Labor Day was the first day Will Allen and his six siblings have had off since Christmas.
Yet, working straight through three-fourths of the year is not something any of the siblings lament.
“It’s worth it because every day of those nine months, we were doing something we were really proud of,” Allen said.
Allen and his siblings are the owners of one of Lexington’s newest and most frequented locally owned restaurants – Momma Rabbit’s Nibbles and Sips, on Sunset Boulevard across from Target. The Allens purchased the restaurant in 2014 when it was known as Everyday Gourmet after pooling money they inherited from their grandmother, Sue Waring Franklin, affectionately called Momma Rabbit.
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“We always wanted a family business – we knew that for a long time,” said Sarah Grace Allen, the only female sibling. “In terms of it being in Lexington, we had been looking at several different locations – in Newberry, Irmo and elsewhere – and it just never really felt right anywhere other than here. We were familiar with the clientele, and we knew they were the best we could have anywhere.”
While Lexington has long been home to a number of national chain restaurants, the town has seen a surge in openings of locally owned restaurants over the past several years – a fact that mirrors the community’s growing population, according to Lexington Mayor Steve MacDougall.
“Locally owned restaurants are a great thing for the town, and the town is proving itself a great place for the businesses. People realize the amount of available new customers we have here, and they see it’s a good place to do business,” said MacDougall, who himself recently became owner of Mr. D’s Steakhouse on North Lake Drive in Lexington. “We are one of the fastest-growing communities in South Carolina, and we are projected to grow another 80 percent in the next 10 years.”
At Momma Rabbit’s, to say business has been booming since the January opening is putting it mildly. Lunch lines, though moving at a steady pace, are frequently backed up to the door, with Sunday brunch almost always carrying a wait list.
“They’re looking for the non-chain,” Allen said of his Lexington customers. “They’re looking for the charm that you can only have in a locally owned restaurant and, in our case, one that is truly family-operated.”
The benefits of locally owned restaurants for a town of any size reach beyond the obvious. A 2012 civic economics study out of Salt Lake City, Utah, showed local retailers return 52 percent of their revenue to the local economy. Local restaurant owners return even more – 79 percent, compared with 30 percent for chain eateries, with local restaurant owners spending more on local labor, locally produced goods and services from local providers.
“Small, family-owned restaurants and retail are the backbone of what we do, of who we are,” said Otis Rawl, president and CEO of the Greater Lexington Chamber and Visitors Center. “They’re the ones that support the community. They have their life savings invested in their business, and they want to see it thrive because they want to see their community thrive.”
Blair Sims and his brother, Henry, brought Chicago-based franchise Uno’s Pizzeria and Grill to Lexington in 2003 (Lexington remains the only Uno’s location in South Carolina and one of only six in the Southeast). Yet Sims still felt something was missing in the town he calls home.
“We live here and have been in the restaurant business a long time, but we have struggled trying to figure out where we want to go eat,” said Sims, an Orangeburg native. “There’s a lot of good restaurants in Lexington; there’s just not a whole lot of independent operators.”
When Sims and his wife, Ashley, found out Steve and Karen Lollis were retiring and selling locally owned Stephano’s restaurant on Columbia Avenue, the two jumped at the chance to start a place of their own in The Root Cellar.
“We just wanted to bring something to Lexington that the town hasn’t had otherwise,” Sims said. “We want to be that hometown restaurant where you know you can come get consistently good, quality food for a good value whether it’s with your family after a soccer game or with your date on a Friday or Saturday night.”
Karen van Heerden was no stranger to owning a small business when in August she opened Sapori Italian restaurant on North Lake Drive, among the newest locally owned restaurants.
A South Africa native who moved to Lexington with her husband seven years ago after a 22-year stint in Florence, Italy, van Heerden owned and operated Esihle Designs jewelry boutique and art gallery at 121 E. Main St. Earlier this year, after her Italian-born daughter and Italian son-in-law moved to Lexington, van Heerden decided to turn that space over to Lexington Arts Collective for a local arts gallery while she moved on to create and open Sapori (Italian for “flavors” or “tastes”).
“Local restaurants bring class and culture to a town, make the sense of community stronger, make the town more appealing to visitors from other parts and create a sense of uniqueness to that town,” van Heerden said. “It also contributes to the general economic growth of the town, giving the locals more reason to eat out in their own local town rather than spending their dollars somewhere else.”
Like the other owners of local restaurants, for van Heerden, the reason is also personal.
“I wanted to start a business together with my daughter Nemi and her husband,” van Heerden said. “I had lived and worked in Italy in the culinary world for 22 years. We had something special we wanted to share with the people of Lexington – we wanted to bring to them true Italian food in a beautiful setting.”
New and noteworthy
5 locally owned restaurants that have opened in Lexington this year.
Address: 407 N. Lake Drive
The Kingsman Que & Brew
Address: 924-C E. Main St.
Cuisine: Barbecue, grilled burgers, sandwiches
The Root Cellar
Address: 420 Columbia Ave.
Cuisine: Southern food with modern roots
Mr. D’s Steaks and Seafood
Address: 983 N. Lake Drive
Cuisine: Steaks, seafood
Momma Rabbit’s Nibbles and Sips
Address: 5082 Sunset Boulevard
Cuisine: Southern with a European flair
5 long-standing locally owned restaurants in Lexington:
Address: 109 Old Chapin Road
Years in business: 24
Cuisine: American with authentic Greek specialties
Cribb’s Sandwich and Sweets Shoppe
Address: 108-D Church St.
Years in business: 19
Cuisine: Deli sandwiches and salads
Address: 327 W. Main St.
Years in business: 13
Address: 4952 Sunset Blvd.
Years in business: 12
Cuisine: Barbecue, Southern sides
The Farmer’s Shed
Address: 2514 Augusta Highway
Years in business: 15
Cuisine: Southern, down-home