by Cesca Janece Waterfield
On August 9, Lucille’s Restaurant in eastern Henrico will occupy a gleaming and gabled new building. The spacious dining room will more than double the number of guests who can enjoy Lucille’s wholesomely prepared classic southern dishes.
The Cephas family will be able to quickly accommodate the line that now often stretches around the corner in anticipation of Lucille’s baby back ribs, fried catfish, baked chicken, macaroni and cheese and more. While the new restaurant is only steps away from its current location in a strip shopping center on Laburnum Ave., the move represents a stunning achievement: Lucille’s Restaurant reached this milestone in seven short months. Lucille gives credit: “It’s only God. It’s not me.”
It’s true. Lucille’s combination of nostalgic comfort food made with healthy cooking techniques has garnered a following of Biblical proportions. She takes it in stride: “Cooking has always been my gift. I’ve cooked for family, friends, my church, and the neighborhood kids.”
Lucille Cephas, a youthful 60, grew up in Varina with her parents and three sisters. Her father, David Alston, was widely known in the area for his culinary gift, especially for making barbeque. Lucille found her place in the family kitchen at age 9, making biscuits and rolls. “My dad was a baker so he taught me to cook,” she says. “That was what I did, cooked for my sisters.”
As an adult, she married Joseph, a railroad engineer, and went to work. Over the years, they had seven children, and she held an administrative position at Virginia Union University. But after her children were grown, evenings gave her a little free time. And with time on her hands, Lucille typically makes plans. “I’m a go-getter,” she says with certainty. “I believe in going after what I believe. So I started my cleaning business.” As owner of a small business, when her job at the university was phased out, Lucille was dismayed, but not done.
“I knew I had something else to do,” she says. “I knew God wasn’t finished with me yet.” In 2000, she says, “I left the university and just started praying.” Four months later, with a love for fashion, she opened a boutique. She sold dresses and hats fine enough for Sunday’s best for seven years, longevity that is impressive by retail standards.
But before her eighth anniversary, she suspected it was time to move on. “All the sequins and the really upscale dress, it was becoming less of a thing for church-goers. It wasn’t a give-up thing,” Lucille insists. “I just could see the trend.”
In search of her next path, Lucille says she looked into her heart. “I love doing things for people. I’m a people person.” And like any of Lucille’s ambitions, her search began with prayer: “I prayed about it for awhile. My priority has always been, I have to get my kids raised, in college. My husband worked for the railroad. He was gone all the time. So I played mother and father. I went to the PTA meetings.”
She had always had a dream of running a restaurant, and believed it would happen at the ideal time. After praying, she knew the time was now.
“Because I want to set up a base and foundation for my kids, the restaurant made sense because they can all cook.” While visiting a flea market on Williamsburg Road, she learned from a manager that they were seeking a food vendor. Lucille offered her talents. “I took all the necessary steps, getting my license, everything,” she says. On Fridays she set up inside her ten-by-ten makeshift kitchen and prepared Southern entrees including meatloaf, fried chicken, and green beans. She admits to occasionally questioning her decision. “Stepping out that big, it’s, ‘Are you ready for this?’”
She soon had an answer. “By Sunday morning,” she says with pride, “I was out of the main things customers were eating. After two months, I knew in my heart, I had it.” Like a dinner guest sitting before a slice of her sweet potato pie, Lucille’s success gave her a taste for more. She decided to find a restaurant space.
One afternoon after inspecting a possible location in Varina, a country market where she’d shopped for her mother as a girl, she had a chat with God. “I talk to God all the time. I talk to Him while driving,” Lucille says. As she did, she saw a restaurant space being emptied by its former operators. After some detective work, she learned the owner’s name, called him, and told him her plan for running a restaurant.
“I was scared to death,” she remembers. “I know in business they’re looking for longevity. I know that. I told him, ‘Have faith in me. You will never regret giving me a chance. I will make you proud.’ From that, it became history. We opened a month later. I prayed to God that He would give people the taste for my food.”
One gets a sense of Lucille’s visionary focus when immediately after reminiscing the past, she begins speaking in present tense: “We are standing-room-only a month after we open the doors. I thank God that He is bringing people to my door because I want to bring back healthy food.”
Lucille makes clear what sets her apart from old-style Southern cooks. “I don’t classify myself as a soul food cook. I try to cook healthy. I do not cook with the fat. I don’t. I cook with no lard. I only know the word because that’s how we came up. That’s the old way. We have to elevate our ways. I use unsalted butter to still keep the soul in it. The way I cook is how I’ve always cooked. Everything has a Lucille’s twist. You’re eating catfish that’s fried light and crispy. What I’m doing here is good for people.”
In addition to presenting food that reflects her nutritional awareness, Lucille strives to bring families together.
“I’m so family-based,” she says. “I want families to sit down together, because that’s what we did. That’s when we sat together and talked about old times. I’m trying to bring that stability back to families.”
Lucille’s dual focus includes delicious food, and she says, “My signature is my crabcake. It’s the size of a hardball and it’s all crab.” Baked chicken is her personal favorite, but not surprisingly, she’s often too busy to eat.
“This happened so quick and so suddenly, it became overwhelming,” she admits. The restaurant currently employs a service staff of about 16 and a kitchen staff of eight. But Lucille’s is family-owned and operated, so she has a lot of help. Her oldest daughter, Toshia Kinsler is General Manager, while her sister-in-law, Margaret Cephas Gross, is Front of the House Manager. Lucille says that James, David, Michael, Myesha, Kimberly, and April also help.
But running a restaurant, especially one that hit the ground running is tough. Thankfully, Lucille has another force at work: “Faith. Faith is something. My faith is so strong. When you know what God has for you, you truly don’t question. You just do. God has truly designed to cook for people. That’s the question people ask: Why didn’t you do this earlier? Because the time wasn’t right. It’s the same thing when people would eat my cooking and say, ‘Girl, you’ve got it going on.’ I love that. And it makes me strive for the next level in my field.”
After tasting her smothered pork chops, pulled BBQ, or the banana pudding made by Lucille’s baker Nathaniel Bizzell, one wonders how Lucille can top any of her achievements. One thing is certain: She’s already busy praying about it.