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How This Patron Helps Travelers Discover Connection

Janae Butler

July 31, 2023


Photo: Sean Carr

The James Beard Foundation (JBF) Patrons are a community of supporters that believe in our mission, including both food lovers and the people behind the plate. In this series, we’re highlighting members from across our Patron program who are working to improve our food system and who embody our mantra of Good Food for Good™.

Meet Lee Gonzalez, our July member spotlight. Gonzalez has been a JBF Patron for ten years and a member of the Young Professionals Committee (YPC) for seven. Gonzalez and her sister Lauren operate two hostels: The Local in New York City and Lolo Pass in Portland. We spoke with Gonzalez about how her early travel experiences inspired her love of food, hospitality, and community rooted in human connection.

JBF: What led you to become a Patron and then a YPC member?

Lee Gonzalez: I was living in Barcelona until 2013 and would come back [to New York] every summer to visit friends. A friend of mine had gotten involved with the James Beard Foundation and I happened to be in town for dinner at the Beard House where there was a Greens table—that was when [JBF would] fill a big table with young members. It was such a fun experience and I immediately thought “this is my place. If I ever move back to New York, I need to get involved because this is important.” I realized I needed to do a bit more to understand and celebrate American food culture and joined the YPC in 2016.  

JBF: What’s your favorite JBF event and why?

LG: My favorite events are Greens events. I particularly love the walk-around tasting format because [it creates an] opportunity to eat the food of different chefs and mingle with other members. The best event is hands-down the Greens Holiday Party at the Beard House. It's always lovely to kick off the holiday season in a festive environment like the Beard House.

One part of my role at JBF that I love is the opportunity to host events. Whether it's a cocktail reception for Young Patrons or a sit-down Greens dinner, I really relish the host role. This speaks to my love of hospitality. There's nothing better than sharing a meal with others and I find it so important to make everyone feel welcomed, connected, and cared for.

JBF: Where did your passion for hospitality originate?

LG: My love of hospitality is rooted in travel and human connection. I was lucky to do some homestays when I was little. The first was for three weeks with a family in Normandy, France at the age of ten. That blew my mind and world wide open, and food was a specific part of that. I remember going to my host’s grandma’s house and she'd made Madeleines that were hot out of the oven. I had never tasted anything like it. I probably ate 20 of them because, in my 10-year-old brain, I was like: “this is fantastic and I'm never going to taste this again.” So, it was experiences like that. Food as discovery. Understanding different cultures, flavors, and people. I think hospitality—whether travel, accommodation, or food—[is] really about connecting with people.  

JBF: How did The Local and Lolo Pass come to be?

LG: My sister Lauren and I have both studied and traveled abroad, usually in hostels. So, when I studied abroad in college, I had the idea for a chain of hostels and was always kicking around this business plan. The hostel industry is much more developed in Europe, so it just made sense to start somewhere we didn't have to re-educate travelers.  We had a couple of properties [in Barcelona] and ran those for a few years. Then, the opportunity to move back to New York [arose] when a guy from undergrad wanted to open [hostels] in the New York boroughs. We got in touch and ended up [becoming] his partners and moving back to open The Local in Long Island City.  

With Lolo Pass, we wanted to keep doing hostels because there's just some magic to it! We wanted people to go into [our next hostel] with a mindset of being open, connecting with other travelers, and having an authentic experience. But it needed to be palatable to North American travelers. Knowing North American tourists prefer privacy, we made more than half of our rooms private. The food and beverage program is much more built out and [the space] is more design-forward than The Local.

JBF: What’s your process for crafting the menus at each of your locations?

LG: The two things we wanted to focus on were keeping it affordable and local. For example, at The Local [we have] five beers on tap and they’re all local New York City brews. And then in Portland, my sister, who is really into wine, curated all local budget-friendly Portland wines. Same thing with our coffee programs, which are both locally roasted.   

We opened [Lolo Pass] during the pandemic and found chef Martha, who had worked at a fantastic local Spanish restaurant. Our menu is what chef Martha likes because we want to highlight her—it’s Spanish cuisine and features local ingredients.

JBF: What trends do you envision for the hospitality industry in the coming years?

LG: I was just at a tech conference for independent lodging, and everyone was talking a lot about [artificial intelligence]. I think [it’s] going to play a huge role in hospitality service, but there’s a distinction between service and hospitality. I think you can’t take the human touch out of hospitality, but [that] everyone is going to rework their business models to figure out the service component that doesn’t require something special. That'll be interesting because the hostel universe is so focused on the human connection. It's just going to be a bigger challenge for us to figure out how to get that balance right.  

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Janae Butler is manager of development operations at the James Beard Foundation.