“If you could be reincarnated as anyone, who would you be?” This is one example of a Question of the Week that visitors are asked upon checking out at Lil’s Bagels on Greenup Street in downtown Covington. It’s a tactic for customer engagement that the shop has been using since its days as a Walk-up Windough—Lil’s was a carry-out-only establishment until February of this year, but the new inside space is currently closed due to COVID-19 (though the Windough remains open).
Owner Julia Keister sees the relationship between her business and the community as one of the most important ingredients for success. It’s an idea she brought with her to Northern Kentucky from New York, where she lived and met her now-wife prior to 2014. Her commitment to community engagement is the product of a Jewish upbringing, which Keister says instilled in her the importance of tolerance and giving back to others.
“A very communal part of our family was that on Sundays we would always have a big bagel brunch,” she says. “When I lived in New York, it was the same—friends and I would get together and have a big thing. It definitely is part of a cultural background, and so is most of our food.”
Arguably the most prominent example of Lil’s Bagels’ contributions to the community is its LGBTQ-focused outreach.
“We do at least one event a month that’s a fund-raiser for something community-oriented where everyone donates their tips, and we usually get a dollar for every sandwich or drink to put toward a certain organization,” she says.
Events that support LGBTQ-based organizations have included two Queer Soup Nights, which brought in more than $3,000 in donations, and drag queen-hosted trivia. Lil’s typically serves as the parade kickoff for Northern Kentucky Pride, which was held virtually this year. The café has also acted as a gathering place for Cincinnati residents, who come for R&B Happy Hours hosted by Ntice Events, which caters experiences towards queer women of color.
While Covington has been a predominately safe space for Keister and her team to spread messages of love and equality, she says negative social attitudes still remain. She cites the appearance of white supremacy–themed stickers that have been popping up downtown over the last six months. To combat the issue, Keister wants to work with the city to create an acceptance-based initiative with its own stickers for local businesses that say Cov over hate, a play on the phrase Love over hate.
In addition to maintaining fund-raising efforts and working closely with the City of Covington, Keister adds that she envisions bringing other types of diversity into local queer spaces—focusing on factors of race and income, for instance. “We can even bring in more women, because sometimes those spaces can be so white and male,” she says. She also emphasizes that members of the transgender community should be advocated for as much as others who are LGBTQ-identifying.
Overall, Keister believes that the commitment to advocating for different groups in Covington has helped her business grow. “I think the people who support and believe in that are attracted to us and it brings more customers in,” she says. “We have a Black Lives Matter and a queer American flag hanging out front, so we don’t hide it at all. To get our inside space opened, we asked for community donations because we were trying to avoid taking out a bank loan, and we had over 170 contributions just from people in the community.”