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Rebecca Green | SBJ

A Conversation With ... Lyle Foster

CEO, Big Momma's Coffee and Espresso Bar LLC

Posted online

What was your vision for Big Momma’s when you opened? And as you reflect on the past 15 years, did you meet that vision?
I would preface it all by saying I have an overwhelming sense of gratefulness. I think what we have is what I thought. So much of my vision was that Big Momma’s would be a community gathering spot, a place to build community, to engage community – essentially, to be community. I subscribe to Howard Schultz of Starbucks’ notion of a third place. This notion that as people, we go to work, we go home, and then there’s the third place. For some it’s the neighborhood bar, for some it’s maybe a community trail, but for many people it’s the neighborhood coffee shop that you go to engage, to spend time, to study, to read, reflect, and hopefully to get some good espresso and coffee and other drinks and maybe a good snack, pastry or sandwich. That was what I hoped Big Momma’s could be.

C-Street has gone through much redevelopment in the past 15 years. How would you describe the current retail and restaurant scene?
Burgeoning. It’s really becoming exciting because Commercial Street is becoming a regional destination. I just am fascinated with the retail scene from the vintage shops to what I describe as boutiques, and I think having these really interesting ethnic cuisine restaurants was almost an unanticipated surprise, from Lebanese to Peruvian, to Dutch-inspired to Italian. It kind of shows the grit, determination and what may be some good timing for some folks really can bring about in a community. We still fight a little bit of the previous perceptions, but more and more, I think people have become sold on Commercial Street. The beauty of the architecture, the [Jefferson Avenue] Footbridge, the history, I think are just very appealing for people who get a little bit bored with the sameness of the strip centers and the malls. They have their place, but there’s something very cool about going into a retail business and the owner is right there. These all reflect local owners’ hopes, dreams, ambitions and their ideas for space.

A few large projects in the works on C-Street come to mind: the redevelopment of the Missouri Hotel into a boutique hotel, the redevelopment of a 40,000-square-foot vacant building into a mixed-use building and a plan to reopen the Jefferson Avenue Footbridge, although that is in question now as Gov. Mike Parson vetoed $5 million in funding. What opportunities do you see with these projects?
The district is at the point now that perhaps no single redevelopment will hold the destiny of the district. At one point, it was all the Footbridge. Truth be told, the footbridge is a major destination, but at the same time, it’s also been closed for five years. Obviously when it gets redeveloped, there will be a new opportunity, but I think the district has continued to grow, COVID pandemic included. The Missouri Hotel because it’s actually at the eastern end, it’s going to be critical for the redevelopment of that section of the district, but also because it’s at the end, it hasn’t, I would say, impeded the balance of the district from being redeveloped. We think it’s going to be very exciting. The western part of our district is now beginning to essentially catch on fire with two new developments. I’m definitely a proponent of both of these new developments that are being proposed. They speak to the next phase. I think we can have a historic district and still have new construction.

What about the challenges in the restaurant industry right now with the rising cost of goods and a workforce shortage? How has that impacted Big Momma’s and your other ventures, Q Enoteca and Queen City Soul Kitchen?
I actively participate in the C-Street Merchants. I think the district has a little bit of an advantage. A lot of people like just being in the district to work and live and just experience it. But certainly the inflationary pressures are beginning to pose real challenges because we can’t keep up with the cost of product. People who are working recognize that their value is even more, and many people are expecting more. Because inflation is in the news so much, customers also recognize that businesses are doing all they can. For the businesses I’m in, I think we’re a little bit behind. I’ve had people say you need to raise your prices. For me, the business is not all about profit. The pandemic has already affected us in some ways. We’re not open as many hours as we were before. Businesses have had to pivot. We’re looking at opening up a drive-thru, which won’t be very far from here. That’s really in response to the shift in people, but also because our parking is beginning to be a concern. Many times, people want to just come in and get something and keep going. We are trying to respond to what we see as a very changing marketplace. It’s underway now as we talk at Boonville [Avenue] and Division [Street]. And then we’re going to be doing a walk-up for Queen City. It’ll be a kind of two in one.

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