“I wanted to name my place after my grandmother Eleanor, but she does not like the spotlight or the attention,” said Sarah Griss, owner of Lolla in San Juan Bautista. “So I ended up naming it after my cat. But the serendipitous part is that my grandmother is part Filipina and in the Tagalog language, ‘Lola’ means ‘grandma,” which is close enough to work out.”
Griss opened Lolla in March 2018 in a tiny location on Third and Washington streets, in a corner room of historic Tuccoletta Hall that once housed the town switchboard. The restaurant quickly built a loyal following among city residents.
While business in San Jaun Bautista has slowed some since Christmas, particularly in light of the restrictions on restaurants, Lolla is thriving. Griss has been using her success to help other vendors in town by collaborating with them to create a new line of specials.
“This year has been really hard on our local hospitality community and I wanted to promote some of the other businesses here as well,” she said. “We often have customers from out of town who come to Lolla, but they have never had a meal at Jardines or Inaka or the other great restaurants we have in town. So we decided to work with some of the others here and feature their food items as well.”
The first collaboration was with Jardines on a Chile Relleno sandwich that has become so popular it’s now featured as a special on the first Friday, Saturday, and Sunday of the month. Black Pot Artisans, a home bakery in San Juan Bautista, provided sourdough bagels for another sandwich collaboration.
“I met Sarah at the merchant’s meeting,” said Leslie Dell, owner of Black Pot Artisans. “She asked me about my bagels and she took all the bagels I had that day for her special. She came back with sandwiches she made with them and they were just delicious. I am really looking forward to doing more with her.”
There are also plans to collaborate with Brewery Twenty Five for a Valentine’s Day special.
“It’s all about building relationships and she has been doing some wonderful things with the other businesses,” said Fran Fitzharris, owner of Brewery Twenty Five. “I think it sets a really good example.”
Griss grew up in San Juan Baustista and when it came time to open her own place, she wanted to return there.
“Ideally, I wanted something downtown on Third Street,” Griss said. “We were not going to be picky about a location, but when this place opened up it suited us perfectly. It’s small, so we had to be very strategic with the layout and the kitchen but it all worked to our benefit. We can do a lot of stuff in that small space.”
One big advantage to the size was that Griss did not really have to change her business model much in the face of COVID-19 restrictions.
“We only have 160 square feet, so we had very limited indoor and outdoor dining,” she said. “So we have always operated as a quick-service restaurant, focusing on to-go orders. When COVID hit, we were able to pivot very swiftly. We are not doing the same amount of business we were doing pre-COVID but we are so grateful to our local customers who are supporting us.”
Lolla first opened with four sandwiches on the menu—basics like bacon, lettuce, and tomato, and turkey with almond pesto, and a daily special. Griss kept the original four, but now rotates four or five specials a day drawn from customer favorites, such as brie, bacon, and jam sandwiches.
“We let our customers kind of guide us,” she said. “Originally, I wanted to do a lot of plant-based vegetarian and vegan items, but we listened to what else our customers wanted and we grew our sandwich menu from there.”
The menu also includes a daily soup, primarily vegetarian, with winter squash soup with organic kombucha and butternut squash appearing as one recent special. Lolla’s salads are also a feature, using seasonal greens like kale, organic chicory and baby romaine.
“I really felt a need to open an eatery that focused on sourcing local organic vegetables because we are surrounded by such great produce,” Griss said. “We care very deeply about our community and we try to keep our own sourcing local. We get our produce from Coke and Pinnacle Farms. We get coffee from Calavera Coffee in Hollister. And if we run out of anything, we get it from Windmill Market.”
One of Lolla’s biggest boosters is local author Jim Ostdick. “I can’t lie, I love that place!” he said “It’s hard for me to single out a favorite sandwich, but recently I had a pastrami melt on some kind of seeded sourdough roll that evoked audible involuntary moans. I also like their friendliness, creativity, and commitment to a green, healthy business model.”
Griss is interested in serving wine and beer at Lolla after COVID-19 restrictions are lifted. She would also like to increase her catering service—perhaps even expand with a food truck.
But no matter what the future holds, Griss plans on staying put in her small corner of San Juan Bautista.
“Our little location is home for us,” she said. “I really can’t see us going anywhere else. Our community just blows me away with their support and their kindness. They make what we do so enjoyable.”
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