Lulu’s Chocolate Bar settles in with second bar and main operations on Whitemarsh Island

You know those times you walk into Target for a roll of tin foil and a three-pack of Trident and you walk out with an overflowing cart and a receipt as long as your arm?

I guess the same is possible for Savannah’s most celebrated entrepreneurial bakers.

“We were in the market for a bakery case,” recalled Lulu’s Chocolate Bar co-founder Janine Finn, “and I said, ‘Hey, this place is for lease.’”

‘This place’ was 4700 Highway 80 East, the five-year home of JThomas Kitchen, a three-part property already outfitted with a culinary kitchen and separate dining room.

Finn had visited Josh Thomas’s eatery often with her Aunt Diana, a Wilmington Islander, and back in July, she saw the auction announcement for the eponymous chef’s equipment when he decided to close.

‘Ummm, how much will you take for the whole lot?’

“Tuesday night was the auction. I was flying from Maine, so I couldn’t help. She had to bid on fifty things,” Finn continued, crediting best friend and Lulu’s co-founder Rebecca Radovich for her cookery clearance coups.

“It was all online, eBay-style,” Radovich said. “Every item ended at a different time.”

“She got like ninety-five percent of the things we wanted, including all of the furniture, walk-in coolers, and we got our bakery case,” said Finn.

“I can be a little competitive,” Radovich said with a smile.

They needed a bakery case and came away with a building and everything in it.

CRUST A MOVE

Finn and Radovich opened the original Lulu’s Chocolate Bar in the Martin Luther King Junior Boulevard shop seventeen years ago this May, and until 2012, that was the enterprise’s entire physical footprint.

Going like gangbusters from the get-go, expansion was destined for Savannah’s dessert darling.

“The downtown kitchen’s only 180 square feet,” said Finn. “We were getting requests for wedding cakes, and we just had a three-door refrigerator that would be filled with what we needed for the night.”

“Plus all the ingredients,” Radovich added.

Out of necessity, a dozen years ago, all production operations were moved to Lulu’s recently departed Hodgson Memorial Drive property.

“When we first moved in, we were sharing the space with Custom Cakes, so that was her area and we just baked out of there,” Radovich said of that stripmall storefront. “A year after that-ish, she semi-retired, and then we took over that little retail counter.”

Until this past September, Lulu’s second retail outpost was an easy place for Midtowners and Southsiders to pick up pre-ordered party pies and cakes as well as the occasional spontaneous cookie. The decision to head for the islands called for two parts timing and one part good fortune.

“We had this long-standing desire to have a second chocolate bar combined with our bakery,” Finn explained, “and we were looking, for years, for a building.”

“To buy,” Radovich added.

“Preferably with a kitchen already in it,” said Finn.

“We considered making a second bar over there, but that plaza is more of a daytime plaza,” she said of Eisenhower Shopping Plaza.

“That was one of those things we didn’t agree on,” Radovich quipped and smiled.

“I always like to throw these ideas out, and she’s like, ‘Janine, no.’ The voice of reason,” Finn confessed. “Rebecca and I usually don’t agree on such big things so easily.”

When prices and interest rates skyrocketed a couple years ago, the pair all but gave up the search, having looked at Flora and Fauna, née Back in the Day, among a few other properties, though right as lease renewal time rolled around last summer on Hodgson, the Whitemarsh site became a possibility.

“Our landlords were great. It was a practical thing. We were lucky,” said an appreciative Finn.

Being an established and beloved Savannah institution certainly helped in landing the new location lock, stock, and barrel, and between a Saturday and the very next Tuesday, they whisked through receiving the offer sheet to inking it.

“It happened so fortuitously,” Radovich recalled of the fleet four weeks from signing on dotted lines to baking tarts with key limes.

A PERFECT BLEND

“What we needed was that space and that space,” said Radovich, pointing to the kitchen and then the main dining room that bookends the center café area. “We obviously couldn’t have another business in between us.”

“We decided to do a coffee shop,” Finn said, naming the center area where patrons enter and which seats sixteen for daytime sips and bites bought onsite. All told, Lulu’s Part Doux has a capacity for more than seventy, about sixty of which are in the large floral bar and dining room.

For the sake of ease, the same menu as downtown is offered here with a couple of additions, and though the hours are not identical, the Whitemarsh Island branch is also open seven days a week.

“The only things different here are croissants and cookies,” said Radovich, “and we’re hoping to add more savory items to the coffee chop.”

“I don’t want to get too far away from who we are, but I think a quiche fits,” she added. “It’s just a savory pie.”

“We’re more like a classic Italian coffee shop, a place to get espresso,” Finn said, noting the void of genuine cafés on Whitemarsh Island.

