The intersection of Steele Creek Road and Shopton Road West is typical of busy south Charlotte, with new apartment complexes, a Harris Teeter fuel station, and an Outback Steakhouse just like hundreds throughout the country.
From the outside, anyway. Inside, this Outback isn’t like the others. The chain restaurant has abandoned its dark, moody steakhouse aesthetic in favor of a bright, open floor plan with ceiling lights that represent the stars in the Australian flag. Colorful Aussie-inspired graffiti adorns the walls, and a mural over a corner booth depicts a crowned koala.
The restaurant is one of 10 U.S. locations with this “Next Gen” design, which includes original artwork by Charlotte-based artist Lindsey Jenneman. Her work is part of Outback’s effort to personalize their 693 North American locations to feel less “chain-y” and reflect more local culture in their decor.
Outback commissioned Jenneman to paint the first 10 murals after a creative brand leader saw her animal portraits on Instagram two years ago. “I didn’t have a lot of followers, either,” Jenneman says. “That’s an important part of this story. I put it out there, and this happened.”
The 35-year-old New Orleans native owns Lemme Paint Dat, a business she launched four years ago, when she was pregnant with her first daughter. She’d been a high school art teacher in nearby Mandeville for five years when her husband’s oncology internship took them to Tampa. Three years later, they moved to Charlotte for his fellowship.
They had their second daughter in 2020 and Jenneman painted pet portraits in her dining room-turned-studio while her girls napped. “I do acrylic on canvas,” she says. “I just dive in with painting—that’s the on-the-fly, fun part. I don’t draw at all. I do that on the computer with Photoshop, then make my own stencils, then cut them out on a Cricut machine. That makes all the proportions exactly right, especially when I paint animals.”
Jenneman was painting “nonstop,” and her $100 pet portraits paid a lot of her family’s bills. “It was stressful, moving around with my husband,” she says, “so this was supplementing our income.” After 600 commissioned portraits, though, it grew tiresome.
“I talked to a business coach, and she said, ‘What do you feel like painting? Let go of pet portraits and dive into the unknown,’” Jenneman says. “So I painted a giant alligator and cried all the way through it. I kept thinking, What if nobody buys this? I posted it on Instagram, and that’s what caught Outback’s attention.”
Jenneman’s first commission was a horse that went in the Fort Worth location. The alligator, which she calls Bertha, is in two locations in Florida. “My style is fun and relaxed and goes with Outback’s aesthetic and punny menu,” she says. “It’s animals chilling, doing fun stuff, and that’s what I’ve always painted.”
For the Steele Creek location, Jenneman put a crown on a koala bear to represent the Queen City. “I made (Outback) a quick mock-up, and that was where the magic happened,” she says. “From then on, it’s always been an Australian animal wearing or doing something specific to that town.”
In Fayetteville, Georgia, a koala holds a giant peach. In Venice, Florida, a sunglasses-wearing kangaroo lounges on a beach lined with palm trees. “Originally, after the horse painting, they asked for 12 murals,” Jenneman says. “Then they came back with 40 more restaurants they wanted art in, so it kept snowballing from there.”
With the exception of the crowned koala, which she painted on reclaimed wood boards that the Outback team sent to her house, Jenneman paints the animals in acrylic on midsized canvases. Then they go to Outback’s Tampa headquarters, where they’re reproduced for the restaurant.
Jenneman says the queen koala has been the most “wild and amazing experience” to date. “I painted the koala on the boards, and I was pretty nervous because acrylic paint is pretty permanent,” she says. “It took about a week. Maybe two weeks later, it was in the restaurant. I got to meet the CEO of Outback and a bunch of different owners. It was a really exciting day.”
Outback plans to build 75 to 100 “Next Gen” restaurants across the U.S., and Jenneman is open to more if the opportunity arises. Her family will move to Lafayette, Louisiana, next year, once her husband completes his fellowship, but that won’t interfere with her painting gig. “I can do everything from my house, and I don’t have to travel,” she says. “It’s an artist’s dream job.”
TAYLOR BOWLER is the lifestyle editor.