly and then possibly bringing in a new CEO to take over.
As a “Quintessential Baldwinian,” she’s worked hard. Now she’s ready to recreate.
“I’ll never retire because it’s my baby, but I have a three-year plan to step away from the day to day,” she said. “I mean, I’ll always be the founder and the face of LuLu’s. But I’d like to get some rest.”
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