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After 15 months, Ladybird Diner is back, same as before — but different

The stools are neatly arranged around the counter. The orange vinyl chairs are bright and clean, the wooden tables freshly polished. A spanking-new coffee brewer is cranking out java in mass quantities. Decorative aprons are hung on the wall. The giant buffalo head with the garland of sunflowers overlooks everything from its perch on the brick pillar in the center of the room. 

Fifteen months after the pandemic closed it down — at least in its original form — Ladybird Diner has reopened under the big “EAT” sign on Massachusetts Street and customers are filling the seats. In keeping with the diner’s laidback ethos, proprietor Meg Heriford didn’t make a big deal about the diner’s revival. “We’ll just open the door,” she said the other day. “Just see if anybody walks in, and then that person will tell someone, and they’ll tell someone. Within a week or two, everyone will know.”

Spunky, funky Meg Heriford and her spunky, funky little diner have been through some things. 

It seems like it’s been in Lawrence forever, but Ladybird (named after former first lady Ladybird Johnson) first opened in 2014—and closed half a year later. A fire in the adjacent restaurant left Ladybird with extensive water and smoke damage and put it into limbo for five months. When it reopened, the diner quickly became a downtown landmark, the place to go for pancakes and huevos rancheros and a burger and Friday night fried chicken and oh my, those pies. 

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Classic rock played constantly in the background as the ebullient Heriford and her servers scurried about, refilling coffee cups and bantering with customers. The place had a little attitude and a lot of love. Ladybird pulsed like the socially responsible heart of LFK — Heriford quietly fed anyone who came in through the big front door, even if they weren’t able to pay.

And then came COVID. Like so many other restaurants in town, Ladybird initially shut down. Heriford laid off almost all of her 30-plus employees. But then she pivoted. 

Ladybird was transformed into a local food bank, serving more than 200 free meals a day to all comers, funded with donations, occasional pie sales and proceeds from “Ladybird, Collected,” a thin but rich, briskly selling book of short, affectionate essays, stories and reflections by Heriford about the denizens of the diner — employees and customers and folks who came in for a free burger or just to get warm or find a friendly face. The little diner that could became national news: The Washington Post put Meg and her diner-cum-food bank on its front page last fall.

In all, Ladybird served 60,000 meals during the pandemic, to anybody who came by and wanted one (or more), no questions asked.

But now, Heriford is getting the place ready for its next incarnation. It’s not much different than how she started out — good food and friendly service on downtown’s main drag. But the new version of Ladybird is a product of everything that’s happened to it and its proprietor. It will be very much the same as before — but also very different.

“I want it to be everything it was, but so much better,” Heriford says. “And with sort of a renewed commitment to this community. … I think our best move is to get her back up off the ground and get back into the sort of model where we’re prioritizing being useful and helpful.”

The past 15 months or so has been quite a ride, for Heriford and so many other restaurants and businesses that found themselves adapting to a restricted world that no one had imagined. Like many others, Heriford had no idea what to expect when she shut down the diner in March 2020. She marvels at the resilience that she and other people in the community found and showed. “I learned how agile and flexible not just I am but pretty much everyone that I encountered is,” she says. “All of these interactions that I had with people — with the people who gave, with the people who needed, with all of it — I think it just really deepened my commitment to do as much as I can with this. … But I think I didn’t know going into the pandemic that I could pull it off. I didn’t know that I was that agile.”

The decision to run Ladybird as a food bank seemed like a logical extension of the diner’s longtime philosophy: Food for anyone who needs it. “I was told I could get something to eat here” was a familiar request from those who came through the door without the ability to pay. “Everyone is somebody to someone,” Heriford says, and that guides her generosity and philosophy. 

“There’s not actually the haves and the have nots,” she says. “We’re all just swirling around together here, so I don’t even think that takes a heart. I think it really just takes the slightest bit of observation to recognize that we’re not walking on a different street. This is our community, these are our neighbors.”

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But how to scale up Ladybird’s daily generosity on a broader scale, with no revenue coming in from the diner? As the pandemic began, even contemplating a new model seemed like an insurmountable task. “Remember how scary it was in the beginning?” Heriford says. “Like, I remember bringing my mail in with tongs, right? And we put it in a crate in a closet for 24 hours before we would even touch it. So at that time, I remember thinking, like, how are we ever going to be able to do anything in here? If this is reality for a while, how would we possibly find a way to connect this food with the people who want to eat it?” 

Quickly, Heriford and a core staff of two longtime employees figured it out. They let it be known that, as always, Ladybird was a place for someone, anyone, to get something to eat, and even a little friendly companionship. With jobs and incomes lost and many more people suffering during the pandemic, there was certainly a need. The former diner began preparing and packing lunches for the community.

The Ladybird food bank wasn’t serving simple food, either. Heriford & Co. began by giving out peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, but they quickly advanced to more sophisticated fare: a week’s menu for Ladybird’s sack lunches and food boxes might include corned beef hash, pulled pork sandwiches, pasta, teriyaki chicken stir fry, mac and cheese — even veggie burgers. People lined up on the sidewalk outside the restaurant at lunchtime and were given lunches until the food ran out each day; Heriford also donated box lunches to local nonprofit organizations for them to distribute. 

