Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Interview - Columbus Restaurateur Elizabeth Lessner Discusses Bike To Work Week

Many of the bicyclists of Columbus, Ohio are already familiar with the name Elizabeth Lessner. Owner of the most bike-friendly restaurant in Columbus, the Tip Top Kitchen on Gay Street, Lessner is also the owner of the popular Betty's and Surly Girl Saloon in the Short North, and the soon-to-be opened Dirty Frank's downtown. Lessner was also named as one of Columbus Alive's People To Watch in 2008!

So... why the interest from a bike commuting blog? The answer: because I read a Tweet from her talking about the Central Ohio Restaurant Association's plans for Bike To Work Week! Miss Lessner was kind enough to answer some of the questions I had about CORA, the aforementioned plans, her personal feelings and experiences with cycling, and the effects of cycling improvements on Columbus businesses.

A little background: CORA is in its second year of supporting Bike To Work Week, an effort which Lessner initiated last year as president of the Association (a position she still holds), and as part of a larger group of green initiatives for the Association.

CORA's Mission statement is as follows:
"Our Mission: Promote a strong and innovative restaurant industry. Provide education, training, community involvement and networking events for our members. Enhance the industry's image locally, regionally and nationally, through effective use of the media; proactive involvement in political issues and Ohio Restaurant and National Restaurant Association affiliation."
CORA's involvement in Bike To Work Week will fall to its individual members - each restaurant promoting the event in its own way. Lessner says "Last year we awarded the restaurant with the most riders with a free pizza party at Surly Girl Saloon. Katzinger's Deli won last year. It was cool to see the broad range of participants last year. My favorite was Otani out on 161, talk about an area that can use friendlier streets for bicycling!" (Blogger's note: I used to live out near that Otani, and she's absolutely right!)

And Lessner has a few thoughts of her own about cycling improvements. A frequent complaint heard from business owners when the subject of bicycle infrastructure improvements comes up is that they fear they will lose customers due to increased difficulty for cars to find parking, navigate the area, etc.

Lessner's having none of that. "I personally believe that bicycles add a sense of safety and eyes on the street. Most of our revenue comes in after dark so it is important to us that our customers and staff are able to feel safe coming and going to our restaurants. Bicyclists enhance a feeling of safety by providing that extra set of watchful eyes on our community. I also believe that each bicycle often represents one less car on the street. When I see a rack of eight or ten bicycles that means that there are eight or ten more parking spaces for visitors to use. If anything, bicycling helps our neighborhoods flourish."

As previously mentioned, her Tip Top Kitchen is well known and regarded amongst the cycling set as the most bike friendly restaurant in town. Lessner saw an opportunity to relieve parking issues and promote healthy living by courting bicyclists there! "Downtown is in need of revitalization. We recognize the safety and eyes that bicycles bring to the streets. We also knew what a challenge parking is on Gay Street. Rather than contributing to valet parking or trying to find parking spaces that don't exist, we opted to promote other ways to get to the Tip Top by supporting other sorts of transit other than cars."

And it isn't only the bicyclist who's being courted by Tip Top and Lessner's other restaurants. "I currently serve on a COTA Board, my hope is we see increased COTA hours of operation so that our customers can ride the bus to and from our establishment. We also were excited by the City's move to add scooter parking.

"The City of Columbus was kind enough to provide Gay Street and High Street with new bicycle racks to further promote bicycling downtown. We believe strongly that there are lots of options to get around downtown that don't involve cars so we promote every single one of them. You might know that all of our restaurants provide a 2-Wheel Discount to anyone riding a bicycle to our establishment. Results are good, more bicycles on streets adds a sense of safety and a feeling of community wherever you are."

Lessner's background and upbringing made her a friend of cycling and that background is showing in her fine works in the community. "For safety's sake, for rider visibility sake, and for the betterment of the City of Columbus, I heartily promote Bike to Work Week, we all benefit.

"I ride a Haro bicycle from B1 bikes, it's a pretty purple cruiser. I grew up riding bicycles constantly, I went to college in San Francisco and rode a bicycle there as I did not own a car. I moved to Columbus in 1996 and had a very scary experience with a car driver while riding my bicycle to Columbus State from my campus home. I didn't ride for several years after that.

"Each year I get a bit braver riding in Columbus, I am a very timid rider and a bit clumsy! I would like to see bicycle riders be treated better and the streets a bit friendlier to riders so bicycle advocacy is very important to me. I live on campus and commute to the Short North. My ride up and down 3rd and 4th is often very dangerous, car drivers can be very aggressive on those streets. My hope is that average riders like me and so many others can feel a bit more empowered commuting to their destinations and enhance ridership overall.

"Every year I feel a bit safer going to and from work on my bicycle. My goal is that every person, regardless of age, skill level or fitness, will feel comfortable getting on a bicycle and commuting to their destination."

Elizabeth Lessner deserves every bit of her growing great reputation as a top employer, business-owner, and citizen of Columbus. She's creating business in town, working to improve not only her bottom line but also the lives of her employees, patrons, and fellow Columbus citizens. I'd like to thank her for her time and all she does to improve the City of Columbus!

For those of you who'd like to know more about Lessner's restaurants, you can visit the links at the top of this page or follow their Twitter feeds for daily specials, news, and more.
People, not speed.

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