A Louisiana Tradition Since 1928
The Year was 1928
Our country was nearing the end of a notorious decade known as the Roaring Twenties. The decade belonged to speakeasies and bathtub gin, Ford’s Model “T” automobile, the first transatlantic flight and rise of the motion picture. Because of the success of our involvement in the Great War, American industry expanded at an unheard of rate. Anything seemed possible. Anything could be done. No matter how bad life could get you down, with a little ingenuity, some determination and a heaping helping of hard work, a man could do anything.
Enter Lea Johnson
Before the Great Depression, before the Second World War, before air conditioning, television, all-you-can-eat salad bars or the Internet, there was Lea’s Lunchroom. At first glance, it really wasn’t much to look at…just a small town diner located on a busy state highway with what can only be described as a limited menu at best: Ham sandwiches, a special-of-the-day plate lunch, strong Louisiana coffee and homemade pies. Lea would say there wasn’t any sense in a menu-that would just waste time. In his eyes, if the food is good enough, people will return.
And return they did…time and time again. Ask any patron of Lea’s to describe their favorite thing about the restaurant and most will likely tell tales of coconut cream, chocolate or pecan pies. But underneath it all, what they really appreciate is the consistency. No matter what happened, one could always count on a delicious, hearty meal from Lea’s. Chances are the chocolate pie you enjoyed at Lea’s as a child in the early 1970's was the exact recipes of the pies your grandfather enjoyed in the 1930's.
If You Feed Them, They Will Come
Lea Johnson never intended to create a landmark restaurant. It all started in 1928 in Johnson’s native Cheneyville, just a few miles down the road from the restaurant’s current location. Trained as an auto mechanic, Johnson tired of the long, hot hours of automobile repair work and decided to do something different. Acting on a hunch, Johnson traded one car for two counter tops, five stools, one coal-oil stove and a coffee pot. Not long after, he hired a skinny, redheaded, seventeen-year-old high school graduate, who he called Miss Georgie, to sell coffee and popcorn and manage the café. In 1939, Lea married Miss Georgie because, as he jokingly liked to say, he was tired of paying her $4 a week salary. Meeting, hiring and marrying Miss Georgie soon proved to be a serendipitous moment for the restaurant because it was from her side of the family that the pie recipes originated.
Lea liked to tell his customers he perfected the ham sandwich. “I told Miss Georgia,” said Johnson, “that we were going to serve one kind of sandwich.” His now famous ham sandwich consists of a combination of sliced and ground home-baked ham with mayo, lettuce, tomato and pickle. The only other items on the menu are a plate lunch with choice of meat served with two-three sides.
Pie in the Sky
No trip to Lea’s Lunchroom is complete without a slice of their world-famous pies. The secret to Lea’s pies comes from Mrs. Georgie’s side of the family. “The pies are my mother’s recipes,” Mrs. Georgie said in an interview during the 1980's with Louisiana Life magazine, “I use to go to the restaurant at 3 a.m. to meet the pie makers to make the pies.”
Lea’s Lunchroom bakes 9 different types of pies each morning. The daily flavors include: coconut, lemon, chocolate, banana, apple, peach, cherry, bumble berry and the best-selling flavor, pecan. Seasonal flavors include pumpkin, mincemeat, blueberry, blackberry and dewberry. While baked hams were always Lea’s specialty since the restaurant’s inception, it became apparent that something special was happening with the pies when Lea’s sold over 4,000 pies in less than 26 days in 1963. In March 2001, the Louisiana Legislature proclaimed Lecompte the Pie Capitol of Louisiana.
In 1951, Lea opened Lea’s Lunchroom in nearby Lecompte and within two years, he had so much business that he took down his brightly lit neon sign and “hid it.” Business was good. So good that Lea expanded his restaurant, virtually doubling the floor space. That didn’t help. The word was out. People just couldn’t get enough of the restaurant.
But it wasn’t just locals that frequented his establishment. Maybe it was savvy entrepreneurship or just the grace of God, but Lea’s Lunchroom benefited from more than just delicious, hot plate lunches and out-of-this-world pies. Lea’s Lunchroom just happened to be geographically located exactly between New Orleans and Shreveport. Remember: this was before the days of McDonald’s and Burger King. To weary travelers, Lea’s is a safe, quiet, clean place to enjoy a cup of coffee and pie. It became a tradition for families and a destination for generations of customers. One customer who has been as guest since 1958, will travel from Shreveport, Louisiana, just to eat lunch.
Throughout the years, numerous reporters and newsmen, even Johnny Carson from The Tonight Show in 1989, questioned Lea about the secret of his success. Lea would laugh, smile and then credit his love for people.
“I love people,” said Lea Johnson. “If you love people, you’re going to give them the best. Also, we don’t serve riff raff around here. Nice people are always seeking a nice place to eat.”
Apparently, nice people also like to talk. If you were fortunate enough to have stopped at Lea’s Lunchroom while Mr. Lea was still alive, you probably heard your fair share of gossip and politics. Before his death in 1994, Mr. Lea liked to brag that every governor since John M. Parker (1920-1924) had taken a meal at his restaurant.
In 1974, Lea and Georgie Johnson’s daughter, Ann, moved back home to Lecompte from Houston to run the family business. Ann brought a savvy business sense that the restaurant didn’t previously possess and is now serving five generations of customers.
In 2008, the youngest grandson, Toby Traylor, opened a Lea's in Monroe. It has been voted the Best Breakfast in Monroe!