Dec 15, 2023 - Food and Drink

How the Lindsey Food Group became Richmond's largest restaurant owner

Kimberly Love-Lindsey and Mike Lindsey. Image: Courtesy of Mike Lindsey

Just over three years ago — and eight months into a global pandemic — Mike Lindsey and his wife Kimberly Love-Lindsey opened their first restaurant.

  • Last week they opened their 10th. And when their next three open in early 2024, the couple's Lindsey Food Group will be the largest independent restaurant owner in Richmond.
  • It will likely also make them one of the largest Black-owned independent restaurant groups in the nation.

Why it matters: The group has thrived amid what's possibly been the most challenging few years for restaurants in modern history.

  • They've done it without taking on investors or going into debt, Lindsey tells Axios.

This is how they did it.

Flashback: When the pandemic hit, the Lindseys were doing what they'd been doing for the previous 20 or so years: working in restaurants. Love-Lindsey in front of the house operations, Lindsey in the kitchen.

  • The couple, who met working for a restaurant in Raleigh and moved to town in 2015 to work for Richmond restaurants, was also pregnant with their first child in spring 2020 as they watched roughly 5.9 million of their industry colleagues lose their jobs.

It was time, they decided, to pull the trigger on their longtime dream of opening a place of their own.

The big picture: The Lindseys open and operate every restaurant as though it's their first and, perhaps more critically, as though they're broke, Lindsey tells Axios.

  • They keep laser-focused on restaurants' biggest expenses: food, rent and labor. And they don't overspend on the largest upfront costs: build-outs and equipment.
The group's first restaurant, Lillie Pearl. Image: Courtesy of Richmond Region Tourism

Zoom in: All of their restaurants, even the little bakery they quietly opened last week, have opened in buildings already built out for a restaurant, where the equipment, tables and chairs are included, and all in spaces that sat vacant or are likely to sit vacant for a while. Basically, they open restaurants in locations nobody else seems to want.

  • These are the spaces where you can find deals, Lindsey tells Axios. "It's about being smart."
  • Some folks pay $35 per square foot in Short Pump, he says; they don't pay "anything close to that" for their restaurants there.

If the numbers don't work, they walk away.

It was a strategy they learned with their first restaurant, Lillie Pearl, which they opened in November 2020 at 416 E. Grace St.

  • When the prime restaurant space initially became available in spring 2019, it was financially out of reach for the couple and someone else snapped it up. A year and pandemic start later, it was suddenly available again — and affordable.
  • But Lindsey wanted to ensure their security so he negotiated that their rent would be tied to the percentage of seating it could use during pandemic shutdowns. If restaurants could only use 50% of their seating, he'd only pay 50% of the rent.

Meanwhile, they don't overspend on restaurant openings.

  • They budget $20,000 max for each restaurant (the industry average can run six times that) to paint and make light cosmetic changes. While some chefs insist on only top of the line cooking equipment, Lindsey hits up T.J. Maxx and Marshalls for his pots and pans.

Plus, scale, having multiple restaurants — allows them to negotiate with vendors.

  • Their restaurants have small, concentrated menus with crossover ingredients across every concept because it helps them save.
  • If what they're paying for, say salad dressing, seems expensive, Lindsey experiments with recipes and negotiates with vendors to bring it in line. If that doesn't work, he pulls items off the menus; scallops, for example, are currently off their menus because the price went up.
Mike Lindsey at work. Image: Courtesy of Richmond Region Tourism

While the Lindsey Food Group scrimps, saves and Maxxinistas its way through most of its biggest expenses, there's one place where they splurge: staffing.

Why it matters: While every other owner in the country struggles to find workers, the Lindseys seem to have plenty.

What's happening: They start dishwashers and hosts at $15 an hour and cooks, servers and bartenders at $17, all higher than the industry average (according to the Department of Labor).

  • They offer health insurance, paid leave and beginning in January, employees will have the option of participating in a 401(k).
  • They promote from within, something made easier with multiple restaurants.
  • They over-staff for the critical, often under-appreciated management roles, dedicating to each restaurant two front-of-the-house managers and two in the kitchen, plus a floater. It ensures those folks don't get burned out and creates growth opportunities for their existing staff.

They're able to do this — pay well, offer benefits and add salaried jobs — by charging a service fee: an additional 20% on top of every restaurant bill.

  • The fee is listed on their websites and menus.

The traditional pay structure for restaurants, including and especially tipping, is flawed, Lindsey tells Axios.

  • It's something he and Love-Lindsey learned first hand in their decades working in the industry.
Inside Lillie Pearl. Image: Courtesy of Richmond Region Tourism

Zoom out: Whole libraries could be filled with what's been written about tipping in America. Studies show it's rooted in racism; the practice encourages sexism, more racism, sexual harassment and worker exploitation. Customers increasingly hate it.

  • The lesser covered issue, though, is that it creates huge wage disparities among restaurant staff.

The median wage with tips for a server in a full service restaurant is $27 an hour, according to the National Restaurant Association. On a good night, it's closer to $40.

  • "I don't care what anyone says," Lindsey tells Axios, there's something wrong with a server making $400 a night when the cooks who worked just as hard are making $40.

Worth noting: Customers have the option of leaving additional gratuity on top of the bill (it's not required), and that money is pooled and split among the servers, bartenders and hosts each night.

The bottom line: Their mentality and philosophy is one born from decades in the industry and the pandemic: "We don't take anything for granted," Lindsey says.

The Lindsey Food Group restaurants: Lillie Pearl, a Southern and African-inspired restaurant downtown; Buttermilk and Honey, a fast casual sandwich shop downtown and in Short Pump; Jubilee, a seasonal farm-to-table spot in Manchester; ML Steak a downtown upscale steakhouse; Rams House, a VCU-themed sports bar on Broad in the Fan; Frostings, a bakery in Short Pump bakery; Farm + Oak, upscale Southern in Innsbrook.

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