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Emerging Lane | No Rest for a Restaurateur

Serial program creator dives back into the kitchen — and keeps a microphone nearby

By Kathie Stamps

Franchise Operator of J. Gumbos is the latest job title for Robbie Morgan, a former campaign manager for LexArts and creator of Crave Lexington Food + Music Festival.

As a child in Lawrenceburg, Ky., Robbie Morgan wanted to be a star. “I fully expected I would be a truck driver or a Solid Gold dancer,” she said. With boundless energy, the Anderson County native took off for Chicago after high school.

Morgan performed theater with the Neo-Futurists troupe, cooked at a Southern reconstruction restaurant, helped open the flagship American Girl store café and worked as a community educator at an all-girls’ school in Chicago’s South Side neighborhood, which inspired her to learn more about medical sociology.

In 2003 she went to the University of Toronto and earned a degree in sexual diversity studies and sociology. During her school years in Ontario, Morgan cooked at Le Petite Dejeuner with owner and chef Johan Maes, “where I learned the fine dance of working in tiny kitchens,” she said. “It was during my years at U of T that I began working in fundraising and made a career shift into development.” She spent the next couple of years working at the university in Canada, in alumni affairs and professional fundraising.

“I missed my family and the hug of the Kentucky mountains, so I moved back to the states and Kentucky in 2009, plopped myself right down in Lexington and got to work,” she said.

Among other artistic and entrepreneurial endeavors, Morgan was the campaign manager for LexArts; she started Change for Art, a public art program involving parking meters; she created Crave Lexington Food + Music Festival and launched it with Smiley Pete in 2012; and she worked with the UK Art Museum to create Y’Art Sales.

“I missed being in the weeds, stressed out and taking risks to create something big, so I dove back into a place I missed,” she said. “The kitchen.”

In the fall of 2018, Morgan became a franchise owner-operator (and chief cook and bottle washer) of a J. Gumbo’s restaurant on the north side of Lexington. Based in Louisville, the quick-service chain has locations in a dozen states offering a menu of Cajun and Creole dishes. Morgan’s storefront looks a bit different from the other J. Gumbo’s restaurants, and she uses her own recipes.

There’s certainly a bowl of gumbo on the menu, along with red beans and rice and jambalaya. But then, on any given week, Morgan may serve up a bowl of rice with stewed tomato and eggplant from Elkhorn Oaks Farm in Versailles, or a shrimp étouffée with shrimp sourced from Lexington’s Rolling Blue Farm and topped with hot sauce from Sav’s Grill & West African Cuisine. Her daily bread pudding often has a base of donuts from North Lime Coffee & Donuts and might come with a Kentucky bourbon sauce or a toasted-oak syrup from Gents Original Ginger Ale, a gelato from Sorella Gelateria or cookies from Martine’s Pastries.

Morgan is so eco-conscious – and that stands for economical as well as ecological – she implemented “10 Dollar, No Holla Sundays” for students and nonprofit workers to bring a bag at closing time and have it loaded with food that would have otherwise been thrown away, because the restaurant is closed on Mondays. However, “10 Dollar, No Holla Sundays” are currently on hold as JGumbos works under seasonal winter hours, staying closed on Sunday and open on Mondays from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. The event will return in April/May upon the arrival of Spring and a new outdoor patio at the restaraunt.

J. Gumbo’s Lexington offers takeout, catering and delivery via several services, including Grubhub. The garden behind the shop is referred to as a gARTen, of course, and is the site of artist talks and live music. You can even see Morgan behind the microphone from time to time, with or without an apron. She fronts two bands, The Binders and Second Hand News, a Fleetwood Mac tribute band.

Morgan found the perfect spot for her restaurant on North Limestone, an up-and-coming part of Lexington known as NoLi. It’s her first foray into employer-ville, although she is no stranger to heading up a staff of volunteers. It’s different having a staff of seven employees, though.

“Meeting payroll and being responsible for other people’s livelihood is terrifying,” she said. “I take it very seriously. I want to be selling more and having more customers because I’m responsible for these people’s paychecks.”

Her managerial style is one of “giving people tools to be successful and getting out of their way.” Although it hasn’t come naturally to her, what with so much built-in ambition and creativity, Morgan knows that vision drives the bus, not artistic temperament.

“As the boss or leader, you have the grand vision,” she said. “You have to keep your head in the macro. You can never sink in the micro.”