Soul Food

By Holly Zachariah
Photos by Will Shilling

Restaurateur and activist Elizabeth Lessner wants to feed this city’s bellies, while simultaneously helping the downtrodden, the earth and more. Of course, she hasn’t done it quietly. But done it, she has. And she’s far from finished.

Inside Grass Skirt Tiki Room, where the lights are low, the conversation is loud and the Bombay gin flows like rainwater down a lush mountainside, Elizabeth Lessner sips a Mai Tai and keeps a sly eye on the growing crowd.

The clock’s ticking toward 9 p.m., and she’s been at it some 17 hours. As usual, she started her day before the sun rose over the cabin she shares with her husband in Hocking Hills, emailing for hours with her two most trusted friends so they could kick-start the day’s positivity. She met with the kitchen manager at Betty’s Fine Food & Spirits, the first of what is now her six-restaurant conglomerate, to strategize a new menu. She caught up with her employees at Eartha Limited, the food-service consulting and recycling business she co-founded, to discuss new customers. And she carved out a couple of hours at Nationwide Children’s Hospital to entertain a friend’s young daughter while Mom and Dad learned that the tumor is cancerous.

The banking, the networking, the returning of phone calls—that all was shoehorned in between.

She is exhausted.

Yet as the night wears on, she chats easily with each friend and customer who swings by her stool at the end of the bar. She calls everyone by name.

But Lessner, one of Columbus’ leading social entrepreneurs—a 39-year-old who’s built her capital by standing for the causes she believes in most—uncranks her guard, if even just a little.

She has no talking points in front of her now, no script. This is simply Elizabeth, another hardworking woman evaluating herself near the end of a very long day.

“To be relevant. That’s all we really want, right? For what we do to be meaningful?” she asks. “I started my business because I wanted a place where I could think what I wanted and say what I wanted. I had to be in an environment where I could be myself.”

She hopes she’s given that to others, too.

“That’s relevant. Right?” she says. “At the end of the day, I want to be known as honest and ethical. Someone who made a difference.”