This was not an inexpensive effort. Heriford won’t give financial details, but a back-of-the-envelope calculation about the cost of 60,000 meals, plus staff salaries, rent and utilities, indicates that the cost of the effort went easily into the six figures. The community picked up the tab. Ladybird received a constant stream of donations, small and large. And “Ladybird, Collected,” sold mostly by the Raven Book Store (it’s been its best-selling book for most of the past year) with profits going to the food bank, sold 3,800 copies at $25 each to help the cause.

Ladybird’s charity — and the community’s generosity — wasn’t just about food. When temperatures dropped below freezing in mid-winter, Ladybird held a blanket drive that filled the front half of the diner with hundreds of warm wraps from the community that were distributed to those in need — again, no questions asked.

“I’ve learned the Lawrence, Kansas, cares very much that people have access to nutrition,” Heriford says of the past 15 months. “And since that’s, you know, just a very fundamental need, and … we don’t want people going hungry for lack of access, then that opens the conversation to so many other fundamental needs. It feels like it makes it a lot easier to have those conversations, because I already knew you cared. You already showed you care.”

Heriford feels strongly that it’s important that Lawrence’s businesses pitch in to support the community and its social safety net. “I think it’s important for the for-profit sector to inherit some of that responsibility, so that the nonprofits don’t have to shoulder the whole thing,” she says. “It’s a lot, but the need is very great. So the more that the capitalists can sort of start to recognize that these investments in a healthy community are really an investment in healthy business, it just makes sense. It’s just good business.”

Ladybird’s food bank served the community pretty much constantly during the pandemic, with occasional short breaks so Heriford and her staff could rest, regroup — and try to figure out what came next. She played with the idea of reopening as a combination restaurant/food pantry, or a community kitchen, or maybe even as a downtown fresh market.

But the building’s cramped space limited her ambitions, and in the end, as the pandemic wound down and the local economy perked up and people went back to work and her friends with other restaurants began to reopen, Heriford decided that Ladybird would return in its original form: a friendly downtown diner. 

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So in mid-May, Heriford ended the free lunch program — the slack is being taken up by local social-services organizations like Salvation Army, she says — and began to reboot the diner. The clutter and wear and tear of 15 months of food giveaways needed to be cleaned up, equipment repaired and replaced and workers hired and trained (much of her former staff is returning).

“I pulled some tables out,” Heriford says, surveying the restaurant space as the omnipresent rock music soundtrack plays softly in the background. “I definitely want people to feel like there’s more room in here. I don’t know who’s ready to pack back in to places like this, but I want it to feel real comfortable for everyone, and I want the pace to feel like something that isn’t impossible for the staff.”

She plans to start slow. The restaurant will be open for breakfast and lunch four days a week, at first, with more days — and fried chicken Fridays — added as the operation comes back up to speed. The staff will be a bit smaller, and menu will be abbreviated — think of it as Ladybird’s greatest hits.

“We’ll build from there,” she says. “I just think it’s really smart to make sure that that we can manage the volume, that we can prepare enough food to keep up for the first couple weeks. So, we’ll start kind of easy. And then, once I know we can accommodate everyone, we’ll add more days. … Getting this place back into fighting shape in the sense that it’s got some resources to share is Priority One.”

Will customers come back? “You know, the funny thing is, every time we do anything I’m always terrified no one’s coming, right? Like I’m always just, ‘nobody’s coming, nobody’s coming,’” she says. “When we reopened after the fire, like, ‘no one’s coming, they’re not coming’ — and they came.”

She probably has nothing to worry about this time. Heriford got a sneak peek at the pent-up demand for Ladybird last month, when she opened a “pop-up” version one Friday lunchtime, serving just cheeseburgers, fries and milkshakes, to test the diner’s new online ordering system. As they say in the restaurant business, the place got slammed. “It was a slaughter,” she says, laughing. “At one point, I was holding a stack of tickets — it was like 200 orders … and Billy, my son, was the one who’s making the cheeseburgers, and I was [saying], ‘Just keep cooking cheeseburgers — everyone will get one.’ And everyone did. … But some of them had to wait just an ungodly amount of time.”

She expects more than regular paying customers to return when the diner reopens; she knows that a lot of the folks who depended on her over the past 15 months will be back too. “I think that I would expect we’ll see a lot of those folks popping in for a burger here and there,” she says. “Which will be great. And I hope that that solidifies our reputation as being a place that will provide something to eat—no questions asked.”

Even with all the ups and downs of the diner’s history and the events of the past year or so, Heriford is clearly psyched about this next iteration of Ladybird. “It’s so surreal. I know we’ve been closed a really long time, but doesn’t feel like it’s been 15 months,” she says. “This has all just been one foot in front of the other, right? I mean every day was just one foot in front of the other, and some of them were so exhausting, so, like physically and spiritually depleting, that I just didn’t know how I would do it again the next day. And then I got up and put one foot in front of the other. 

“Compared to that, reopening this and trying to recreate what was best about us, while using what’s new about me, feels like it’s going to be so much fun. I’m really excited about it,” she says. “So I’m going to focus on my staff and my staff is going to focus on the people and people are going to focus on their cheeseburgers. And pie. And they’re going to go out into the world and have, hopefully, a much better day for having been here.”

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