Unique LGBT-owned restaurant marks 40 years in a challenging industry.
By Kim Hogstrom
Why does everyone think they should own a restaurant? Most people would have about as much success opening a VCR repair shop in 2017—and we all know how that would go.
Consider a recent study from restaurant-industry experts Perry Group International, which concluded that 75 percent of new American restaurants close in their first year. Seventy percent of those that make it through year one close within the next five years. Ninety percent of the establishments still operating past the five-year mark will remain in business for five more—maybe.
Despite these challenges, one LGBTQ-owned fixture in Houston celebrates its 40th anniversary this month. The Rainbow Lodge is a one-of-a-kind eatery on Ella Boulevard at East T.C. Jester in Oak Forest.
Restaurants that survive require creative thinking, sensitivity to seasons and trends, and stable decision-makers in management. Rainbow Lodge has all these, starting with the 15-year partnership of married couple Donnette Hansen and Sheila Shell.
“I think there’s an intangible element in the recipe, too,” Hansen says. “It’s hard to describe. I think there has to be a little magic in it all.”
Hansen spends more time in “the front of the house,” but Shell is no less involved. She designs the ever-changing décor and is in charge of operations. Restaurant administration is often overlooked, but experts agree that it’s as critical to success as good food and service.
While most restaurants are rife with debilitating staff turnover, many Rainbow Lodge employees have been a part of the team for years, if not decades. This fact speaks volumes.
“We are so blessed to have them,” Hansen says. “It’s absolutely a team effort here. And we simply couldn’t do any of this without our friends, chef Mark Schmidt and general manager Tim Neely. We are fortunate to be surrounded by so much dedicated talent.”
If you think this handsome couple doesn’t look old enough to be celebrating 40 years in business, you’d be correct. The Rainbow Lodge was opened in 1977 by Hansen’s uncle in an awkward multi-level building on Birdsall Street in Washington Heights. In 1988, after earning a culinary degree in New York City, Donnette Hansen acquired the business.
In 2006, just as the lease on the Birdsall property came up for renewal, a rustic cabin on Ella Boulevard hit the market. Hansen leapt at the chance to buy that 113-year-old cabin with views that now transport Rainbow Lodge patrons to the feet of Mother Nature. White Oak Bayou drifts gently past its large windows. Graceful trees and natural gardens surround the space, while local wildlife entertains.
Rainbow Lodge specializes in seafood, seasonal and locally sourced produce, and regional wild game, all served with the same quality and attention to detail found in four-star restaurants, but at a better value. A Texas Monthly restaurant reviewer once wrote: “Just throw a dart at the menu to find something divine. You will.”
During a recent a lunch, we dined on a salad of whipped ricotta, homegrown heirloom tomatoes, and melon infused with honey from beehives in the lodge’s garden. Our salad was followed by a batter-dipped fried quail thigh nesting in creamy white cheddar grits and finished with a bourbon-bacon cream sauce. If heaven had a flavor, this would be it.
“I love Donnette and Sheila. They are amazing,” says longtime customer and friend Terry Pierce.
Pierce and her husband attended Hansen and Shell’s wedding in Napa, California, in 2014. Pierce is still swooning at the beauty of the event. “It was a magical ceremony and a tremendously happy day. My husband and I would not have chosen to be anywhere else on Earth; it was a joy to witness such a union,” Pierce says.
“They each bring so much to the restaurant,” she adds. “Most people don’t know that Donnette is an outstanding chef with a professional culinary degree. It’s rare to find creativity in keen business minds, but both Donnette and Sheila have it. It has resulted in many loyal customers.”