Lisa Grigsby used her experience in the restaurant business to succeed in the comedy club world. She leveraged that experience to launch an event planning business, market Dayton’s film opportunities, and publicize community events.
In the beginning…
When Lisa Grigsby was growing up around Washington, DC, she thought she was going to be a banker, “because I always liked playing with cash registers and money”. Her interest in finance continued after her family moved to Chicago. “My junior and senior years in high school, I had an accounting class that I absolutely adored”. She also served as her high school football team’s statistician. Working with numbers felt right to her, and she began college at the University of Oklahoma as an Accounting major.
Lisa chose the University of Oklahoma for two reasons: it had a football team and nice dorms. Although Oklahoma was “kind of culture shock”, she found a place with the football team as a trainer doing stats and other tasks. “I was the first woman team trainer in the Big Eight at the time…and my coach was not real pleased”. After several days of sending her “through (the dressing room) thinking it would rattle me”, he realized she was unflappable. She relished the work and says, “I got to go to some great bowl games”.
At the same time, Lisa discovered that accounting bored her. She stayed in business, however, and earned her degree in Marketing.
What did Lisa do after she graduated from college?
After graduation, Lisa returned to Chicago and got a job as a lingerie buyer for a department store. The job was more inventory management than marketing and lacked challenge. “I would dread getting up in the morning and going to work”. She lasted for nine months and quit.
While she considered her next steps, Lisa got a waitressing job. To her surprise, she recognized “that I really loved that”.
How did waitressing influence Lisa’s career path?
When she interviewed with the general manager, she noticed a picture of Phillips Crab House on the wall. She was familiar with Phillips from summer vacations and commented on the photo. After chatting for 30 minutes, the general manager created a plan to prepare Lisa for management by exposing her to all aspects of the restaurant. She waitressed, worked the bar, and finally spent time in the kitchen, so she would be able to perform any task.
One day a man sat down at one of her tables and pulled out a cigarette. In the 1980s, smoking was still permitted in restaurants. Lisa immediately pulled out her lighter and lit his cigarette. He said, “I really love your attitude,” and handed her a $100 bill. Then he introduced himself. He was Rich Melman, one of the LEYE owners and, thereafter, one of Lisa’s mentors.
Lisa had additional mentors who taught her the restaurant business, but eventually she was ready to move beyond Shaw’s. She found a manager’s spot in different restaurant.
How did football push Lisa into the comedy club business?
Lisa wanted to see the University of Oklahoma play in the Orange Bowl, but, since she was no longer with the team, she needed a second job to afford the trip. She started telemarketing for a comedy club, The Funny Bone Comedy Club and Restaurant in Chicago. She worked from 10am to 2pm, calling people to say, “You just won Yuck for a Buck!” She got paid $0.15 per person who actually attended the show. After 2pm, she went to her restaurant job.
When Lisa decided that it was time to leave her restaurant job, she told the Funny Bone’s manager she needed a job and he offered her one. At that time, Lisa had never been to a comedy show, so she didn’t know what to expect. The manager said, “It’s got to be like running a restaurant… you just help seat people”.
In the 1980s comedy clubs were hot. The Funny Bone was located inside a hotel. The club handled ticket sales, the door and the talent, and the hotel ran the restaurant and bar. The manager was a comic.
After observing people often tipped her in order to sit up front, Lisa convinced the manager to offer VIP seating for $5.00 and pay her $1.00 for each one. She also noticed the restaurant servers weren’t very attentive, so she met with the hotel’s food and beverage manager to let him know, “you’re missing sales and you’re leaving money on the table”. Each suggestion made her aware of the difference between the manager’s artistic brain and her business brain.
How did Lisa get started opening comedy clubs?
The Funny Bone’s corporate office noticed, “You guys are making a lot more money than you’ve ever made”. Consequently, the corporation’s representative came to visit. When he told Lisa they wanted to open another club, Lisa asked about their business and marketing plans. He said, “You’ve got a lot of questions; you want to do this?” He wrote Lisa a check for $50,000 and said, “Here’s your seed money; go find a place in Atlanta.”
