This year the ladies of Lipstick Lounge were big winners in our 2015 GayFaves reader polls, taking Best Overall Bar in the Nightlife section, Best Caterer in the Weddings section, and Best LGBT Owned Business in professional services. Lipstick Lounge is always a strong contender in these areas, so we sat down with co-owners Jonda Valentine and Christa Suppan, and caterer Cindy Pearson, to talk about Lipstick Lounge’s past, present and future.
“Originally,” according to Christa, “Lipstick was started by Jonda and her twin sister Ronda, and their partners. About three months in things went downhill, because bars are hard to run and cost a lot of money. I was working here—I’d been bartending a long time—and Jonda came to me and asked me if I knew anybody with some money. I said, ‘I got a little money, what do you want to do?’ She’s like, ‘We need to do this.’”
A restructuring of the partnership made room for Christa. “Then it was Jonda, Ronda, and I,” Christa said. “We bought Ronda out around I guess 2006 or 2007, so it’s been Jonda and I for a long time. I mean, the story’s a lot better than that but there’s a lot I’m not telling,” she added, teasing.
The initial stumbles aren’t surprising, given Jonda and Ronda’s background. “Jonda and Ronda didn’t have a lot of experience in the bar world,” Christa explained. “It was just something they wanted to do. They were a Pentecostal preacher’s daughters! When I was growing up, my grandparents had a bar, and my dad ran it and a sporting goods shop next door. From the time I was fifteen, I was waiting tables, and when I went off to college I bartended. It’s what I’ve always done. I’ve been in the restaurant business for twenty-six years, so a LONG time!”
It’s that experience, plus an enthusiasm for work behind the bar, that Christa feels she brings to the partnership. “I’d never run my own thing before, and I’d turned down a lot of manager’s jobs. I just enjoyed doing my thing behind the bar, and I still bartend two or three times a week.”
Each contributes something unique and valuable to the place. “Jonda is the entertainment,” Christa added. “She can sing: you know she sang backup for Ronnie Milsap and Dolly Parton, so she was a professional singer. I don’t sing! So she’s great at entertaining the people and the karaoke. I don’t get up there—that would be bad for business!”
The Neighborhood Girl Bar
Lipstick Lounge was originally conceived as a neighborhood lesbian bar, but that concept quickly evolved into a LGBT-friendly, neighborhood lounge. “It was nice to have a place where you could come in and be yourself. I mean you had your gay boy-bars, but if that’s not you, you didn’t really have anywhere,” Christa said. “Lipstick filled that need.”
In 2002-03, East Nashville was not the obvious site for an LGBT-owned and operated bar. “Back then,” Christa recalled, “East Nashville was pretty sketchy. I had my ADT alarm thing that I wore around my neck for security purposes.” She was also flipping homes in the area at the time. “A lot of times when you’re doing construction you just leave your stuff on site so you don’t have to haul it around. Here you didn’t leave anything out. I didn’t leave a handsaw lying around—I locked it up in the car!”
Despite the neighborhood, however, Jonda and Christa say it was far easier to get people to come from elsewhere than it was to get the locals to join them. “You know,” Jonda said, “we had people come from everywhere else, but we didn’t have neighborhood people.”
Christa nodded and added, “There were a lot of Franklin and Brentwood people, surprisingly enough.” Immediately both broke out laughing and said, simultaneously, “The Stepford Wives!”
“We called them that to their faces,” Christa assured me. “We’d be like, ‘Hey, Stepford wives!’ After about two years they were all divorced and gay!”
Jonda laughed and said, “Them, we met some of their husbands and we told them, ‘If I was you, I wouldn’t be bringing my wife in here!’ and they’d say, ‘No, it’s okay!’ And two years later, no it wasn’t okay, they lost their wives. One was so girly girl, and she came back with a shaved head!”
But how do you build a neighborhood bar in a neighborhood that’s not ready for you? “The people here weren’t real hip on it,” Christa said. “They weren’t very happy to have us here, so we had to try to break that barrier and show them that we’re not just here for us. Yes, we opened up because we wanted to have a place for us to be who we are, but at the same time we wanted people to come in and have fun with us.” That wasn’t an easy sell.
“We wanted it to be in a neighborhood, so you could have the neighborhood people,” Christa said. But things shifted slowly over the years. As the neighborhood changed, Lipstick became more integrated into it. “When we opened up, Margot had just opened, Edgefield was open, and Bongo Java was open, and that was about it. It took a while and it was a slow roll, but once Five Points developed things changed around here pretty quickly.”
Christa also believes that “the brunch has helped with that, breaking down the barriers. Some people come in after all these years and try the food, and say ‘You guys have really good food!’”
A Place for Everyone
Lipstick has “really become the kind of bar everybody can come to now,” Jonda said. And the clientele seems to agree.
“Sometimes, on the weekend,” Christa added, “I come in and there are more straight people here than gay people.” But it’s a different situation now than when the ‘Stepford wives’ were coming in to ‘get their feet wet’ before coming out. These are people who are simply comfortable in the environment.
