Lola returns to the lake with a refresh

After a rocky first season, the Bde Maka Ska concessioner has a new menu and new staff

Lola team members (l to r) Gabriele Meissner, assistant manager; Eric Malagon, general manager; Louis King, owner and Lachelle Cunningham, consultant.

Lola on the Lake reopens today at Bde Maka Ska, looking to rebound from a difficult launch last year.

“You heard mixed reviews? Lol. We got our butts kicked,” owner Louis King wrote in an email. “But, we learned a lot. Met some great people. And, we have made changes in response to the feedback.”

He’s bringing on Chef Eric Austin, known for his former restaurant Big E’s Soul Food on Eat Street.

“You’re going to see some twists that we did not have,” King said. “Minneapolis deserves the top talent that we can attract.”

Executive Chef Eric Austin
Executive Chef Eric Austin

The cold spring contributed to delaying Lola’s opening by a month, and bad weather shut it down early. The restaurant struggled with system glitches and absent young employees with the “payday flu,” King said. Lola started the season with its signature smoked foods, but after hearing complaints about smoke, staff cut back on grilling and used an indoor oven — still good, he said, but not the same.

Some critics were not kind: “If you enjoy horrible customer service and overpriced generic food, by all means head over there. You will see a beautiful lake. What you will not see? Me,” one Yelp reviewer wrote.

East Calhoun Community Organization board members raised concerns about Lola’s food quality and business viability, and discussed Lola with Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board Commissioners Meg Forney and Jono Cowgill at a community meeting in September.*

“Customers were great, and they tell you exactly how they felt. Some of them were pretty painful, but we learned a lot from it,” King said.

There were still plenty of high points, he said. Walleye tacos were far and away the No. 1 seller, followed by Lola’s pulled pork and popular lime and strawberry “Lolarita” drinks. They installed giant Adirondack chairs to provide a new landmark for the waterfront, visible from the planes overhead.

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In its first season last year, Lola fielded 42,000 tickets.

“There were days in July when they just didn’t stop coming,” King said.

After a season King described as “roller skates on ice,” he said they’re regrouping with a new team, more adults on staff and a revamped menu featuring Dippin’ Dots ice cream and grills that will come out on weekends.

“[We’re] trying to keep it simple but also deliver flavor and service and quality,” said Lachelle Cunningham, a chef consulting for the restaurant, joining general manager Eric Malagon and assistant manager Gabriele Meissner.

Executive Chef Eric “Big E” Austin joined the team about two weeks before the start of the season.

“The owner said, ‘We want you to do for us what you did for Big E’s. Go. Here’s a key, go,’” Austin said, adding that the rain might help him ease into the season. “We spoke of a soft opening, but nature has provided that for us.”

After reviewing the Lola recipe book, Austin said he envisions a “South Beach” seafood-oriented menu that adds dishes like his signature lobster roll, poke bowls with tofu and eggplant or teriyaki soy ahi tuna, gluten-free chicken strips for kids, and specials like jambalaya and shrimp creole.

“The whole umbrella by the pier feel,” he said.

When Tin Fish decided not to renew its lease after 14 years, Lola beat out 11 other vendors for the five-year contract ending in 2023, among them concepts by Andrew Zimmern, Ann Kim of Pizzeria Lola and teams from Penny’s Coffee, Eat Street Social and Market Bar-B-Que. The finalists were narrowed down to Lola and a group of former Tin Fish employees looking to carry on the business.

Mike Finkelstein, a member of the selection committee, recalls committee members appreciating King’s presentation, financial qualifications and business plan, which involved employing kids for the summer. Food samples were deemed unnecessary, according to a Park Board report, because the finalists ranked high and samples might not accurately represent food at the refectory. The committee voted 5-1 in favor of Lola, with one member voting for Tin Fish and another voting to extend the process and conduct more interviews. The Park Board later voted unanimously for Lola, making it the first African American-owned restaurant at the lake.

Under the lease terms, Lola pays 12 percent of gross revenue less sales tax and $1,000 per month for utilities, with an additional 3 percent in escrow for building improvements. In a statement, Park Board staff said they gave Lola a credit last year on the 3 percent in escrow, due to initial investments the restaurant made to bring the building up to code and improve the grounds.

The Park Board said Lola’s financial performance matched or exceeded all previous first-year concessions in the system. Lola’s shortened season in 2018 generated $607,225. Tin Fish generated $447,749 in its first year in 2004. Tin Fish’s final season in 2017 generated $1,439,466.

In the years before Tin Fish, the Park Board operated its own concessions and typically lost money, said Shane Stenzel, the Park Board’s permits manager. He recalled the challenge of relying on 10-day forecasts to order the right amount of buns and other perishable foods.

“We celebrated a break-even,” he said.

The parks are an incubator for small businesses, he said, and it generally takes three or four years to see park restaurants reach their potential.

“Am I satisfied with [Lola]? Absolutely,” said Stenzel, praising Lola’s responsiveness. “Nobody walks in the door and hits a home run.”

Park Board Commissioner Forney said she trusts her staff’s high opinion of the business. Everyone misses Tin Fish, she said, but the contract expired and they needed to find someone new. 

“I’m hopeful that Lola’s will be just as successful, but at the same time offer a new experience that people will grow to cherish as much as our other concessions,” she said. 

Forney said she enjoys the live music Lola brings to the lake.

“They’re thinking outside the box and I appreciate that,” she said.

Marcus VanderSanden, a member of the team that hoped to relaunch Tin Fish, said Tin Fish’s success stemmed from more than a prime location.

“I think people are seeing that it wasn’t just a magic wand,” he said. “The system that we did have, while not perfect, was rather efficient. I’m sure [Lola] will figure it out, and it will definitely take time.”

Tin Fish owners Sheff and Athena Priest didn’t have any restaurant experience when they offered to take over the hot dog and popcorn concessions at the lake. But the Priests said that worked in their favor, because they were willing to try anything. They opened the restaurant in 29 days and figured out how to squeeze nine people into a kitchen the size of a food truck.

“We called it the dance,” Sheff said. “It was us against the line.”

Now the Priests have time to take their motorcycle out of storage, and they’re still operating a food truck in the neighborhood. Brim, an organic restaurant located a few hundred feet east of Lola at Knox & Lake, recently invited them to park outside the restaurant at 5 p.m. every Monday, the day Brim is closed (calling the truck “Brim Fish”). And at a resident’s invitation, the Priests’ Tin Fish food truck will park every Thursday in the dead-end at 34th & Irving.

“I wish them well,” Sheff said of Lola. “As Athena said, it was never ours,  but we were stewards of it for a period, and we loved that time. And now it’s someone else’s turn.”

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*Corrected date of an ECCO board meeting attended by Park Board Commissioners in September.