Lisa identified the factors which helped the Chicago club draw an audience: the nearby presence of a TGI Fridays and close proximity to apartment complexes. She instructed a commercial realtor in Atlanta, “Find a spot that’s within a quarter mile of a TGI Fridays and it needs to be within a quarter mile of a highway”. The Atlanta club was successful and “I ended up opening 26 clubs around the country”.
Each time Lisa opened a new club, taking it from concept to operation, she chose the décor, contracted with vendors, hired staff and planned scheduling. She quickly “learned to take on more and more and not bother” the general office. Some clubs already had a manager, some wanted her to find a manager, and some said, “We’ve got this guy who’s not quite ready; see if you can get him in shape”.
Experience taught her to think quickly on her feet. “You have a show and you have a crowd full of people. The show starts at 8 o’clock and it’s 7 o’clock. (The limo company tells you the main act’s plane) is not going to land for another hour… all right what am I going to do?”
From football teams to comedy clubs, Lisa was used to working in male environments. “In the comedy club world, 90-95% comics are men” and it was her job to shepherd the them around town, including bars and strip clubs. “I had to take them to the radio in the morning… to promote the club…you’d knock on the door, they’d be hungover from being out drinking…I’d throw water on their face, get your clothes on!” “I just got used to working in that world”.
When did Lisa come to Dayton?
In 1991 Lisa had been working in comedy clubs for five years. She was in Covington, Kentucky teaching a new Funny Bone franchisee how to run the club, when she got a call seeking her recommendations for a manager for a comedy club in Dayton. Lisa asked, “Is it Wiley’s or Jokers?” The caller didn’t want to disclose that information, but Lisa pointed out, “Jokers has a full restaurant and bar and Wiley doesn’t, so they’re different skill sets”. She agreed to meet and signed a nondisclosure agreement in order to discuss the question further.
The club in question was Jokers Comedy Cafe. Mike Bowling, creator of the Pound Puppy stuffed animals, had opened the club in 1985 and “had never made a penny”. Lisa agreed to come to Dayton for 90 days. “We’ll turn the club around and get the numbers all in line, then we’ll find a manager”. After about 60 days, Lisa reported the club’s numbers looked good and recommended they hire a manager. Instead, Bowling offered her the job for a year. Lisa declined, because “Dayton was probably the smallest city I’d been in” and she knew nothing about it. “When I came here for 90 days, all I did was work that club”.
Bowling persisted. “At the time I had an apartment still in Cleveland, my winter clothes all in storage in St. Louis, expired plates on my car from Georgia and an expired driver’s license from Illinois, because all I was doing was going around from club to club”. Lisa decided that maybe it was time to settle in one place, “so I named what I thought was an outrageous amount of money and they said okay”. She agreed to stay for a year.
What led Lisa to work at Wiley’s Comedy Joint?
In 1992 Bowling sold the business to Tim Mehlman, a Cincinnati-based purchaser who had never owned a club. Lisa offered to stay for 90 days to teach him the business, and he agreed, but thereafter showed little interest. Consequently, Lisa continued to run the club. “At that point, I’d just gotten lazy…this is easy. I’ll just keep doing what I’m doing”.
In 1993 all the paychecks bounced twice and Lisa handed in her notice. She agreed to stay on the condition that Mehlman remove himself as an authorized signer on the checking account, “so he couldn’t drain the club’s profits out of the account”. They continued to have disagreements, however, and a month later, Mehlman fired her without cause.
Lisa immediately called Dan “Wiley” Lafferty of Wiley’s Comedy Joint, the other comedy club in Dayton. Over lunch, she offered to work for him for $100/week. “Until I figure out what my next step is… I got time on my hands and nothing to do”. When they went back to the club, Wiley interrupted their conversation to help move an ice machine. In the process, he cut his finger badly enough for a trip to the hospital, leaving Lisa alone at the club. In the course of that afternoon, she accepted deliveries, answered the phone and made reservations. “So I ended up working for Wiley’s”.
