Story by Heather DiPrato Photos by Alexandru Valeri-Bruchini or submitted by the Rabena Family
It’s been a whirlwind few years for the Rabena family. With a property maintenance company, three Main Street eateries (LaLa Lobster, Mil-Lees, and Sauce), a distillery, a coffee roasting business, and a small apiary, plus projects like franchising their popular lobster roll brand underway, it’s a good thing they love to be busy! Yet as successful as they’ve been in business, their family has always been at the heart of what they do.
From a Chance Meeting to a Lifelong Partnership
In 2000 when Fred Rabena was invited by his sister to meet up with some old friends, he had no idea how it would change his life. That’s the way things go – we look ahead, not knowing what the future holds, then one day, we look back and realize that the stars were aligning.
Fred recalls the night well. “My sister asked if I’d met Nicole,” he smiles warmly. “I told her, no I would definitely remember if I had.” Nicole confides, “He took my hand and kissed it. We talked all night. The next night we both had other plans but canceled them to be with each other. Five months later, we were married. We’ve been together ever since. We are just on the same page in life - our love of family, our values, and our ability to work together so well, even under pressure. We are soulmates.”
The Rabena kids include Brittany (31) and Mia (26), Cole (20), and Bella (18) and grandson CJ (1). “Our children have always been part of what we’ve done,” says Nicole. “Since they were young, we’ve had businesses. We started a kid’s play space called Kix and Giggles when they were little, then Squeaky Clean and Green, and of course, now all these restaurants! They’ve worked with us at each one, from cleaning buildings to handling food orders, it’s always been a family affair. We love being together!”
Both Fred and Nicole spent years in the food and beverage industries and share the operations of the restaurants. Nicole is the creative force behind the family’s restaurant brands. “From bartending to management,” says Nicole, “I always enjoyed the work. I had great experiences at Parx and The Ritz Carlton on Broad Street.” Yet it was Nicole’s love of cooking and passion for people that excited her about opening her own restaurant. Her dream was to create a comfortable, local spot with delicious food where people would enjoy a great meal and want to visit again and again.
To make the dream a reality, the Rabenas knew they needed the perfect location. As Lower Makefield residents, they eyed Yardley Borough for a small, family-friendly bistro. When the property at 35 S. Main became available, it felt like fate. “We saw this tiny building right on Main Street and thought it was the one,” Nicole shares. Although the location they loved turned out to be under contract with someone else, a few months later, the pandemic changed things. When that deal fell through, the Rabenas jumped on the location.
“Our son Cole had been telling us how much he enjoyed getting lobster rolls at the shore and how popular they were,” Nicole explains. “I remember sitting up in the middle of the night, knowing they’d be perfect for that tiny location! I pictured that the kids and I would work for a few hours each day after school, serving through a window. I had no idea what was in store!”
Of course, one small glitch was that Nicole had never actually tried a lobster roll, so the family went on a road trip to find the best. “I’ll admit I didn’t love the ones I tried,” Nicole confesses. “It seemed like heavy mayo was hiding the delicate flavor of the lobster. People still enjoyed them, but I believed we could create a lighter and fresher version. I got to work on recipes and began testing them on our friends and neighbors,” laughs Nicole. “Eventually, we had the right formula and were ready!”
“Nicole and I knew we needed a strong, memorable brand,” Fred recalls. “And that’s where Bella really helped create something special.” Bella, who has Down Syndrome, always enjoyed cooking and other creative projects with her mom. “She’s an amazing artist,” says Nicole. “She loved being part of our new venture, and when she’d talk about the food, she’d pronounce it “la, la, lobster” – the name stuck. “LaLaLobster felt right to all of us,” says Nicole. “It was fun and memorable – exactly the vibe we wanted. Plus, it was special to us because of Bella.”
On October 3, 2020, the very first LaLaLobster burst on the Main Street scene, with hundreds of people lining up for a fresh lobster roll (and perhaps a little normalcy after months of being stuck in their homes!). “We sold out in 3 hours,” Nicole reminisces. “It was crazy – 300 pounds of lobster, hundreds of fresh rolls. There was a line down Main Street. People were so supportive of our small business! We are eternally grateful for that warm welcome.”
Since then, their kids have been involved in LaLa. “Bella loves to greet and run the register, and we are especially proud of Cole,” says Nicole. “He and his lifelong buddy Michael have done an incredible job managing summers at our Cape May location. They’ve taken on a leadership role and impressed us.”