In the first two months, they estimate that the new chocolate bar has done roughly two-thirds of the business that they do downtown, which beats their initial hopes for half of the original location’s trade.

“Honestly, our daytime business, the coffee shop business, we’d like to see that get going a little more,” Finn shared. From seventeen years’ experience, they know what trade and traffic will be downtown, like an extra-busy Sunday on a holiday weekend, but this is literally and figuratively new territory.

TWO CHOCOLATE BARS ARE BATTER THAN ONE

“I would say it’s comparable,” Radovich said of the new space’s size vis-á-vis the Eisenhower Shopping Plaza property. “Technically, we had two spaces on Hodgson. One was used like this with the ovens and work spaces, and then the other side as a wedding cake bump-free zone.”

The only major renovations were converting the gas cooking equipment to electric, redoing the floors, and “a lot of cleaning.”

“Other than that, it was not bad,” she added.

“We were in a big hurry. I thought, ‘Oh, it’s already a restaurant. We’ll just Lulu-fy it with some paint, and we’ll be open in a month or two,’” said Finn.

“We had an awesome designer, who just happens to be a friend of Rebecca, and she helped us out a lot,” she added, lauding the work of Julia Vargo, and then laughed. “She had to do some tiebreakers.”

Though “Chatham County was awesome,” per Finn, regarding liquor licensing, waiting for the state delayed opening until mid-December was bad timing because half of their downtown employees would be gone for the winter holidays, leaving a skeleton crew for two large locations.

“Between Christmas and New Year’s is crazy, one of our busiest weeks of the year,” she explained. “We need more people, not fewer, so we were able to take people we had hired for here, train them a week ahead of time and help us carry through that week.”

“We were supposed to do a soft opening on the third, but then suddenly, everybody knew about it, and it wasn’t going to be so soft,” said Radovich, so an ‘ultrasoft’ opening occurred on the second, followed by a medium-soft launch the next day.

On January 4, this Lulu’s officially opened to the public, though a festive grand opening is on the horizon.

“There are a lot of people who helped us along the way,” said Finn, “and we want to make sure that they’re invited and that we celebrate.”

Radovich immediately said the best part of being in this new location was “having locals back.”

“A lot of us don’t like to go downtown and park,” she said. “Having a parking lot is so awesome.”

Not working nights downtown anymore, the pair shared that they have loved being here, one of them on site every night, interacting with their guests.

“It’s really fun to talk to the customers. Everyone who has come in has said, ‘We’re so happy you’re here!’” said a smiling Finn. “We’re so happy to be here!”

“This is a really fun way to make a living because people are really happy when they walk in the door,” she acknowledged.

“You’re not hangry when you come in here,” Radovich echoed.

CLOSER THAN YOU THINK

Do not be fooled by what Google gives you: for whatever reason, a search with ‘Lulu’s’ and ‘Whitemarsh’ or ‘80 East’ will still yield the downtown location and may not even show the new restaurant.

Have courage and head for the coast: cakes and cocktails await you on the island.

Except during those times when Victory and Skidaway turn into the four miles per hour remake of Death Race 2000, a drive out to Whitemarsh Plaza takes fewer than fifteen minutes from Ardsley Park. From Home Depot, it is only another five minutes.

“Our employees who moved from the downtown bar, they said, ‘I planned a half an hour to get there, and we were right here,’” said Finn, likening the second Lulu’s to Sandfly’s Tequila’s Town outpost that has welcomed locals who do not want to search for parking or wait in a long line downtown.

For the first few months, the other biggest challenge has been letting people know that there is a coffee shop component to this location, that this is, effectively, three prongs of the dessert fork: operations, bar-dining room, and café.

In time, Finn and Radovich plan for a second placard to hang beneath the Lulu’s sign, one that clearly reads “coffee shop.”

“This is a hopping plaza. There’s a lot going on here. There always has been,” Finn said, “and the customers that we have already seem to be regulars.”

Thanks to servers and hotel concierges, word of mouth has always kept the original Lulu’s lively and then some, and Finn and Radovich hope that residents’ recommendations bring business to Lulu’s 2.0.

“The locals will be our biggest boon,” said Finn.

No doubt, proven by Lulu’s winning Connect Savannah’s Best Desserts award sixteen years running. Make that seventeen, but you did not hear it from me.

Lulu’s (4700 U.S. Highway 80 East) is open Sunday through Thursday (4 p.m. to 10 p.m.), Friday (4 p.m. to 11 p.m.), and Saturday (2 p.m. to 11 p.m.) with the coffee shop and takeaway counter open daily (9 a.m. to close).

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