Home cooking keeps Sweet Pea’s customers happy and loyal

Johnette and Gary LaCroix welcome their customers with warm smiles. Photo by Carolyn Bahm.

A hot plateful of Southern food in a relaxed atmosphere is what Sweet Pea’s in Bartlett offers. The local restaurant has been steadily attracting customers with home cooking and comfort food since it opened seven years ago.

Top sellers at Gary and Johnette Lacroix’s restaurant are fried catfish and country-fried steak with a wide selection of vegetable sides, and they offer chicken and dressing the first Sunday of each month. The menu includes weekday specials as well as soup, salads, burgers, sandwiches, seafood, steak, specialty dinners and platters.

“Simple, everyday food,” said Johnette, a cooking devotee who said she can’t stay out of the kitchen even on her days off.

Sweet Pea’s lunches are under $10 with one meat, two sides, bread and a drink. Additional sides are $2.09, with desserts of cake, pie and sugar-free options priced at $3.99 to $4.29.

The couple engage their customers in more ways than one: Original art from the Bartlett Art Association lines one long wall for viewing and for sale, with artwork on all other walls provided by the daytime hostess, Tina Ballard.

As a service to the community, they also host Bible studies at 5 p.m. on Sundays, after the restaurant’s 2 p.m. closing. Gary is a minister, and they relish having fellowship with other Christians.

Gary started at Sweet Pea’s as a waiter when it opened, helping the friends who founded that restaurant and another location in Olive Branch, Miss. After four months, the owners asked the couple to manage the Bartlett business. Everything started falling into place. Within two years, the LaCroixs were so in love with the work that they bought the place.

Johnette said, “It’s like the Lord knew what we needed even before we did.”

It was their first time to own a restaurant, and they embarked on a learning curve for food service and management skills. Next, they survived their landlord’s re-roofing and extensive remodeling, which left their front entrance boarded up for most of a year and left many Bartlett residents assuming they had closed.

They were grateful that regular loyal customers still kept filling their tables throughout the renovations. Some, in fact, still eat at the restaurant twice a day.

The secret of Sweet Pea’s success is an easy guess, based on the crowds at lunchtime and on the couple’s affection for the people they serve: “Customers,” the LaCroixs said in unison and without hesitation.

“We love the customers,” Johnette said.

Gary added, “Bartlett has been very good to us.”

The couple smiled and said those loyal customers keep the couple on track, showing up faithfully, giving feedback on the waitstaff and letting them know if anything strays off course, such as a new cook changing a favorite recipe. They know what they like at Sweet Pea’s and aren’t too shy to ask.

“They have our cell numbers,” Johnette said, chuckling. “… And we keep a close eye out.”

Gary added, “They understand we want the consistency, we want the service, and we do whatever it takes to make anything we mess up right.”

Today, Sweet Pea’s keeps thriving, Gary said, and their next venture is outfitting a new food trailer for going to events. He sketched a gradually rising line in the air and added, “It’s just been getting better and better.”

Both their faces lit up when they talk about Sweet Pea’s, Southern cooking and their customers, many of whom have become friends. They are also happy to be working together.

“We love it,” Johnette said. “It’s like we have found our niche.”

Gary described their philosophy for running Sweet Pea’s. “It’s not our business, it’s God’s. He’s only given it to us to be a steward over it.”

CAROLYN BAHM is the editor of The Bartlett Express. Contact her at (901) 433-9138 or via email to carolyn.bahm@journalinc.com.