Despite the challenges in the restaurant industry at that time, LaLaLobster grew rapidly. When the restaurant behind their building decided to close, the Rabenas saw a path to expanding their menu (adding things like steak, salads, and my favorite - lobster fries!) They would also be able to attract diners that wanted sit-down service since the building was larger. They painted it in coastal colors and dubbed it “The Big Blue.”
The family saw an opportunity to extend LaLaLobster into other markets and opened in Cape May, Doylestown, and Princeton. Franchising the model for others excited by the business that wanted to bring it to their own communities was the next logical step. “Robert Katz of The Stanwood Group has been incredibly helpful as we’ve begun the process of franchising,” says Fred. “He is exceptional.”
Like we said at the start – a whirlwind of activity. It was just the beginning…
Forming Yardley Restaurant Group
The Rabenas began making connections with other local restaurateurs. Their collaboration with Mil-Lees Diner and Eliyahu’s Pizza might have seemed unconventional, yet as a result, these beloved eateries were able to remain open to continue serving the community.
“A lot of people don’t realize,” Fred confides. “Mil-lees was about to close forever were it not for Nicole intervening. Like so many others in our community, we loved the diner and wanted to keep it going.” The partnership helped ease staffing issues that were impacting the restaurants and allowed for overdue décor upgrades to elevate the dining experience for guests. It also included menu enhancements and the addition of serving Yardley Joe, the Rabenas freshly roasted coffee brand.
Today, as the owners of LaLaLobster, Mil-Lees, and Sauce, Yardley Restaurant Group covers breakfast, lunch, dinner, and cocktails on Main Street. “Our staff is wonderful,” says Nicole. “They are more like family. I’m proud that all the employees that started with us back in 2020 are still here – they are our ‘opening team’ – every team member takes pride in helping customers. And our Yardley patrons have been so generous. Our employees are hard-working local kids learning important skills and making great money. We cross-train team members in all our restaurants to provide flexibility and give more opportunity to those team members that want additional hours.”
Nicole is passionate about helping others succeed. She’s focused on empowering women and helping individuals with unique needs break through barriers. “Even in 2022, as a woman, I experience bias and discrimination in business,” says Nicole. “As far as we’ve come, there are still miles to go. I’ve been working with an organization called WBO, a great group of women supporting other women. They provide excellent networking, and I’m honored to be speaking to their members in December.”
To support young people, Yardley Restaurant Group hires culinary students from the technical high school and welcomes kids with special needs to be sure they know they have a place in their restaurant family. Their focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion are impactful. As the mom of a teen with autism, I am impressed by their commitment, it can truly change lives and it means a lot to families like ours.
Loving Yardley and Giving Back
“The people of Yardley and Lower Makefield have been encouraging in so many ways,” says Fred. “Not just coming to our restaurants as patrons, but making us feel welcome, telling us how happy they are we are here, entrusting us to hire their kids, and voting LaLa Best of Bucks both years we’ve been open. We are very proud and appreciative to be part of this town.”
As their restaurants have grown, the Rabenas have found ways to give back. One way they’ve supported non-profits is to provide free event space for food fundraising events like spaghetti dinners. “We’ve also donated to many charities, helped with fundraisers for breast cancer, local kids, and recently Neighbor in Need,” says Nicole. “As we grow, we will keep looking for meaningful ways to give back.”
With the holidays approaching, the family is planning more fun and festive events for the community. “Breakfast with Santa will be at Mil-Lees Yardley Diner again this year,” says Nicole. “Families loved it last year!” And during the holiday parade, Yardley Distillery will be brewing up spiked Apple Cider at LaLaLobster to keep parents warm on the parade route, as well as serving fresh hot cocoa for the kids.”
There are exciting plans for Yardley Pizza to be rebranded “Sauce” adding Italian favorites like pastas, salads, and soups. Don’t worry, pizza is still on the menu, vegan options will be available, and the crispy crust will be just as delicious! If you’ve got a craving for Tex-Mex, you’re going to love the menu at Yardley Distillery. The Rabenas are in the final stages of converting the old Friendly’s building on West Trenton Avenue in Morrisville to a vibrant new bar/restaurant opening soon!
The Family Hut
The Rabenas are a close-knit family. “We are very affectionate – we have our ‘family hut’ – a big family hug that Bella refers to as a hut,” Nicole shares with affection. “We always support one another and try to help each other. Last year, Fred, Cole, and I all got tattoos in support of DS Awareness. And Bella got a henna version.”
In their spare time, the Rabenas enjoy cooking family dinners together, Philadelphia sports, going to the shore, and building their future together, one business at a time. They invite you to follow their adventures at www.YardleyRestaurantGroup.com.
For information about LaLaLobster franchising, please contact email@example.com.