The Zesty Lemon Is Saint John’s Foodie Success Story

The Zesty Lemon owner Lisa Hovey (r) and her business partner Cindy Gray (l) (Image: Elizabeth MacLeod/Huddle)

SAINT JOHN – One year after opening, it’s hard to imagine Millidgeville without The Zesty Lemon on Somerset.

The Zesty Lemon has cemented its place as a staple of Saint John’s food scene, and was recently nominated in the “Emerging Enterprise” category for the Outstanding Business Awards, which will be hosted by the Saint John Region Chamber of Commerce October 10 at the Saint John Trade and Convention Centre.

“We’re really pleased with the response and very fortunate that we’ve been very well received, not only in the food community, but in Saint John in general,” said Lisa Hovey, owner of the Zesty Lemon.

Hovey, and her business partners Bill and Cindy Gray, have a partnership that reflects the success of their business.  The Grays are veterans of the food business, having worked in sandwich and catering businesses.

“When this opportunity arrived, we were so excited,” said Cindy.

Hovey was equally gushing about her partners.

“I say every day that it is Cindy and Bill who really run the place. I’m kind of behind the scenes, the idea person,” she said.

The restaurant was born from smart planning and the ideal location.

“Based on our research,” said Hovey, “we knew this area was a very busy, high traffic area with cars going by every day. You are looking at probably over 20 per cent of the city’s population going by here daily.”

There is plenty of eager and hungry customers of all ages from all over Saint John – from teachers, to university students, to people from the hospital – at the Zesty Lemon. Hovey said their busiest time is at lunch, until two or three in the afternoon.

“A family from Saint Andrews came up here a couple weeks ago; they had heard about Zesty and took the day to come up and check us out,” Cindy add.

The Zesty Lemon’s fresh, quality food is bought local whenever possible, with Bill sourcing and cooking the meat.

“I like to say we’re an elevated quick serve,” said Hovey.  She has also noticed, “A lot of people get sandwiches, go right to the deli afterwards and get some meat.  I would say 75%-80% of people come in for the sandwiches while 25% come in to get the meat make their own sandwiches.”

People also come in and get a sandwich and then buy meat for sandwiches or dinner.

“I’ve had people come in, have a sandwich, realize while they’re eating that the deli is there and then buy meat to take home,” recalls Gray.

There were positives and negatives about being in business, although Hovey and Gray agree the pros vastly outweighed the cons. A positive that stood out for Hovey was how kind people can be and how excited they are for their food.

“I think people are really excited to get really good food that’s cooked here. Our ham, chicken, roast beef and bacon are cooked here daily on site, and people embraced the concept,” Hovey said.

“But sometimes social media can be a double-edged sword, people will say things maybe on social media that they may not say in person,” she said, noting a negative side. “As a small business owner, it’s hard when you get negative comments, but sometimes it’s good because you do want feedback; you have to take the good with the bad.”

Zesty also has several partnerships with local organizations such as Meals on Wheels, Saint John Regional Hospital’s Brighton Group and JDI.

“The experience has been very positive; some organizations reached out to us while we reached out to others. We hope to expand on those relationships and maybe even create some new ones,” Hovey said.

The restaurant’s partnership with Meals on Wheels has been especially successful. Hovey contacted Darlene Moore, Meals on Wheels’ Executive Director, and learned she was looking for better alternatives for her clientele.

“She wanted fresh, local food and we were more than happy to provide those options. It has been very well received and we will hopefully expand in the fall,” Hovey said.

The Zesty Lemon also prides itself in being a business that pays a living wage for their employees.

“We decided at the beginning to pay a little bit more than a lot of restaurants of this style; in my mind without the staff there wouldn’t be the Zesty Lemon; they are fantastic.“

The Zesty trio are not resting on their laurels and have exciting plans for the restaurant’s future. They plan to introduce Saturday brunch and sit-down suppers with later closing times in the fall.

The restaurant is also planning to expand and create more prep space at the service counter and bring the deli more to the forefront of the store.

“The deli is tucked back a little bit too far and people don’t notice it, so we are working on rearranging it in a market style and also sell bread, pickles and ready-to-go dinners,” stated Hovey. “We’re also hoping to offer a dinner-to-door program where people can order their dinner or deli meats and we’ll deliver them.”

The constant inquiries from people from Moncton to Halifax about opening a franchise is indicative of the Zesty Lemon’s popularity.

Hovey is cautiously optimistic expansion, but, “we have to make sure that we do everything right at this restaurant here in Saint John,” she said.