I had never seen this much flannel in one place at Notre Dame. The room was filled with men and women in plaid shirts, and standing at the microphone was a poetry student from Notre Dame’s creative writing MFA program, reading selections from her work.
A few girls “whoop whoop” and others in the audience clapped, smiling at the student’s cleverness. This group thrived on wit, intellect and the beauty of language.
The décor was an eclectic mix of things that shouldn’t go together but somehow did. Sunflowers sprang from the walls beside oddly shaped mirrors. Shelves held books and random knickknacks. A wall was painted in red and yellow stripes, and a dusty emerald lamp hung in one corner. None of it made logical design sense, but that was the whole idea of Lula’s — letting loose, being creative and taking risks.
It was mostly MFA students who filled the room that night, but scattered throughout were undergrads and professors. In the middle of the readings, two huge football players walked in, dressed head-to-toe in Notre Dame gear. They were out of their element, and intentionally so. There was just something wonderful about that.
16 years of Lula’s
“It was a happy accident, really,” Lula’s owner Steve Egan ’93 told me over coffee one fall morning in 2010. “Lula’s was a hit right away.”
The idea for Lula’s was born 16 years earlier by Anna Reilly, the sister-in-law of Egan’s friend and fellow ’93 Notre Dame grad Shannon Cullinan.
Egan, then a public accountant in Chicago, was having dinner with Cullinan when Reilly’s suggestion of opening a café near campus came up. “There was nothing like Lula’s in South Bend,” Egan recalled. “I felt pretty confident in the idea.”
“We did the benchmarking at every café in Chicago practically, to just kind of figure out ideas, and figure out as much financial data as we could from the owners who would be forthcoming with it,” Egan said.
The next step was writing a business plan and executing it.
“We wanted to be close to campus, and this was a good crossroads area, with high traffic,” Egan said of the 1631 Edison Plaza location, at the Edison/23 intersection near The Linebacker. “I didn’t leave my job in Chicago until we had a location that made sense.”
From the very beginning, Lula’s was meant to be more than just a café — inspiring the sharing of ideas and life stories. And Lula’s was always intended as a bridge between South Bend and the surrounding campus communities, including Notre Dame, Indiana University South Bend (IUSB) and Bethel College.
“We wanted to break down barriers … misconceptions that people from town have about people from campus, and vice versa,” Egan said in 2010. “We wanted to appeal to all demographics. I think that’s one of the tricks to Lula’s, that it’s been able to appeal to a lot different types over a long period of time.”
But after 16 years it became apparent that Lula’s time — at least its time on Edison Road — was limited. On October 5, 2010, Egan spoke to an entrepreneurship class at Notre Dame. The very next day, he was surprised with a notice that his lease would not be renewed.
Egan had just 50 days to vacate Lula’s.
After months of searching for a new location, Egan let go of the dream and took a job with Anthony Travel. Egan said one of the blessings of going through this change was hearing what Lula’s had meant to so many different people.
“It’s kind of like getting to hear your own eulogy when you’re alive,” he said then. “That’s a powerful affirmation that Lula’s has mattered to a lot of people. Lula’s has meaning outside of just a restaurant or coffee shop. There’s something deeper here.”
“The community living room”
Over the years, Lula’s was called “the community living room,” “the gateway to South Bend,” and “the place in Michiana where people come to try to save the world.” Lula’s embraced open-mindedness, encouraging its customers to sit, talk and stay awhile. Students perched at corner tables with laptops, books lined shelves like a library, and cards and board games invited customers to play over coffee or after meals.
“We created so many collisions,” Egan said, explaining that Lula’s was a crossroads for people, communities and ideas. The cozy, thought-provoking space attracted college students, Midwestern hipsters, countercultural high school kids, professors and professionals.
“Somebody said, ‘That’s one great thing about Lula’s: you can be next to a nuclear physicist, two high school kids on a date, and two grandmas playing Scrabble,” Egan recalled.
Egan attributed Lula’s success to its customers and staff, the good food and drink, the community and cultural events it hosted, and its general “vibe.” He said customers who recently moved to South Bend were told, “the first place you need to go is Lula’s. That’s where you need to start connecting to people.”
When I arrived on campus in the fall of 2008, I struggled to find a place that felt just “right.” As a quiet freshman uprooted from my New York City suburb, I needed more than Notre Dame football and tight-knit dorm life to feel at home. I often complained to my family that I hadn’t found a community of writers on campus. In fact, I hadn’t found any arts community at all.
One day I heard about a poetry reading at Lula’s Café, which was close enough to campus to walk. I fell in love at first sight. The relaxed atmosphere, friendly staff and delicious food welcomed me right away. Lula’s became a refuge when campus was overwhelming or when I just needed to think.
And Lula’s had been that safe haven, that escape, that home away from home for many.
Matt Storin, a former Boston Globe editor who worked and taught at Notre Dame, said Lula’s helped compensate for South Bend’s inadequacies as a college town. “I was originally attracted to Lula’s because it reminded me of what a college-town coffee house or restaurant should look like,” he said. “Being from the East Coast, I felt that it had a kind of Cambridge-like feel.”
Lula’s last call
Egan said closing time was bittersweet, but he felt an outpouring of support as Lula’s history at Edison Plaza came to an end.
“The last day was a tremendous day,” he said. “Both Tuesday and Wednesday were two of the best days we ever had. I gathered the staff at about 9, and in true Lula’s fashion there were customers and friends of staff just hanging around. We all went around and talked about what Lula’s means to us and the community.”
Lula’s final day of operation was Wednesday, November 24, 2010. It closed for good on Thanksgiving Day. Lula’s staff spent the next few days taking the restaurant apart, and by November 30, all that was left at 1631 Edison was an 8-by-11-inch sign on the door.
Another café followed but didn’t stay long, and the space once filled with Lula’s is still vacant.
Sara Felsenstein is a television associate producer and freelance writer based in New York City. Contact her at email@example.com or visit her website, sketchingastory.com/.