When Jeff Miller told his grandmother Luella that he was naming his barbeque restaurant after her, she was honored. She also asked him to not “make a big fuss out of it.”
Jeff, who opened Luella’s in 2007, absorbed many of his grandmother’s lessons about food from her kitchen table in Kalona, Iowa, but when it came to the “fuss” he didn’t exactly listen.
“We made a tiny fuss, grandma,” laughed Jeff. “Running this restaurant has been fun and more successful than I could have ever imagined.”
Today, Luella’s has two restaurants, a loyal community following, and a chopped-pork sandwich with a vinegar-based sauce that will make you drool. Presently, 85 employees work there, some of whom have been with the company for more than eight years.
The restaurant’s tagline, taste the love, is inspired by Jeff’s fond memories of Luella preparing scratch made and home grown meals for tables of relatives. Even after working full days as the head cook of the elementary school cafeteria, Luella wouldn’t tire of cooking for the family.
“Her way of expressing love for her family was food,” Jeff said. “She had a huge garden and she would cook real and delicious food. To her, it was a way of life.”
It was only a matter of time before cooking became a way of life for Jeff, too. After falling in love with the culinary arts in college, he moved to the North Carolina Triangle in 1993 with aspirations to work in the fine dining scene. Around this time, he also tasted his first bite of vinegar-based barbeque.
“Being from the midwest, it was something I’d never had before. Everything in the midwest is sweet, barbeque-wise, and I wasn’t really a fan. But the vinegar was such a great counterpoint to the pork’s smokiness and fat. It was really pleasing to the palette.”
When he decided to switch to creating more casual food, barbeque was an easy choice.
“Barbeque is everyone’s food. It transcends class and race. You can have barbeque at the governor’s mansion or you can have it at a city park with relatives or at a church fundraiser. That’s what nice about it. It’s also one of the few American cuisines that has a strong regional identity.”
Today, Luella’s menu represents a fine cross-section of barbeque classics from across the south. With so many people moving to Western North Carolina from across the country, Jeff said he feels like the blend is quite fitting.
“We do beef barbeque brisket and try to make it taste just as good as in Texas, dry rub ribs in a Memphis style. And our pork falls towards the eastern, vinegar-based sauce, with a bit of sweetening that could be considered more Piedmont or Lexington style. We also have our Calico Baked Beans that have been vegan since day one.”
Just like Luella, Jeff prefers to share his love for the community over a full plate. The restaurant donates food and other resources to K-12 arts and athletics programs, MANNA FoodBank, Downtown Welcome Table, and the American Red Cross. Jeff’s goal is to provide as many good meals to the community as possible.
“There’s a relationship in my mind that we’re better when have a stronger community, but also the community can be stronger because of our actions. It’s cyclical.”
“I’m most proud of the level of enthusiasm the community and our team feels for Luella’s. There are many different ways we provide enrichment in people’s lives, and for many that enrichment is greater than what’s on the plate, and greater than gross sum of their paycheck.”