Lessie’s celebrates 30 years

Published 9:45 pm Thursday, March 18, 2010

It’s not uncommon for folks to eat all three of their day’s meals at Lessie’s Restaurant.

Located right off of Lay Dam Road, the restaurant happily sees the same faces it’s seen for 30 years now.

The anniversary marks three decades of family-owned and operated service that has seen its share of tough times both financially and physically.

Current owner Rochelle Smitherman took over in 2005, two years after founder and Smitherman’s aunt Lessie Martin passed away at 85.

Although only the operator for nearly 5 years — she leases from Martin’s children — Smitherman’s worked there for a number of years.

She’s seen elderly daily coffee drinkers pass away through the years as well as young people grow up into regular customers.

“Everybody knows one another,” Smitherman said. “It’s just always been a hometown place for people to go and sit around and eat. We just talk to folks about what’s going on in their lives.”

The full-service restaurant started out as a barbeque steakhouse that also served breakfast.

Today, they serve breakfast, lunch and dinner buffets with a daily hot bar.

They serve seafood on Friday and Saturday nights and grill steaks on Tuesday and Thursday nights.

They also hold parties downstairs in a room that holds about 100 people.

Lessie Martin, the restaurant’s namesake, worked all day and night cooking, serving and mingling with the customers until she suffered a stroke on the job.

Martin’s aunt even washed dishes five days a week until she was 99 years old.

The Chicago-born Smitherman proudly continues that do-it-all tradition, cooking the rich Southern food and serving it three times a day. She loves doing it, too. For her, it’s less about making her own personal living and more about keeping the local landmark’s doors swung wide open.

“Money’s not the issue,” she said. “I don’t want to make it rich here, I know I’m not going to. I just want to make enough to keep these doors open. I love doing it. I love the work. Aunt Lessie loved it so much, she was here every day.”

Smitherman said Martin wasn’t happy when she heard her family ate anywhere else other than the restaurant.

“She said there wasn’t but two places where we could eat,” Smitherman said. “That’d be here or at home. She truly believed that. She’d get so mad at us whenever we ate somewhere else.”

Including her son and daughter-in-law, Smitherman’s 10-person staff is one she gladly brags over. While she cooks, serves and cleans, she’s the first to acknowledge the enterprise is anything but a one-woman show.

“As far as help goes, I’ve got the best help in town,” she said. “I don’t have to tell them what to do. They come to work, and you don’t have to worry about them. They’re going to be here, and they just know what to do.”

Less than a week after Martin died, Smitherman ran the store for nearly two years before she took over for good, leasing the building from Martin’s children. Not long after she did, the restaurant saw a pair of fires that would close it down for significant amounts of time. One was a small grill fire that closed it for about a week. The other was an electrical fire that nearly destroyed the entire building in October of 2006, closing it down for months before they rebuilt it.

Ironically, Smitherman had been in surgery while both fires took place.

“We almost still haven’t recovered from that fire yet,” she said. “We had a hard time with that. We really struggled through it.”

After a tough 2006, including the fires, car wreck injuries and passing family members, Smitherman’s since seen much better days in her town staple where she greets and chats with the folks she knows she’ll see the next day.