No one is more surprised than Lisa LaValle when, during lunch hour at her restaurant, Trellis, a member of her wait staff brings her a menu and asks her to sign it. LaValle glances toward the door, astonished and speechless, and the patron requesting the memento explains how she collects the signed menus.

She plans to hang LaValle’s right next to one signed by Wolfgang Puck. 

LaValle is humble about the impact she’s had on the community and its residents, but it’s there, the proof in this request for a signed menu. It’s also in Trellis, which opened in the Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden last year. LaValle is both the owner of the restaurant and its chef. After spending more than 20 years operating a cafe in the Des Moines Art Center, Trellis was an opportunity she refused to pass up.

“I was ready for a change,” LaValle said. “I was at the point where I may have been ready to slow down and back off, but this all sounded so fabulous, so I thought, ‘why not?’”

LaValle grew up in Pella, the child of two college professors. LaValle’s mother passed away when she was young. It required her to step up. She both cooked for and helped care for her two brothers, she recalled. 

Following in her parents’ footsteps, LaValle majored in both art and physical education. She also worked in restaurants, which helped put her life on a path different from what she intended. 

“I tried teaching, but the hours of the day didn’t fly by the way they did when I was in a restaurant,” LaValle said. “When I look back, (being a chef) fits with what I wanted to do, because in this, I can still find artistic ways to express myself.”

Almost 30 years ago, LaValle returned to Des Moines with her husband, Michael. While he furthered his career through restaurant ventures including City Grille, Spirit of Des Moines Riverboat and the Des Moines Embassy Club, she spent 19 years operating the Des Moines Art Center Cafe, contributing more than $1 million in revenue to the organization, she estimated. Trellis contributes to the Botanical Garden in a similar way because LaValle pays the Botanical Garden a fixed percentage of her sales each month to occupy the restaurant’s space. 

Not only do her restaurants help financially support these nonprofits, but they become a draw for residents and visitors alike, ultimately increasing patronage to the organizations overall. For LaValle, one of the biggest benefits has been the sense of community she’s developed with her patrons and others she has met.

“The fact is people appreciate having this as their quality of life,” LaValle said. “It gets me all choked up, but it’s a big deal. People appreciate having it as part of their lifestyle. I’m just doing this as my job, and all these secondary benefits keep coming that I didn’t see coming, and it’s more than I could have ever hoped for.”

She also volunteers as a mentor for the I Have a Dream Foundation. 

“There’s a quote out there that says 90 percent of success is just getting up in the morning and doing something,” LaValle said. “That’s what I try to tell my three daughters. Don’t worry about finding a passion. Just get up, do something every day and see what happens. A pathway will open up somewhere.”

Three areas of influence

LaValle is owner of Trellis restaurant, located in the Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden.

LaValle also operated the Des Moines Art Center Cafe for almost 20 years, maintaining her business while, at the same time, providing revenue to the museum.

She’s provided a workplace that has allowed her to nurture others and teach them, through their work, how to thrive, be independent, and find their place in the community.