Since Lisa didn’t have a noncompete agreement with Jokers, she was free to call the agents handling the big name acts she’d booked at Jokers. She told them that if Jokers “doesn’t pay the deposit on this act, call me. I’ll honor that date at the club across town”. Three days later, the calls started coming in.
Gradually Lisa convinced Wiley to include urban comedy, which hadn’t been part of the repertoire. They “bring in a different crowd which means, hey, I have a larger audience to pull from”.
How did Lisa become the owner of Jokers Comedy Cafe?
In 1995 Mehlman defaulted on his balloon note, and Mike Bowling suddenly owned Jokers again. He convinced Lisa to return to help him understand the club’s situation. They learned that Mehlman hadn’t paid the sales tax, as well as owing numerous vendors. Lisa determined that Jokers owed around $65,000 in back sales taxes and even more to unpaid vendors. Bowling agreed that she would run Jokers for one year and at the end of the year, she would buy the business for the remaining amount of debt. A year later, Jokers was hers. Eventually, she bought the building, too.
In 1998 Lisa got involved in the Dayton community. It was summer and hot when a young woman came in to apply for a job wearing short shorts and a cropped top. When Lisa offered her something to drink, she asked for a beer. Lisa didn’t hire her. “That night it just kept bothering me. Why doesn’t she know any better? Who’s going to tell her?” The next day, Lisa searched for programs to train people for job readiness, and found a new program, Clothes That Work. She was their second volunteer.
Clothes That Work Luncheon 2011 – Doris Ponitz, Lisa, Ginny Strausburg, Sue Zickefoose
Gradually Lisa realized that she liked Dayton. “You can do something in Dayton, have an idea, make it happen, watch it succeed and it doesn’t matter how deep your pockets are, because people here care and they will connect.”
When a prominent Dayton community leader, Doris Ponitz, suggested Lisa go through the Dayton Area Chamber of Commerce’s yearlong Leadership Dayton program, Lisa balked. As a small business owner, it was expensive. She discovered, however, “it was a great eye opener to what Dayton has to offer, because I came here not really getting out of my little bubble, and I just worked in the club.” She gained an additional benefit. “It also made me have to trust my staff a little more, because I’d be away for a whole day, so they got to grow… That was a big growth experience for me”.
In the thirteeen years Lisa owned Jokers, she successfully operated in an essentially male-dominated business, expanding the club’s offerings with specialty shows, open-mike nights and corporate events. She also developed a reputation for nurturing rising young comedians.
In 2006 a tornado blew down the Jokers marquee and Miami Township wouldn’t allow Lisa to rebuild it. At the same time, The Funny Bone was about to open a 325-seat club at a new shopping and entertainment complex, The Greene. Lisa doubted Dayton was big enough for three comedy clubs, and she negotiated a merger of Jokers into the Funny Bone chain which included all of the Jokers staff. “I knew that this will either be great or a colossal failure, so I had a 6-month contract with them. I made it 9 months before they fired me”. Lisa fired an act she thought was “creepy and unethical”, but corporate management said, “you don’t run your own club anymore; this is our decision”.
What did Lisa do after she left the comedy business?
As Lisa was figuring out her next steps, she did some contract work for the Miami Valley Restaurant Association, Culture Works, the Aids Resource Center (ARC, now Equitas) and the Humane Society of Greater Dayton. ARC asked her several times to be their fulltime events planner. Once they negotiated a provision that Lisa could work her own hours (no mornings), Lisa agreed.
Lisa loved the challenge of staging events for ARC in unusual venues, such as the Roundhouse at the Montgomery County Fairgrounds. “It doesn’t have much electrical. It doesn’t have bathrooms, so it was a challenge to figure out how to make it work, how to put it together”. She was used to working frugally and finding ways to bring events in below budget added to the challenge.
By 2014 the ARC had become more “corporate” as the organization expanded in both scope and geographical reach, eventually rebranding itself as Equitas Health. “It wasn’t where I wanted to be anymore. It had become too many layers of corporate for the entrepreneur in me”.
What did Lisa do next?
