Chef Chris Williams, co-founder of Lucille’s located in the Museum District.

There’s Houston’s dining scene, and then there’s Lucille’s, located in the Museum District. Over the years, the city has burst with celebrity chefs and award-winning restaurants, arguably inspired by the tastemakers who cultivated one of the most sought-out places to dine. Quite often, we see this tradition play out time and time again – major restaurants move into a developing area, pushing the familial establishments out. But Chef Chris Williams, co-founder of Lucille’s, owns his land. 

“We’re signing papers to own the soil,” he says during his late October interview. After 10 years in business, Williams and his brother Ben, were able to purchase the dirt their restaurant sits on. 

Lucille’s, named after the pair’s late great-grandmother Lucille B. Smith, breathes history into cuisine. The pioneer was an “educator, culinary innovator and successful entrepreneur,” the website reads. “When my brother suggested naming it after my great grandmother, it gave me focus; it gave us a theme, it gave us a story,” Williams exclaimed. 

Lucille’s, named after Chef Chris Williams late great-grandmother Lucille B. Smith, breathes history into cuisine. 

 

The restaurant is filled with photography of the late educator, and moments captured from her historic life. While recovering from being ill in the 1940s, Smith created a hot roll mix for a church fundraiser, later landing into the hands of major grocery stores. Her coveted recipe is the blueprint for many convenient cooking methods that we see today. Luckily, the hot roll is on the menu at Lucille’s, along with a running list of upscale southern selects. 

The story on Lucille’s was written before its opening day 10 years ago, but after years of being a staple, it’s just now getting mainstream success. “My thing is just to take full advantage of it and not sleep on any opportunity. It’s here, act like it ends tomorrow. That’s really been our approach for business from the beginning,” adds Williams. 

After 2020, the pandemic along with the global unrest, Lucille’s went into service mode. They launched nonprofits, maintained staff during the pandemic, and used the restaurant as a resource for bartenders in the city. To say it’s slowing down anytime soon would be an insult, considering it’s almost impossible to get a reservation.

After partnering with Top Chef Season 18 Finalist, Dawn Burrell, Williams has launched Lucille’s Hospitality Group. The group will be home to Burrell’s new restaurant Late August, along with additional Houston concepts, and one restaurant opening in Nova Scotia. 

Houstonia spoke with Chef Chris Williams about the success of Lucille’s, his pandemic efforts, and his emerging hospitality business. 

How were you able to immerse all the history into the restaurant, Lucille’s? 

I went to go research her with my grandmother who was still alive at the time. She’s the one who had everything that you see in this building. She had everything perfectly organized. She was just waiting for this moment. As I started to dig deeper into the story, I felt better about the concept. It was already a competitive market 10 years ago, now it’s ridiculous. The most competitive restaurant scene in the country.

How has the restaurant industry shifted since you first opened 10 years ago?

Well, I’ve always deliberately kept blinders on. I don’t want to know what’s happening around me. I don’t want to be influenced by any of my neighbors. We just have what we have. It’s very organic.

What encouraged you to start your nonprofits and give back during the pandemic? 

That’s always been our ethos over here. It’s a namesake. That’s how she started her business. She was a master of her craft. She saw how her mastery could benefit her community. She started doing that and launched her business with that, but always kept a philanthropic component. It’s just a familial trait. We’re born into service and service is in our DNA.

How were you able to manage your staff during the pandemic? 

When we switched the model over to try to build a sustainable business to operate in this new world, there were no profits in the thinking. We didn’t think we were going to make any money. The whole point was to just continue to pay the staff. So, we were still profitable. That money that came in, we put it right into the works. 

When starting Lucille’s, did you envision it growing into a hospitality business? 

I’m just always looking at the next step. The next thing. The best thing about the last 12 years is understanding what growth is. 

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