COVINGTON, Ky. — “What’s your favorite thing about spring?” Missy Spears, a Lil’s Bagels manager, asked a customer who placed an order at the Covington walk-up window, aka the Windough.
“The flowers,” she responded.
Instead of shouting out a customer’s name when an order is ready, Lil’s employs the clever tool of asking a weekly question and saying the customer’s answer at the pick-up window.
The warm spring weather during the week of April 8 was also an ideal time for Lil’s to awaken from its self-imposed wintertime slumber as it marked the first week back for the bagelry, which unexpectedly shuttered in February.
On Feb. 17, Keister wrote a note on Lil’s Facebook page saying, “While I had full intentions and dreams of making Lil’s my permanent home, life goals and health realities have become an obstacle that I cannot overcome.”
In January, she had closed Lil’s for renovations, but decided to make the hiatus a permanent closure.
“I felt like I had to take a break to see what we could do,” Keister said. “It was a hard decision to make at the time.”
To keep up with demand, Keister was making 400-500 bagels a day. Those bagels were sold on sandwiches, by the dozen, and wholesaled to restaurants and coffee shops.
Although Keister started making bagels in 2016, it wasn’t until January 2018 when she opened the alley Windough inside the old Nuvo/Piccolo Casa space to offer her “Made with Chutzpah” bagels to the masses.
Three months after closing, the fact that Keister felt better -- her migraines and insomnia have subsided -- coupled with the outpouring from the community helped her reverse her decision.
“Two of our employees -- Missy Spears and David DeVita -- stepped up,” she said. “They wanted to reopen and wanted to take up some of the management. We had conversations how we could also change our menu and turn it into what we wanted it to be.”
Springtime represents renewal, and a healthy Keister is on the path to create the concept she always desired: a full deli and a community event space.
“Making the levels of bagels that we were making every day, and the amount of labor it took to make them, we couldn’t do all those things that we really wanted to do. But I think the time off and the mental space has really changed everything.”
By August, Keister and her staff hope to have the interior open, both for seating and so that people can buy meat and cheeses from the deli counter. They'll also use the indoor space and patio to throw monthly fund-raising events, including May’s Queer Soup Night and June’s Gay Pride festivities. Eventually, they will add Saturday and Sunday brunch, and in June they’ll receive their liquor license and will offer fresh-juice cocktails.
As for the new additions, Keister and company have introduced a few deli sandwiches that come on 16 Bricks bread or Allez Bakery’s challah bun. For an extra $3 customers can combo any sandwich -- picking a side and drink, like LaCroix, Topo Chico and Urbana Cafe-brewed cold brew.
One new menu item is Do You Deli, in which a customer can pick meats like pastrami bacon, soppressata, hot capocollo, cheeses, veggies and build their own sandwich. Lil's has added a ham, egg and cheese breakfast sandwich to their established line of four all-day breakfast ones. (It’s worth noting that Lil’s delivers throughout Covington and Cincinnati.)
Though Lil's no longer sell bagels by the dozen and now offers only three or four kinds (plain, everything, Old Bay and a special monthly version), customers can order sandwiches by the bulk, and Lil’s plans to ease back into catering. They still make their own spreads and pickle their own vegetables, but they’re outsourcing the meat smoking to neighbor Smoke Justis.
Also new is the Lil’s Fam rewards program. Customers sign up for $20/year via email and are given a nifty key chain and a reusable branded Lil’s coffee mug. They receive 10 percent off on all purchases and secret discounts.
Before the closure, Lil's was open only five days a week, but Lil’s 2.0 is open seven days now because Keister says it’s better for food preparation. She envisions the new Lil’s as “a place to hang out, not just come, buy a bagel, and leave.”
When Lil’s took off in 2016, they were almost the only bagel game in town. Since then, OTR Bagel Bar, The Bagelry and Five One Three Bagel Co. have waded into the pool. But Keister thinks she offers something different.
“I’m not like, ‘We have to have the best bagel that’s ever been eaten!’ We have a culture and vibe that makes us stand apart. That’s what we enjoy being a part of.”
On opening day, some customers brought flowers. A customer who lives across the street resumed her routine of stopping by twice a day.
“So far no one has been really upset,” Keister jokes. “No one has been protesting in front of the building.”
But why would they?
Another thing Keister learned during the hiatus was how much Lil’s meant to the LGBTQ community, especially since they were one of few LGBTQ establishments in the area.
“We got a lot of messages that were like, ‘This is the only place that gets me,’ and ‘I feel like I can be myself.’ I was like, wow, I don’t think I realized the extent to which we affected people.”
Even though Lil’s has been reopened for only a week, Keister thinks the new concept has been popular.
“This is awesome. Why didn’t we do this originally? We went through a lot to reach this point, but sometimes you have to step back to see what changes you need to make. I’m glad we were able to do those things and reopen.”
308 Greenup Street, Covington, 859-412-6922
Hours: 8 a.m.-2 p.m., Monday-Sunday