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Why Columbus is thankful for Liz Lessner's innovative business style this holiday season

Liz Lessner, CEO of Betty's Family of Restaurants. Photos Ben French
Liz Lessner, CEO of Betty's Family of Restaurants. Photos Ben French
The holiday season is a time of reflection. A chance to look back as individuals, as professionals, and as a community on the things that made us laugh, made us cry, made us think, made us dream and, most importantly, made us better.

A Central Ohioan can't look back over the last year or two without recalling one very influential Columbus entrepreneur who has not only brought a certain "je ne sais quoi" to the Downtown restaurant scene, but who also proves that a savvy and stylish business sense can have a depth of substance that impacts customers far beyond the dinner plate.

Ladies and gentlemen, meet Elizabeth Lessner. The woman who fries up the bacon, serves it on a festive plate, then takes the grease and makes environmentally friendly trucks run on it. It’s called problem-solving, 21st century style. And Lessner is a woman with a pocket full of solutions. 

Columbus Parking meter rates raised unreasonably high? No problem: Lessner took the city’s Public Service director to task, resulting in a more affordable parking situation for Downtown shoppers, club hoppers and foodies. National economy tough on small business owners? No problem: Lessner’s happy to outline the issues with Keith Olberman on MSNBC. Women underrepresented in Central Ohio business? No problem: Lessner takes time out of her non-stop schedule to mentor aspiring businesswomen through OSU’s Fisher College of Business (to name just one program in which she’s active).

That innovative spirit leads Lessner from one successful venture to the next and ultimately leaves a more accessible, friendly environment for those in her wake. Take for example Lessner’s concern over the high volume of waste produced in each of the five restaurants she’s opened in downtown Columbus over the past two decades; the founder and CEO of the Columbus Food League (formerly Betty’s Family of Restaurants) sought solutions within the city’s recycling industry. When she found no recycling infrastructure in place to meet the specific demands of her bustling Downtown restaurants, Lessner found a new business partner and got innovative.

In 2009, Lessner began consulting with Michael Minnix, founder of start-up recycling company Eartha Limited. Their partnership grew, as did the company.

“Eartha was started for the simple reason that it was time for someone to stop talking and start doing,” said Minnix. “Consumer habits and priorities were (and still are) changing rapidly; Liz and I both knew that by acting promptly and deliberately, the opportunity would arise to change sustainability within the foodservice industry and beyond.” 

Just two years later, Eartha Limited is revolutionizing the way the restaurant industry manages waste. The company provides composting services, produces a line of restaurant bio-products including trash bags and to-go containers made from corn-based products, and bilingual recycling training materials. Eartha’s fleet of hauling trucks are small enough to fit into the tightest downtown alleys to collect restaurant waste. The company collects daily--a necessity in the food business, in which health standards are paramount. What’s more, the fleet runs on biodiesel fuels processed at Eartha’s 10,000 square foot facility; powered by processed fryer grease, Eartha’s recycling trucks smell like french fries when they drive through downtown.

“Dirty Frank’s (Hot Dog Palace) is our smallest restaurant, and we go through 132 gallons of grease a week,” says Lessner. “Years ago, I used to have to pay somebody to haul that grease away. (Now), we take that grease and put it into the biodiesel processor and turn it into fuel for our trucks.”

Lessner’s conscientious practices have made her Columbus’ most beloved entrepreneur. She respects her city, her customers and her employees, an ethic that shines in her businesses.

As CEO of the Columbus Food League--which includes Dirty Frank's, the Jury Room, Tip Top Kitchen & Cocktails, Surly Girl Saloon, Betty's Fine Food & Spirits, and the Grass Skirt Tiki Bar, the newest venture opening in Spring 2012--Lessner moves at the speed of the fast-paced restaurant business. But it wasn't always this way for Lessner. Her early business days were the stuff of financial start-up nightmares.

Lessner didn’t have the benefit of angel funding or state entrepreneurial grants when she opened her first restaurant in 2001. “I had to mortgage my house; I took on credit card debt,” says Lessner of her initial investment to get Betty’s up and running. Few banks were willing to risk loaning to a first-time restaurant venture by an ambitious college student.

“It wasn’t until I was in business for several years,” Lessner says, that she was able to secure support from local and state economic development initiatives and organizations. Lessner recommends the Columbus-based Economic and Community Development Institute as a valuable resource for new start-up entrepreneurs seeking additional resources. ECDI functions as the only US Small Business Administration intermediary microlender in Central and Southwestern Ohio.

Eartha has been the recipient of such economic support from state and county agencies focused on improving environmental sustainability within the small business community. “The agencies we work with have been wonderful,” says Minnix. “The Ohio EPA has been great. We will soon receive a grant from the Ohio Department of Natural Resources administered through the Franklin County Economic Planning and Development Office. “

“I am always on the hunt for resources and partnerships that are beneficial for all parties involved,” he says. Together, Minnix and Lessner went above and beyond the normal call of start-up entrepreneurs to turn Eartha’s recycling model into reality. “Due to regulatory conditions, Eartha wasn't allowed to fully execute our business plan,” Minnix says.

“Elizabeth and I worked for many months to help push new regulation forward. With me showing up at every meeting possible and by Elizabeth using her powerful voice in the community, we were able to create positive regulatory change that can never be taken away.”

Thanks to Eartha’s flexibility and the partners’ awareness of changing trends in the foodservice industry, the company’s future looks bright. But that’s no surprise to Central Ohioans who follow Lessner’s work.

“I would jump at another opportunity to work with Elizabeth,” says Minnix.

“I think that in Columbus and Central Ohio especially, there are so many needs here that it’s a great place to start a business,” says Lessner, who’s quick to give credit to the state’s positive start-up environment. “The accessibility (of funding, networking and incubation resources) here is so much greater than anywhere else.”

Her love of Columbus is obvious. We only hope Columbus' love of her is equally noticeable this holiday season.
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