julia li of lu lu fresh express photo by ashley gieseking

What I Do: Julia Li of Lu Lu Fresh Express

Julia Li grew up in her family’s restaurants, watching them turn out authentic Chinese fare to hungry St. Louisans. But she didn’t jump into the family business right away. Instead, Li began her career in public relations, working for companies like Nickelodeon, Disney and Scratch Music Group. When she recently returned to Lu Lu Seafood & Dim Sum, she used that marketing know-how to take the family business to the next level, launching an entrepreneur center, dishing out healthy offerings and revving up a food truck.

Why did you return to St. Louis? About a year-and-a-half ago, I found out I have a pituitary adenoma – it’s a benign brain tumor. So it’s not a big deal … but at that time, I reassessed what’s important, and family and creative expression were at the top of that list. Another reason I came back is that our kitchen expanded very fast. About three years ago, Dierbergs approached us to partner with them on satellite locations (inside Dierbergs) called Lu Lu Chinese Express … and we were trying to keep up with demand.

What do you do now? I’m the one who’s in charge of our Dierbergs relationships, business development and Lu Lu’s Fresh Express – developing the Fresh Express fast-casual concept and making this something that the clientele really enjoy.

How does your work in PR influence the work you do at Lu Lu? The overarching connection is creating experiences. I’m passionate about delivering really cool experiences and exposing my culture to all types of people.

What is Lu Lu Fresh Express? It’s our gluten-free, dairy-free, no-MSG options for those who want to eat healthier … Dierbergs carries Lu Lu Fresh Express meals under the name Lu Lu Healthy Balance. And on the Lu Lu’s Fresh Express side, we also have a food truck coming out.

When will it hit city streets? It’s slated to run Oct. 1. Originally, we were going to do a dim sum truck. Now we’re doing a street food concept with it, things that are griddled, moo shu wraps, things that you can take to-go … We’re aggressively looking for a building to buy, too. We want (a brick-and-mortar) to be open by the beginning of the year.   

You also got involved in Lu Lu’s bar program. What changed? Before we didn’t really have an official bar program; we kind of just had a bar. Now we’ve completely transformed it. We have about seven specialty cocktails … for instance, the lychee martini made with fresh lychees. The Chivas Regal whiskey green tea is what we all drink in China. You walk in anywhere, and they’ll be like, “Do you want a whiskey green tea?”

What is Create Space? Create Space has transitioned (from a pop-up artisan market) to a creative entrepreneurship incubator. We’re building a commercial kitchen down the street from (Lu Lu Seafood). The intention is to turn Olive Boulevard into an innovation center for creatives and food makers.

Describe the working dynamic between you and your mom, Jenny Lu. My mom is the mastermind of how the restaurant functions. She does a phenomenal job with providing delicious, authentic, healthy, real Chinese food. What I bring to the table is recognizing this artisanal value. Every dumpling is handmade and has 11 folds in it. It’s a beautiful process. Everything in Chinese cuisine is about balance. I’m helping to bring that to a general public.

Is it ever challenging to work so close with family? We have our conflicts at times, and it’s mostly because I come from a world of entertainment, so I see things as: ‘How can we deliver the best product with the best brand at the exact right time?’ My parents, who have decades of business experience, know what works, and so it’s almost like we’re advising each other. They tell me how it is … and I’ll constantly challenge them, and in that process we innovate – because it really is a combination of both. It’s a balance that does the trick.

-photo by Ashley Gieseking

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