This Wheeling dining institution first appeared in these pages back in 2009. We caught up with founder Susan Haddad to see how things are going.
Over the past 12 years, Susan Haddad has learned a lot about crepes—and community. When she opened her Wheeling café, Later Alligator, in 2006, she could count the number of businesses surrounding her in the historic district on one hand. For being so close to Main Street, it was a pretty empty place.
“There was next to nothing in Center Market,” Haddad says. Standing in front of her restaurant today, she’d need at least two sets of hands to tick off each shop, loft, and company. The few buildings without storefronts are under renovation and expected to open soon.
“It just makes me happy to see what was talked about for years, what ‘could be,’ become a reality,” Haddad says. “It’s no longer ‘what could be,’ it ‘is.’”
While most restaurant owners speak of their passion for food, Haddad talks about the people she credits for getting “the Gator” to where it is today. Like the bustling blocks around her, the little crepe café has come a long way and experienced its own set of struggles.
Just Like a Family
About 18 months after opening, business wasn’t going well and Haddad decided to close the restaurant. “It was a struggle,” she says. “There were five or six businesses down here and we struggled from the aspect of being a new kid on the block.” She sent out a press release announcing Later Alligator would close at the end of 2007.
To her surprise, the community rallied to her support. Social media was still in its infancy at the time, but someone in the area created a Facebook page called “Save Later Alligator.” “Some of the most powerful people in Wheeling came to me and asked, ‘What can we do?’” she says. “Just the very nature that people would go out on a limb to support us, it was overwhelming to me.”
Haddad’s son, Mitch—who has taken on many behind-the-scenes roles at the restaurant—says part of gaining support is giving it. “We thrive as the community does,” he says. “So, if we support Wheeling, Wheeling will support us. I’m not going to say it’s a philosophy, but we do think about it.”
That extends to Later Alligator’s employees. Haddad says many members of her staff have become like family. But, like many West Virginians, Haddad and her Later Alligator family have had to grapple with the opioid crisis. “Just about the time you think things are smooth sailing, the last person that you would ever imagine goes down,” Haddad says. “You don’t see it, and it’s an employee that is working for you. A lot of times I was just in denial.”
When one of her leads in the kitchen started to worry staff, Haddad had to fire her.The woman later did a stint in prison before finally overcoming her addiction. She didn’t ask Haddad for a job after getting clean, but Haddad asked her back to work anyway. “She’s one of my pride and joys. Thankfully, that’s a good end to the story,” Haddad says. “Not everybody is that way.”
As Later Alligator’s business has grown, so has the menu. Originally, there were only 10 crepe and sandwich options. Now, the restaurant boasts a full menu of soups, salads, paninis, and craft martinis. With the passage of legislation in 2016 allowing businesses to begin serving alcohol at 10 a.m. on Sundays, the restaurant has created an additional menu for brunch.
Later Alligator also added a stage and now boasts a regular schedule of live music, poetry, and other events. Mitch Haddad says booking bands wasn’t difficult. It fits with the restaurant’s vibe. “You walk in the door and everything from the finish on the door is handcrafted, to the ceiling that my mom refinished herself,” he says. “All of those hand touches, the art community, it all carries over. We will always support the arts community.”
Mitch Haddad says people often approach him to say how much they love his mom. “She’s just proving that, if you stick with it and you work really hard and you’re willing to do everything, every day, then you can be successful,” he says.
Haddad is proud to be part of the rebirth of downtown Wheeling. “It took a few years to get to the point where I didn’t have nightmares about how was I going to pay my employees,” she says. “It takes longer than you think to get on your feet, and I think that’s with any business. A lot of times you hear, ‘It takes five years before you’ll make a dime.’ Well, it took me six years.”
She recently gave a talk to a group of local entrepreneurs. Her advice was “just don’t give up too soon.”
2145 Market Street, 304.233.1606, lateralligator.net