By Joel Hall
Near the corner of Highway 138 and Tara Boulevard in Jonesboro, a new restaurant quickly is becoming a center for Louisiana-inspired cooking, jazz, poetry, and political discourse.
Luella's Restaurant and Sports Bar, at 7955 Tara Blvd., has developed a loyal following by being able to offer a wide variety of Southern and Cajun dishes on a budget that most people can afford. Most of the entrees, ranging from chicken and waffles to jambalaya and salmon croquettes, are under $10.
Prior to owning Luella's, Odie Donald, 59, spent 20 years working for AT&T BellSouth, helping build the company's cellular business from the ground up. After working for several years as a director for Darden Restaurants -- a large holding company, which owns the Red Lobster and Olive Garden franchises -- he started his own restaurant, naming it after his late mother, Luella Miggins Donald.
"I was inspired by my mother, who was such a great cook and did such a great job raising such a large family," said Donald, who is the youngest of five sons. "I used to hang around the kitchen watching her everyday," he said.
Born in Mississippi, Donald put many of his mother's southern style dishes on the menu.
He opened the first Luella's on Campbellton Road in Atlanta in 2007 and opened his second one on Tara Boulevard earlier this summer. He said, given the economic climate, many people discouraged him from opening another restaurant, but he believes he is implementing a model that is "recession proof."
"Some people say you couldn't have picked a worse time with the economy being the way it is, but I feel like with my concept, there couldn't be a better time, because we are emphasizing high quality and high value," said Donald. "We emphasize low prices to customers, so we have to be efficient in our operation. So far, it's working," said Donald.
Since its opening, the restaurant has become a hot spot for Monday Night Football, Thursday night karaoke, and Saturday and Sunday night performances, including jazz, blues, rhythm and blues, and dramatic poetry.
During the Democratic National Convention, the Obama for America campaign chose Luella's as one of the official sites for an Obama acceptance-speech party. The restaurant plans to host a similar party on Nov. 4, to watch the election.
Shirlene Anderson, general manager of Luella's, described its clientele as "very mellow." Luella's is a non-smoking facility and Anderson believes the restaurant provides a "family-friendly" alternative to other local sports bars.
"[The customers ]are pretty laid-back," said Anderson. "They come here for a reason. We never have anything rowdy.
"We get a lot of support from the community," Anderson continued. "People are very conscious that we are new and they want us to do well. The variety of the food and the way we try to accommodate the customer no matter what ... that is what is going to draw people here even in those bad times."
For more information about Luella's, visit www.luellastogo.com.