Posts Tagged ‘Main St Restaurants’

Geraldine Gilliland – Lula Cocina Mexicana

September 13, 2010

Geraldine Gilliland Lula Cocina MexicanaRestaurateur Profile: Geraldine Gilliland

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.”

Lula Cocina Mexicana Santa MonicaOriginally 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.


Amelia Diaz – Amelia’s Espresso & Panini

March 12, 2010


Restaurateur Profile: Amelia Diaz


Amelia’s Espresso & Panini

2645 Main Street

Santa Monica, CA 90405

Yelp: 4.5 Stars

Interview Date: Thursday, March 11, 2010

Amelia’s is truly a family restaurant, in fact; you won’t find anyone other than the three Diaz’s behind the counter – Mimi (short for Amelia), Ralph and Gianni.

Amelia’s is a small, coffee-shop style café in the heart of Main Street. There are many options in the neighborhood, including Starbucks just a few doors down, but that hasn’t stopped Amelia’s from becoming a popular hangout for regulars. During my short visit, it seemed as if everyone who came in knows Mimi, Ralph and Gianni. Mimi says that some of their customers don’t even order anymore – they just walk in and Mimi and Gianni bring “the regular” and a smile, perhaps even sitting down to chat.

Amelia was a professional illustrator for over 18 years before making a career change to become the catering manager at Bristol Farms in Westwood. She says that she enjoyed working in catering, as she was able to contribute her opinions of how food, family and friends can work together to make magic.

Then, one day, while looking through the paper, she saw a deli for sale on Main Street. “I really wasn’t looking for it – my husband bought the paper and I was just browsing, and then I saw the ad,” she says.

As fate would have it, the family was heading out to the movies that night, so they swung by to get a look at the deli. Amelia credits Gianni with giving her the boost she needed to dive in. He said that he would help, and within six weeks, the lease was signed over to the Diaz’s and they opened Amelia’s Espresso and Panini on Dec. 7, 2002.

Ever since then, Gianni and Mimi have been cooking and serving. Mimi says that Ralph is the “people person … the personality, of Amelia’s.”

I asked whether she was nervous at all about opening Amelia’s, but she said no. It could be because she came from a big Italian family, and her mother regularly cooked for 100s of people at a time. “We would have my brother’s soldier friends over for breakfast – she would feed everyone,” says Amelia. Then there’s also the fact that her father opened a restaurant in Massachusetts when he was just 17 years old. “My father always said ‘cook what you know,’ and that is what we do here,” says Mimi.

The best part of owning Amelia’s Espresso & Panini is, without a doubt, being with her family all day. “A big place just never appealed to me,” says Mimi. “Here it’s just us three being together, having a good time with our customers, and then, when we leave, we leave.” In other words, despite many requests to expand the restaurant or even just stay open later, Mimi has no immediate intentions for Amelia’s to grow.

In fact, Mimi says that the hardest part of running the business is telling people that they won’t stay open later. “We just don’t want to have someone to take over for us when we leave,” she says.

Overall, Mimi has achieved a beautiful balance with her business. By keeping things simple, and sticking to what she knows and hours that don’t burn her out, she truly loves what she does, and it shows.