When Joe Ehlenz and Brad Nordeen were first looking to open their locally owned, locally operated restaurant LoLo back in 2012, they initially considered Hudson as an ideal location. They went as far as to identify a perfect building, but logistics and timing didn’t pan out, and instead they found their Stillwater space in 2013.
Fast forward five years, and not only is the Stillwater location thriving, but they outbid national chains for a coveted MSP airport spot and have partnered with and funded a number of hospitality (primarily food and drink) businesses in Stillwater—and now finally have realized their space in Hudson as well.
One thing all LoLo locations have in common is a commitment to gourmet street food and eclectic cocktails. Ehlenz is bar manager, and Nordeen runs back-of-house. “We keep trying to work with our local partners, local farms, local beer companies, farmers from around the area to provide the best of everything,” Ehlenz says of the LoLo mission. “I think that’s the way things should be.”
One of the biggest changes for the duo when crossing the river into Wisconsin was the physical size of the space, and all that goes with serving more than double the square footage. The Hudson location is 3,300 square feet, Stillwater just 1,500. “In Stillwater, everything is more concise,” Ehlenz says. “In Hudson, we have that much more to look for, to staff, more tables, especially since we’re a destination site in Hudson with our own parking lot, so we’re hit hard around 5:30, 6 p.m. at dinner, versus Stillwater, which is always filled due to the smaller space.” Stillwater’s space has recently expanded to include an upstairs office bar/lounge.
When it comes to the food, the menu is as seasonal as possible in the wintry months: “It gets tougher in the winter, with heavier, heartier tones,” Ehlenz says. “Something like seared duck and Amish chicken dish, with some sort of au jus.” Favorites at the bar are hard to nail down, because one of the distinguishing characteristics of LoLo’s craft cocktails is that they’re all so good, they’re worth exploration. “The old standby is a cocktail we’ve been doing a lot of years, coffee and cigarettes,” Ehlenz says. “It’s a play off an old fashioned, then add in the elements: There’s coffee-infused artichoke, doughnut vanilla-washed whiskey, burnt-orange bitters, amaretto, bacon and cigarette tincture, for that smoky flavor.” All cocktails are big pours—4 oz., typically, so you only need one or two—and run $9 to $11.
With all of this growth, one might think the duo would slow down. Not a chance. “Brad and myself continue to look for unique opportunities to grow the LoLo brand or even something new,” Ehlenz says. For starters, a new space in Lowertown. “We’ve increased our team per new spot,” Ehlenz says. “So depending on ownership, just like the Pearl and the Thief in Stillwater [for which Ehlenz is a silent partner], we’ll be more or less involved.”
There’s also the possibility of a grain-to-glass distillery partnership with 45th Parallel out of New Richmond, Wis., on Main Street in Stillwater, the purpose of which would be private labeling and also to provide spirits for all of the LoLo enterprises. Stillwater Proper, in addition to being a distillery, plans a small menu—gourmet grilled cheese, a good cup of coffee and really cool sandwiches, Ehlenz says. “It will be an intimate space in the morning, then wrap with music in a bigger space at night. It gives us the opportunity to focus on creative cocktails,” he says.
“Maybe I’ll even own a farm,” Ehlenz says with a chuckle, but you know he’s only part kidding. Rising Sun Farms out of River Falls, Wis., is already one of LoLo’s bigger partner farms, and the experience of being able to be so present hits home the values LoLo has always stood for—locally owned, locally operated.
And one of the benefits of success is the ability to give back, in ways big and small, like when the new Caribbean joint in town comes calling to ask this or that question, or Oasis Café opens a new bar portion or other friends in the industry have a new venture they’d like to explore and need a bit of capital. “At this point, I feel like I kind of know what I’m doing,” Ehlenz says of his expanding craft cocktail empire. “I like being the guy that can help out whenever or however I can.”