“I came in last Friday night,” Jonda said, laughing, “and I wanted to go back outside and see if I was in the right place. I was like, ‘$#!t, I don’t know anyone in here!’ Usually I know a few because I know everyone, but I didn’t recognize anybody til it got late!”
The lack of homogeneity in the crowd is exactly the kind of vibe the lounge’s owners have tried to build. “We wanted it to be a melting pot,” Jonda said.
“You go to a lot of bars,” Christa said, “and they’re full of one type of person. The bar that you go to is a bar full of you. If you’re a white male, there’s a bunch of white men in that bar. You look around here, it’s amazing to see all the different people, the black, white, Asian, and the LGBT and straight people—we have everything.”
“You are on our turf though!” Jonda interjected. “We are lesbians, so you know you gotta play nice.”
“But we expect that respectful behavior from everybody,” Christa added. “When we first opened we had people come to us, because of where we were, and offer us kickbacks to do gambling here, or let them sell drugs. It was big money, but we said no and had it set up so that people knew it wasn’t okay here. Because, you know, that just wasn’t the kind of place we wanted. This is the kind of place we wanted.”
This year has brought a lot of new energy to Lipstick. Catering is part of that. “We’re really excited about the catering,” Christa said. “Cindy’s been doing a great job.” But as of October 5, 2015, another new venture has been operating out of Lipstick Lounge. “We started the East Side Propaganda: that’s Jonda and myself and Lee Patterson doing that.”
East Side Propaganda (www.eastsidepropaganda.com) is a company specializing in custom print goods, especially cloths and totes. They’re also doing gift packages featuring some of the catering products and their t-shirt line.
“We’re actually doing very well, so far,” Christa said. “Our t-shirt line … there’s a lot of gay in there and it’s hilarious! We are doing Christmas packages with some of Cindy’s chex mix and fudge—we’re doing that in tins. We’ve also done a lot of kids stuff and onesies. We’re doing a ton of kids aprons for Christmas!”
Cindy Pearson is a major new player in the Lipstick team, since Lipstick catering was launched in June. “I was a chef and caterer back in Raleigh, North Carolina,” Pearson said, “when my children were young. That was twenty-five years ago!”
“My cooking was inspired by my mother,” Pearson said. “When I found myself divorced with two small children and had to find a job. I had always cooked and had a flair for it—I didn’t realize how big a flair it was going to be at the time—so I just went to a restaurant one day and asked them to hire me. They said, ‘Yeah, you can work on the line.’ Two months later I was kitchen manager and two months later I was transferred to run a new location. That set the tone for my career in kitchens.”
Pearson then spent seventeen years in corporate food sales, which brought Pearson to Nashville, but when her company laid off half its sales force, she said, “I took time to figure out what I wanted to do, and that was to go back into the business. That’s what I really enjoyed.”
“I knew Jonda and Christa from being a patron,” Pearson explained, “and I came up with an idea: I felt there was more to Lipstick Lounge than everybody saw, and I’m like I really think we can make a go of catering. So I approached them and said, ‘What do you think about going in and doing this?’ and they were gung-ho.”
“It took us a couple of months to kinda work the kinks out and lay it out,” Pearson said. “We did a launch party and had people in to eat the food and just made a nice tasting menu for people, and then we started accepting catering jobs.”
Pearson’s catering menu is unrelated to the bar’s cuisine, Pearson said. “Lipstick serves more of a Tex-Mex menu … it’s very nice bar food, with a really nice brunch on the weekend. Tex-Mex is great but it’s not what I cater, unless that’s what a client asks for…. I trained under an Italian chef, so I have a huge Italian background, and that is my go-to if I have the opportunity.”
Rather than a set menu, however, Pearson laid out an example. “I offer a standard menu of just some suggestions,” Pearson said, “but I’d rather create a menu with you. That’s what I prefer to do.”
The result better suits the individuality of her clients and also speaks to the creativity she craved in returning to a catering, rather than a restaurant, kitchen. Reflecting on her success in restaurants, she said, “At almost fifty, I want to do it again, but I didn’t want to go back to the restaurant side, I want to do the catering side because I can be more creative.”
Generally, Pearson accepts catering jobs of seventy-five or less. “I can handle jobs of over a hundred,” she explained, “I just have to call in extra help.”
“Business has been good so far,” Pearson said. “Of course it’s never busy enough! We have to continue to get the word out. That was very apparent when we did [the LGBT Chamber’s] TASTE event and so many people were like, ‘We had no idea!’ Taste gave us a major plug: I’m more than pleased with the compliments we got, it was really a nice event and gave us good exposure. And of course winning Best Caterer in O&AN is really awesome to help get the word out.”
Perhaps Pearson summed it up best regarding Lipstick Lounge as a whole: “People need to know that this place that’s here isn’t just a bar: there’s a lot going on here! There’s a lot of things we can do that people should be taking advantage of!” And she wants you to know that she wants your business. “I mean, in my opinion,” Pearson said, “we should be catering every gay wedding in this town, and that’s where I want to see this business move!”