In 2008, sponsored by the Southwestern Ohio Council for Higher Education, Dayton Area Chamber of Commerce and some major corporations, Richard Florida came to Dayton to kick off DaytonCREATE, a yearlong effort to inventory the community’s assets and to assist the community with developing some practical ideas to persuade talented youth to stay in Dayton. (Dayton Daily News, April 6, 2008) Lisa participated as a Catalyst (volunteer).
During the process, DaytonCREATE founded FilmDayton as a film festival and identified the need for a community calendar. Dayton Most Metro, a downtown message board, became the source for event information and positive news and reviews. Lisa got involved in both.
When Lisa left the Aids Resource Center in 2014, FilmDayton was out of money. Lisa volunteered to work for the summer to get it on firm ground. Since then, she has continued as the Executive Director.
Previously, Dayton had partnered with Columbus and Cincinnati to petition the State of Ohio to adopt a tax incentive to foster a film industry in Ohio. The State created the Ohio Motion Picture Tax Credit (OMPTC), but it didn’t help Dayton much, because most movies were made in Cincinnati and Cleveland. In 2016 the Board of Trustees of FilmDayton decided to shift from a film festival to a film commission to market the area as a film production location. After Lisa earned her official certification as a film commissioner, FilmDayton relaunched as a film commission in April 2016.
As the film commissioner, Lisa reaches out to movie directors to encourage them to film in Dayton. “In a perfect world, you fly them in and get a copy of the script and go okay here’s what your script would look like in our town. (Except) FilmDayton doesn’t have any money, so that’s really hard to do”. Lisa works with Film Cincinnati to encourage producers to employ people from Dayton and promote Dayton as a scene location. For example, Miles Ahead, a biopic about Miles Davis, was based in Cincinnati, but the director filmed scenes at the Refraze Recording Studios in Kettering and the Montgomery County jail.
In order to demonstrate the economic impact, Lisa persuaded “a couple of the County Commissioners to come do a (movie) set tour, so they could see what goes into the business of film,” including the cast of 12 or 15, around 100 extras, a crew of 75, the food, the parking, etc. Consequently, the County awarded FilmDayton a small contract to expand its work.
In addition, Lisa developed Dayton Most Metro into an online magazine covering a variety of topics such as such as Arts & Entertainment, Dayton Music, Dayton Theatre, Active Living and Community. Dayton Dining is her favorite.
She started Dayton Dining as a newsletter to publicize Dayton restaurants and eventually added it to Dayton Most Metro. “I think I still have the heart of a restaurateur and I know how hard it was when you’re in the day-to-day”. Restaurant owners may intend to work on marketing, but then “the dishwasher didn’t show”.
Also in May 2014, Lisa “decided to take the summer to put together a business plan to launch Planned2Give”, an event planning business she created with Jeff Jackson. Before they could finalize the plan, however, Jeff started getting calls. Many nonprofits recognized it was cheaper to hire Planned2Give than to keep an event planner on staff.
What is Lisa doing now?
Currently Lisa works part-time as the Executive Director of FilmDayton and runs Planned2Give with Jeff. She also manages Dayton Most Metro as a volunteer. It gives “me all these things to work on and I can work on all of them autonomously when I need to… Keeps me from doing the same old, same old”.
- Take more chances
- Figure out what success looks like for you, not for someone else
- Meet people for the fun of it; don’t always have an ulterior motive
- Don’t bitch; find a way to make it better
- Get out of your comfort zone
- Explore; there’s tons to do
- Get involved
- If what you want doesn’t exist, get out and start it
- Find partners, trust them and don’t micromanage them
- “Sometimes you have to do things just because, and not because it’s going to benefit you at that moment. You’re just building goodwill somewhere along the line”.
“The overriding thing to my whole life is I don’t panic…things are just going to happen as they’re supposed to. Or maybe they’re not the plan I had, but nobody knew that plan and however it comes out, it comes out…I never knew what comedy club I was going to open. I never had a plan to buy a comedy club. My fall back is always that I can still waitress… that gives you a lot of freedom. The worst that’s going to happen is they’ll fire me”.