As one of the last few diners in Bellevue, Washington to offer good old American grub - think large, fresh cinnamon rolls and delightfully greasy hash browns and eggs - Lil' Jon's Restaurant and Lounge has stood the test of time. The iconic restaurant is celebrating 50 years which is a huge milestone for anyone in the service industry. We sat down with Parker Sjolander, Chief Operations Manager, to talk about the family business, the hardships and accomplishments faced over the years and the importance of consistency.
Can you describe Lil' Jon's history?
My Great Uncle Jon was working in the kitchen in 1967 when it was called Deb’s Diner. They were looking to sell, so he bought it from them and changed the name to Lil' Jon (his name was Jon and his cousin’s name was Lil). Once he started running the place, he didn't care for it as much so my grandpa partnered with him and they brought in two other partners with restaurants in Issaquah and Seattle. I don’t remember the exact year, but eventually, my grandpa bought them out and ended up running it on his own with my grandma. When my Dad turned 18 and graduated high school, he took over and he’s been running it ever since. He’s cut back recently, though, since I’ve been taking over as the Chief Operations Manager.
What types of challenges has the restaurant faced along the way?
In 2013, we had a kitchen fire so we closed for 6 months. That was very scary for us. It was 2:00 AM and the fire department called saying it was on fire. My Dad was in Alaska at the time, so my Mom and I ran down here. We had to shut down due to smoke and water damage. The bar stayed the same, but everything else had to be replaced except for the tables because they could be cleaned. We kept the same look after, however, because we knew that the customers would want to come back to the same place. We have been busier than ever because everyone realized what they were missing when it was it gone. I mean, 50 years... Everyone knows the Lil' Jon sign that lives in this area! The customers have been coming in since they were kids, too. They brought their third generation in now so it’s definitely a community staple.
What have you done over the years to ensure Lil' Jon's success? 50 years is a huge milestone for a restaurant!
I would definitely say consistency. We have been serving a lot of the same food since we originally opened. We also have consistency with staff. The staff know their customers, know their stories, and know what they eat every day. That’s what keeps them coming in.
We are also very fast and can get people in and out of here very quickly. Our kitchen is amazing right now. They can whip up a breakfast in under 5 minutes and people are stunned. Guests jokingly ask, “Did you know I was coming? You must have seen me from the parking lot!” There are few diners like us left in the area offering old school greasy, good American food so that has helped as well.
Breakfast - Photo courtesy of Yelp
What inspired the menu? Have the recipes stayed the same since opening?
Well, when it first opened it was just the three guys running it and they were mostly into bar food. My grandma thought the food wasn't very good, though, so she came in and implemented some of her recipes, such as our popular cinnamon roles. She made a lot of changes with the menu and ever since then we have pretty much stayed the same. We tweak things every once in a while but many of the regulars don’t want things to change. For breakfast, people just want to come in for bacon, eggs, hash browns, and toast.
What continues to motivate you in the foodservice industry?
We have been the best breakfast in Bellevue multiple times over the past 10 years so we like to keep that reputation. What motivates me is seeing the customers come in, enjoy themselves, and feel comfortable here like we are a big family. We receive many Facebook messages from people who love coming in and have been doing so for years because we feel like home to them. That’s the stuff that keeps me motivated. We are iconic like you said, and I don’t want that to go away. We are a part of this area, we are a part of Bellevue, and it would be sad to see it go or change.
The famous large cinnamon role - Photo courtesy of Yelp
Do you plan to expand or open future locations?
We always have talked about it but we would have to find the right location with the right customer base. Eventually, it would be nice but it’s hard because my Dad is getting older and he doesn’t want to take that risk when he is ready to retire. For me, I could possibly do something else but it’s difficult. We go up and down all the time. There have been opportunities that we have looked into pretty seriously but we didn’t make the move. You never know, it could happen.
Do you have any tips for someone starting out and opening their own restaurant?
Like I said earlier, consistency is key. Customers want to come in and have the same thing every time. Be friendly, be true to your customers, and be great to your employees because they create the experience for the customer. If they are happy to be working there, the customer will be happy to come in. We treat our employees well and they are all close to us. I think that is very important, and maybe that is different for different types of restaurants, but for this style, you just have to treat your people well.
Visit Lil' Jon's here!