Older, wiser and still the boss Earl Lucas has been creating businesses and helping the community for years.
By Kristin Boyd
Reading Eagle correspondent

It's the start of happy hour on a late Wednesday afternoon, and the Grill, Then Chill Bar & Lounge in Reading is beginning to fill up.

Old-school jams by New Edition and the Jackson 5 play in the background, and on a set of flat-screen televisions along the back wall, commentators discuss preseason football. Owner Earl Lucas bounces around like a pinball, talking with his regulars, explaining repair needs to a handyman, slipping on a crisp suit jacket for a photo shoot. In a minute, he'll head back to the kitchen and start prepping orders.

"I've been an entrepreneur for as long as I can remember," said Lucas, 46, who, along with his wife, Maribel Cosme, opened the lounge at 400 Woodward St. in May. "I knew I had to create something for myself. I guess that's where my drive comes from. I didn't have no choice. I had to make it work."

Lucas was raised in the 6th Ward, which had long been one of Reading's tight-knit, predominantly black neighborhoods. He traces his sense of community and work ethic to when he was 14 and landed his first job with the city's summer work program.

Lucas said that even as a teen he understood the value of money and knew he would own a business one day.

"I always wanted to be my own boss," he said.

Despite having big dreams, though, Lucas succumbed to the streets as a teen. He dropped out of Reading High School in the 10th grade and said he was refused re-entry when he tried to return six months later. He never advocates the street lifestyle but admits it is part of his story that he cannot ignore.

"I was never in trouble, but I did live on the edge," he said. "I can't blame nobody but myself. Not having a diploma really impacted my life. I always stress education. I tell any kid that dropping out was the worst decision of my life."

Lucas immediately established a Plan B and set out to find a full-time job. He worked as a cook and dishwasher for seven years at Berkshire Country Club in Bern Township. He worked for a time at Met-Ed in Muhlenberg Township. To focus fully on his new lounge, he retired in August as a driver for the Berks County Intermediate Unit, also based in Muhlenberg, where he worked for 11 years.

In between, he has hosted and promoted parties at area venues, and he opened a custom-rim shop and a sandwich shop, both in Reading. Due to lackluster effort, he said, neither business lasted long.

"My priorities weren't straight," he said. "Maturity has helped me as a businessman."

In November 2004, without any previous publishing experience, Lucas created the monthly Afro-Latino Magazine. He used $800 from savings to buy a computer and printer, and he and Cosme would spend hours collating and stapling the magazine in the basement of their West Reading home before distributing the publication at barbershops, hairdressers and restaurants.

Building on the magazine's success, Lucas and Cosme discussed another entrepreneurial venture: opening a lounge. After looking at several buildings, they purchased the former Woodward Café, determined to transform the spot into something positive.

They invested $90,000 from their savings and a line of credit on one of their properties. In addition, they received a $150,000 loan from Community First Fund and a $35,000 microloan from the City of Reading's Department of Community Development.

"We came across a great opportunity," Lucas said. "It's a prime location, and the building came with apartments (above the lounge) and some parking spaces that are rented out. So we have that steady revenue."

Ray Melcher, a local business expert who often works with the Kutztown Small Business Development Center, said restaurant owners such as Lucas must create a "wow factor" if they want to succeed, particularly since there is so much competition and a high rate of failure in the industry. He said Lucas must provide a consistent, memorable and impressive experience that focuses on areas such as food, atmosphere and parking.

"You've got to come out of the gate with something distinct that attracts customers," Melcher said. "Half of the battle is getting them to there, but you have to make sure the experience is such that people can't wait to return, and they can't wait to tell other people about it. You have to make it special."

With mauve walls and brown leather furniture, the lounge resembles a laid-back man cave with soft feminine touches. Cosme, a full-time court analyst, serves as bartender at night and on weekends, and Lucas is the cook. Popular menu items include shrimp macaroni and cheese and Caesar salad topped with jerk chicken, he said.

"I say it's Pennsylvania Dutch-style with flavor," said Lucas, who draws customers through word-of-mouth, advertising in his magazine and Facebook, where he posts pictures of his daily specials.

Melcher said Lucas doesn't have to create an ultrafancy lounge as long he develops a hook that motivates customers to return. Lucas is on the right track by targeting and catering to a niche, which in this case is a mature urban audience, he said.

"If he can establish an identity and customize his food, environment, servers, prices and décor to that audience, that will increase his chances of success greatly," Melcher said.

Lucas' low-cost approach to marketing is appropriate for now, he added. However, it's important to measure results and re-evaluate as necessary.

"It sounds like he's making a positive step, and I applaud him for that," Melcher said.

Lucas said he feels as if his life has come full circle, personally and professionally.

He owns a popular business in the 6th Ward and has been recognized by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's Reading Branch and MAN Inc. for his community service. He was invited to speak about the importance of staying in school at I-LEAD Charter School, and he plans to create two college scholarships for local youth.

"Now is the time to invest in Reading," said Hector Ruiz, who owns Sofrito Gastro Pub at 220 Douglass St., sponsors Lucas' annual Afro-Latino Parade and advertises in Afro-Latino Magazine. "We both took chances (opening restaurants), but we did it because we see the potential. When I see him being successful and doing what he's doing, I think it's awesome."

Contact Kristin Boyd: 610-371-5080 or businessweekly@readingeagle.com.

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