August 03, 2015

A Pleasurable Repast

By Amos Maki
– Commercial Appeal –

After working at Houston’s Restaurant and Jason’s Deli for a number of years, Lisa Clay was ready to open her own restaurant in East Memphis.

Her partner, Lauren Gray, was ready to do the same.

Now Clay, a self-described "full-time mom," and Gray spend their days serving homemade soups, salads, sandwiches and sweets from an 800-square-foot space at 5885 Ridgeway Center Parkway inside Boyle Investment Co.’s Ridgeway Center office park near Poplar and Interstate 240 in East Memphis.

On a recent blustery and cold Thursday afternoon, Cox and Gray greeted most customers who entered Lisa’s Lunchbox by name with warm smiles, hellos and questions about family.

"We got in there, and we got to know all the customers," Clay said. "I really think our main thing is going in there and enjoying what we do every day. We’re two great friends who love to cook and talk."

Gray agreed.

"We love to talk and we love bar humor, and it’s like Cheers without alcohol," Gray said. "It creates an atmosphere of comfort."

Clay opened the business last year after acquiring it from Juanice Turner, who operated Cafe J at the location for 17 years. Clay said Turner seemed content with the business she oversaw, but that Clay and Gray saw the potential for much more.

Lisa’s Lunchbox has catered box lunches for groups of as many as 400 and baked 800 cookies this year that were served in the suites at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium during every University of Memphis home football game.

They began getting to know their existing customers and winning new ones by handing out boxes of sweets and chatting.

"We really decided we wanted to know everyone who comes in the door," Clay said.

John Frazer, president and chief executive officer of SunTrust Bank, Memphis, is a loyal customer who has been impressed with Clay and Gray’s commitment to the customer.

"I went in there and was immediately taken back by their enthusiasm for the client when you walk through the door," said Frazer, who added that he ate at the restaurant five days in a row after his initial visit. "They appreciate you being there."

When he was named president of the bank, Frazer celebrated with a meal at Lisa’s Lunchbox.

"I said to myself, ‘I can go anywhere I want for lunch in Memphis,’ but you feel like they want your business and they deliver a high-quality product," Frazer said.

Frazer said he would like to see the same enthusiasm and warmth Clay and Gray display at work in SunTrust bank branches.

"One of my big focuses is the client experience in the retail branch system," he said. "More times than not, I always use Lisa’s Lunchbox as a great example of how to run a retail operation, because they make you feel important and there is a charisma they project that makes you want to come back."

Clay said the secret to Lisa’s Lunchbox was pretty simple.

"We try to make their time away from the office their happy time," she said.