Mandated closures gave the team at The Standard a chance to rebrand their upscale French bistro into something they were passionate about. While it may not seem obvious to open a new restaurant during a pandemic, it was a clear choice to open Lala’s.
“We all had a meeting in April discussing the fact that we didn’t feel like we could continue to do a fine dining, French, concept,” Lala’s executive chef Allie Lyttle said. “None of the people that were left on the team were very passionate about continuing the French fine dining.”
The Standard would have been reconcepted with or without COVID-19, but this forced “off-time” gave the team the perfect opportunity to both physically and conceptually shape Lala’s into something that reflects their community.
“We were wondering what would best serve our community and environment,” Lyttle said. “Where we’re at in Ann Arbor, we’re surrounded by a lot of families. There are a lot of folks that are more working class and less white collar. And we wanted to be able to best serve them and best serve, what the world needs right now.”
Opening on July 17, during a pandemic, it was important for Lyttle to meet people where they are at, and make dining with them as safe as possible. This includes going beyond CDC guidelines, only opening three days per week to keep things controlled and ensuring that the entire menu is available for takeout.
“Whenever I design a menu, I have to be very aware that there are going to be people that want this to go, and it needs to be good when you have it as takeout,” Lyttle said. “It’s always trying to figure out how to meet people where they are, not where they were.”
According to Lyttle, Lala’s menu can best be described as a “fresh and funky approach to classics.” With the menu changing weekly, there is always reason to come back for more. I can attest to this having tried six dishes myself. Each seemingly more innovative and flavorful than the last.
“People are very excited about Lala’s,” Lyttle said. “People have definitely been loving it, and we’re busier every week we’re open. At this point, it’s all word of mouth people need to know that we changed our whole business.”
Despite this success, Lala’s faced its fair share of challenges, most notably when an employee tested positive with COVID-19.
“We all decided that the smartest thing we could do would be to close the remainder of Saturday, closed Sunday,” Lyttle said. “The hardest thing has been that every day we have a plan and within three hours, that’s no longer the plan. As a chef, you have to be able to adapt. You have to be able to roll with the punches. You have to be able to deal with people calling in or people being injured or vendors shorting you ingredients or messing up your order. That’s all stuff you have to deal with every day.”
Lala’s was able to reopen the following weekend after the entire staff tested negative, but that’s not where the obstacles end.
“You’re also fighting again against social media warriors who want to be like ‘Don’t go out to eat!’” Lyttle said. “That is, frankly, offensive to a lot of us who are taking it very safely. And honestly, you’re safer coming to our restaurant than you are going to Meijer. But, it’s easy, I think, to say like, ‘Oh, well they’re just restaurant workers, or they’re just, you know, cooks, or they’re just whatever.’ But this is what we’ve all made our careers on, and we don’t have the luxury of being able to stay home.”
Lyttle knows not to let these comments define her and is excited to serve customers as long as they visit Lala’s.
“I have done this for 15 years,” Lyttle said. “This is genuinely what we love to do and what gets us out of bed in the morning, and so it is not that scary. I mean everything’s scary right now but it’s not debilitating.”