Owner: Lula Cocina Mexicana
2720 Main Street
Santa Monica, CA 90405
Yelp: 3 stars
Interview Date: Tuesday, September 7, 2010
Geraldine Gilliland, owner of Lula Cocina Mexicana restaurant in Santa Monica, began her food career as a cooking teacher and caterer with clients ranging from Orange County to Santa Barbara. In 1984 she opened her first restaurant, Gilliland’s Cafe. She opened Lula Cocina in July 1991. “It was not planned,” she said. “I was vacationing in Cabo and had a tarot card reading. I asked whether I should open a restaurant, and the answer was yes, yes, and yes. When I returned home and told my husband about it, he told me that Café Pelican (on Main Street in Santa Monica) was for sale, and we bought it. It wasn’t easy – a lot of people wanted this space – it has a great location, bar and patio.”
Originally from Ireland, from a family of “terrible cooks,” Geraldine entered a new realm upon opening Lula Cocina by learning about Mexican cuisine. “It started when our cooks at Gilliland’s would cook the employee meals,” said Geraldine. “That’s what first attracted me to the Mexican concept. Then I read an article in Bon Appetit and it profiled the top Mexican chefs, including Lula Bertran. I called the editor of Bon Appetit and asked which of the chefs she would recommend for classes, and she told me to call Lula. The next thing I knew, I was on the phone with Lula and, shortly after, on a plane to Mexico City, where I joined her cooking school in her home. We spent every day cooking, going to the markets, and eating in restaurants to fully explore the food.”
It was during her first trip to visit Lula that the décor for Lula Cocina was sketched out in Geraldine’s mind. “It was my first time in Mexico City, and I immediately noticed the colors,” she said. “Those are the bright colors that you now see in the restaurant. My husband, Theodore Lonsway, owned an antique store and was fascinated with color and art. Together, we designed the colors and decoration of this restaurant – on a shoestring budget, of course.”
Her visit to Mexico City also inspired the name of the restaurant. “I didn’t know what to call it, and then I thought – I wonder if Lula would mind if I use her name,” said Geraldine. “She was so honored, and she and some of the other chefs featured in that Bon Appetit article came here for our first anniversary. We had a huge event – a great party.”
Geraldine and her husband self-funded Lula Cocina, and it was an instant hit. “We had a line out the door on our first Friday,” said Geraldine. “I was terrified because I was in the kitchen. I did 400 dinners and ran out of food. The tickets were spitting out so fast – like a telex machine, and I was in tears. We closed at 7 p.m. that night, but everybody understood, and we worked out the kinks for the next night.”
As Lula Cocina grew, Geraldine never forgot its namesake. “I would travel with Lula – anytime she had a food event, I would tag along as her assistant,” said Geraldine. “We would take groups on trips to Oaxaca, the Yucatan – all over the place.” Although Lula has now retired, Geraldine still travels to Mexico about twice per year. “The only challenges with traveling are my dogs and the fact that I’m the only one who signs payroll,” said Geraldine. “I have to time my travel based on keeping payroll moving.”
The restaurant business is hard, says Geraldine. “I’m lucky – I have cashflow, but the hardest part for any restaurant is making payroll,” she said. “And of course trying to stay up-to-date with the rules and regulations of the restaurant industry.”
The best part of owning restaurants for Geraldine is “I love food, love drinking, and love reading the customer comment cards on Monday mornings. I love creating new stuff, growing stuff, and working with people over time. I have good people in my restaurants.” In addition to Lula Cocina, Geraldine also owns Finn McCool’s Irish Pub and Rancho Chiquita Events, named after her 250-acre ranch where she hosts and caters many special events. She cross-trains her more than 50 employees and shares them throughout the restaurants and catering business.
“My advice for people who want to be a restaurant entrepreneur is to think very carefully about it before you start,” said Geraldine. “Just because you have a location and know about food, you still have no business opening a restaurant, where you have to know how to work Excel, bookkeeping, and a whole lot of other things that have nothing to do with food.”
In addition to food, Geraldine is passionate about the protection and rehabilitation of abused and abandoned animals, a cause for which she frequently hosts and supports charitable activities and events.