Meet Marie Livingston and her winning strategy

Many Tallahassee residents don’t realize the popular steakhouse isn’t an out-of-town chain, nor is the name a marketing gimmick. There is a real Marie Livingston.

Making Her Steak Marie Livingston was a newcomer to Tallahassee when she decided to open a steakhouse in 1992. Now she is a local legend — and the restaurant that bears her name is an institution By Lilly Rockwell Originally published in the Apr/May 2011 issue of 850 Business Magazine

When Marie Livingston moved to Tallahassee in 1991, she was a divorcée with two grown daughters, few friends in town and a hankering to open her own restaurant.

Livingston set her sights on a shabby building in southeast Tallahassee that most recently was home to a Mexican restaurant. Acquaintances told her it was cursed and urged her to consider looking elsewhere.

“They told me that building was jinxed,” Livingston says. “No restaurant had been there more than six months. But I told them that building had nothing to do with it.”

Sure enough, for the past 18 years, Marie Livingston’s Steakhouse has fed Tallahassee residents its savory cuts of marbled beef, marinated in its signature secret sauce. The restaurant, which moved into its third location late last year on Apalachee Parkway (a few blocks west of its original home), is a raved-about local favorite, the type of restaurant where people plan 11:30 a.m. lunches and 9 p.m. dinners to escape the crowd.

Many Tallahassee residents don’t realize the popular steakhouse isn’t an out-of-town chain, nor is the name a marketing gimmick. There is a real Marie Livingston.

Livingston has perfectly coiffed, shoulder-length brown hair, a sweet, slow Southern drawl that comes from her Alabama upbringing, and a gracious way of greeting strangers that immediately puts them at ease.

Not that she needs it, but the grandmother has the help of her two grown daughters, Sonya Livingston and Susan Higdon, both former professional dancers.

Though elegant in appearance and demeanor, don’t be fooled: Marie Livingston is a roll-up-her-sleeves workaholic who spends her days making sure her damaged hardwood floors are fixed, the food is just right and guests are happy.


“I hadn’t thought about it,” Livingston says, although she does allow that she “might want to take a few more days off.”

“I enjoy working,” Livingston admits.

Marie Livingston knows hard work, having managed or owned restaurants all her adult life. She is renowned for her great food, but her success also is attributable in part to her business savvy and flair for restaurant décor.

It Began with a Date

Livingston grew up in a speck of town called Malvern in southern Alabama, which currently has a population of 1,200 people. She spent a lot of her time in nearby Dothan and, after graduating from high school, decided to apply for a job at a new, popular barbecue restaurant there.

One of the co-owners of Dobbs Famous Bar-B-Que, Bill Livingston, decided that he needed to meet this applicant personally and asked Livingston if he could come to her house for lunch. Afterward, he asked her to dinner in Dothan.

She didn’t get the job, but they did date — and eventually got married. Then she was put to work. For 26 years.

Livingston said she learned many business lessons at Dobbs. One tough lesson came when her husband’s business partner tried to wrest control of the restaurant away from her during a time when her estranged husband had fled town and couldn’t be reached. Because Livingston relied on the restaurant income to make a living and wasn’t paid a salary, it was imperative that she maintain some control.

Thankfully, Livingston said, there was a partnership agreement that said if her husband was “sick” for a prolonged period of time, she could step in.

“You don’t realize how important partnership agreements and legal things are,” Livingston said. “It’s a small thing, but it makes a difference.”

A Tallahassee Lassie

Besides the warnings against that first restaurant location, people scoffed at the idea of a new steakhouse when there were already three in town.

But Livingston was stubborn.

She had an eye for seeing potential in worn, abandoned restaurant buildings, thanks to her quarter-century of restaurant management experience and strong business instincts. Her ex-husband had taught her the importance of keeping her overhead low — finding cheap rent, not going into debt buying equipment, and keeping labor and food costs down.

So Livingston decided to make a go of it, bringing along her interior decorator’s vision for how to style a restaurant. She adorned the first location with a country and Western theme, with red and green-checkered tablecloths and Frederic Remington prints of cowboys and horses.

Livingston opened her doors on April 21, 1992. Oddly enough, the restaurant’s name wasn’t even Marie Livingston’s. It was Texas Longhorn Steakhouse. But Livingston was confident in her concept and knew that the food was her secret weapon.

“I knew we weren’t going to have a large menu, I was going to simplify it,” she says. Livingston intended to use recipes she was familiar with from not only her ex-husband’s restaurant, but also from a steakhouse her sister had opened.

Livingston brought her family’s melt-in-your-mouth dinner-roll recipe and the secret steak sauce with her to Tallahassee, sure that they would be just as much of a hit as they were in Dothan.

Those first few months, she did most of the prep work in the kitchen, and baked the rolls herself every day.

“All of us, but especially my mother, would stand by the door every night at opening and introduce herself to every customer that walked in,” Higdon says.

Soon, there were repeat customers, and word spread about her famous sauce. There were some bumps in the road — such as when she got an angry letter from the Atlanta-based LongHorn Steakhouse accusing her of stealing their trademark.

Livingston promptly changed her restaurant’s name, and when the LongHorn Steakhouse moved into town on Valentine’s Day in 1993, Livingston expanded her hours to match theirs.

Confused customers thought she had opened a second location. But when they saw that the famous rolls were missing and there was no secret sauce, they came back to her restaurant.

“And nobody ever even noticed that we changed the sign to Marie Livingston’s,” she says.

A New Store, A New Style

For 10 years, Livingston remained at the Apalachee Parkway location. But in 2000 she decided to open a second location on Tallahassee’s north side near North Monroe Street and Interstate 10, tucked behind a group of hotels.

Though she was successful at the North Monroe location, Livingston never forgot the business lessons learned from her days at Dobbs Famous Bar-B-Que. She had to keep her costs down. Her utility bills began soaring and one year reached $11,000 a month. She had 80 employees’ salaries to pay for, and rent was also increasing.

Livingston began searching for a smaller location with less overhead. Once again, she found a location that many restaurateurs had passed on. Back on Apalachee Parkway was a closed Durango Steakhouse.

Livingston had a vision for renovating the building that transformed it into a more elegant, upscale dining establishment.

Opening two days before Christmas last year, the new Marie Livingston’s Steakhouse was jaw-droppingly different. The floors are made of marble and hardwood, and the dramatic entryway has a dome made of distressed silver leaf along with a vintage red sofa for seating.

Livingston says she wanted to upgrade her décor but didn’t want it to be “too fancy.”

“This is a family restaurant,” she says. “We’ve always been oriented toward children and families.” Sure enough, most days there are families with small children in her restaurant, and her own grandchildren can often be found amusing themselves in her office.

Livingston is modest about her role in the restaurant’s success and quick to credit others.

“We don’t have a lot of turnover,” she says. “I’ve got one employee who started to work with us when I first came to town in 1992. I’ve got another who has been in the back of the house for 10 years.”

Her daughters see it differently. The name on the sign is “Marie Livingston’s” for a reason.

“Think about somebody coming and opening a restaurant in a new place like she did in ’92, into a building that everyone tells you is not going to work, and they tell you ‘not a steakhouse’ because there are already too many and you’re a woman,” Sonya Livingston says. “But you have that conviction, and you know what you have to offer. It is really an inspiration for people to see someone come and do that and be successful.”