“I don’t do whining,” says Lucy Anne Buffett, a hint of pure determination bracing her loose south-Alabama drawl. Owner of a little slice of dining paradise known as Lulu’s at Homeport Marina, in Gulf Shores, Ala., the younger sister of famed singer-songwriter Jimmy Buffett serves up more than cheeseburgers. The boisterous Buffett has been offering fresh, local seafood specialties and other dishes in a lively atmosphere since she opened the joint that borrows her childhood nickname in 2003.
Her anti-self-pity sentiment was reaction to the massive BP oil spill that last summer threatened the area she loves. “At first, I thought, ‘They’ll cap that in a week.’ Then I got outraged, then heartbroken. But that’s life; anything can happen,” she says. “We made it through a hurricane and a recession, and I’m an optimist. So I walked my talk.” As a result, her business was hit, but it survived.
Armed with her positive attitude, Buffett pitched in to help, appearing in television ads to bring tourists back to Alabama’s white-sand beaches. She also helped coordinate the free benefit concert that Jimmy performed in Gulf Shores, which drew thousands of fans and lifted spirits. Her motivation, though, was deeper than protecting her own business. “This area means everything to me; it’s home,” she says.
Lucy grew up in nearby Daphne, Ala., on Mobile Bay, in a family that appreciated food as more than sustenance. “When Hurricane Fredrick was bearing down on the Gulf Coast, my dad, while rushing to get home from Boston, just couldn’t resist stopping for a box of the Maine lobsters he loved,” she recalls.
“When he finally did make it home, with the lobsters, an important part of his hurricane preparations was securing his grill, one of his most prized possessions.”
She knew the joy of eating, but after high school, as she was learning to care for her family, Lucy discovered a new passion. “That’s when I realized my affinity for cooking,” she explains.
A few years later, she joined brother Jimmy in Key West, Fla. Then it was off to New Orleans, where she broadened her culinary skills. Next was a stint as the chef on a yacht where she cooked for actor Harrison Ford and his family. “That was the first time I got paid to cook; it felt good,” she says.
After working a decade in Los Angeles, she returned home in 1998 to be close to her parents when they became ill. Though she ventured far from the Gulf Coast, she never forgot her roots. “I always knew I’d be back here,” she says.
Soon after she returned, a dilapidated restaurant on the edge of Week’s Bay in Fairhope, Ala., went up for sale. Lucy jumped on the opportunity. “I never thought I’d own a restaurant, but I thought, ‘Why not?’”
This first incarnation of Lulu’s was an almost-instant success, and in 2003, she moved the restaurant to a larger—yet still laidback—location in Gulf Shores.
In an atmosphere as carefree as “Margaritaville,” Lucy has forged an identity for Lulu’s that’s distinct from that of her celebrity sibling. Her last name may have carried her for a few months, but it couldn’t keep the crowds coming in an area rife with restaurants known for delicious food. “The fame thing brings in some, but Lulu’s gets great word of mouth,” Lucy says. “People come, get a great meal, have a ball and go tell others.”
Watching her interact with diners at Lulu’s for even a few moments—smiling, hugging and calling every female within earshot “sista”—it’s obvious that Lucy’s having a good time too. “Cooking meals people really enjoy is my way of expressing love,” she says.
While cooking is Lucy’s main creative outlet, writing is another, and her cookbook, Crazy Sista Cooking, published in 2007, was a dream come true. “I had always envisioned a cookbook,” she says. Family memories and other recollections are woven among the recipes. “I think the key to success is to have a love for what you’re doing,” Lucy explains. “That’s true for my cookbook, for the restaurant, for anything.”
As for her beloved coast, Lucy believes tourism will rebound. “I think it was a one-season hiccup,” she says.
Look for another cookbook from Lucy’s kitchen sometime soon, and maybe a children’s book. “I’m known for reinventing myself, so who knows what’s next for me,” she says.