by Evan Noetzel, Chef Magazine

This article is the Beverage & Spirits online exclusive for the June 2009 issue of
Chef Magazine.

Like the traditional English public houses that inspired it, San Antonio-based Lion & Rose British Restaurant and Pub was opened with the goal of serving hearty meals and cozy ambiance with every pint. Based on the success of the that time-tested formula, the principals behind the bar and grill concept have since developed three additional locations in the greater San Antonio area and have even greater plans for future expansions.

Chef Magazine recently spoke with James MacKay, Lion & Rose vice president of operations and franchise sales, about the technological investments and operational efficiencies that have helped strengthen the bar's beverage sales and enabled it to thrive in a competitive market.

Chef Magazine: How would you describe the Lion & Rose, and who are your customers?
MacKay: We're a full-service restaurant and bar, to put it in plain terms. But we are a true pub as well. We make food from scratch; that sets us apart from a lot of the chain players, and, I guess, even a lot of the smaller companies that offer what they might call a "pub." We have very highly skilled chefs and kitchen managers in our locations. So we take a great deal of pride in our food. ... And while we have a great food product, we also lean heavily toward alcohol service. Our mix is very strong toward liquor, beer and wine.

We're also a great community gathering place, as a true pub should be, and that's one of the things that's unique about us. If I walk out of [my] office, I'm going to be in this large open area where people can gather around high-top tables and a big, heavy wooden bar, and there's folks down there right now watching a soccer match in the middle of the afternoon and having a couple of pints. But we're also a great place to come and have dinner with the family. We have college kids late at night. A bunch of military folks come in, as well as British ex-pats and ex-pat wanna-be's and all sorts of sports fans.

Chef Magazine: What sets Lion & Rose apart from its competitors?
MacKay: Our pubs all have beautiful surroundings, but we're reasonably priced. We have good food in a gastro pub-type atmosphere, but we maintain a certain feel--and that's what's really key here. The British and Irish would call it "craic," and that's a general way of saying there's a buzz in the air and just a feeling of camaraderie. And that common room helps, [as does] the sound laughter in the background, the game on TV and people just having a good time. ...

In an era where sales are down at restaurant businesses in general, we saw double-digit comps at the end of this last fiscal year, so there's something about it. ... People are not stopping going out; they're just going somewhere where they know they can afford to go twice a week instead of once a month.

Chef Magazine: With respect to beverage costs, what challenges has the bar encountered as it's grown from a single unit to a four-location operation?
MacKay: As you go from one restaurant to two restaurants, then three, then four restaurants, you have the advantage of seeing, 'OK, if this store can do that well, why can't this store?' So, we had a good chance to not just work off what people call "perfect cost" and compare that to actual; we [also] got a chance to see what one pub could do against another. And we saw that there were some pretty good--3 or 4 percent--differences in liquor [costs] as a specific category. So, one of the things we did in the first location was to use one of the [pour] systems where you hook the bottle onto one of those cords ... and I just hated that. I don't think it's a negative so much for the customer, but it is something that they're looking at and thinking, "Oh, they want to make sure they don't give me a drop more than I'm paying for."

Well, we found an alternative last year. There's a beverage tracking system [Capton's Beverage Tracker] from a group called RestTech that we're working with now at two of our locations. And what that does is it has an RFID-enable pour spout ... [which] sends a wireless message to the software system, which is married to our POS system. So, as the server pours from a bottle, you can actually sit in an office, drink your coffee and watch how much [he or she] is pouring per shot. Combine that with a little bit of video, and all of a sudden, you're seeing everything they do. ...

One of the great things about this system is that you're giving the guests a visual that says, "We're free-pouring for you, we're not a bunch of executives worried about every penny we spend." But at the same time, we are very carefully tracking every ounce of alcohol that gets poured. So, I think it's a very positive visual effect for the guest, and it's also a very efficient program for tracking which individual bar tender at what exact time poured a double but rang up a single. ...

I've been very pleased with it and we've gotten some good results. The bar tender gets an opportunity: "You poured 35 drinks yesterday, and 33 of them were right in the sweet spot where we give you a little bit of [room for error] on either end, high or low. But look at these two drinks here: This one was almost an ounce over, and this one was almost an ounce under. And what happened here?" And after that coaching went on, in the second fiscal period after we implemented this system, that particular restaurant went from worst to first in pour costs. I don't have an exact ROI number on it, but I'll bet you it will not be long before the system pays for itself.

Chef Magazine: What other initiatives instituted by the bar have resulted in either cost savings or improved sales?
MacKay: [Offering] quality of service and quality of product are the best promotions that any bar or restaurant can run. If you don't have quality, then you probably shouldn't have promotional initiatives. I could spend thousands of dollars a week to drive people in here, but if I give them a lousy product, all I did was convince them never to come back. So, quality of product and service is first. ...

We work with another company called Long Range Systems. We have a survey tray [Allegiant's electronic Comment Card]. It's actually the tip tray that you take the check out on, but it's got an electronic survey attached to it. Every year, we offer a trip to London for one lucky winner, but to register to win, you enter in your information and e-mail [address]. At the same time, [the customers] are giving us feedback: How was your food? How was your service? If they say the restroom is dirty, the manager gets paged. If they respond that this is their first time at the restaurant, the manager gets paged ... so she has the opportunity to make a special visit to that first-time customer. Long story short, with the survey tray, we're building a database, so we can do e-mail blasts and text messages and all sorts of neat stuff.

We also have menus that talk for visually impaired folks. It's a company out of Florida called Menus That Talk, and what they did was translate our menus into this really classy-sounding lady's voice, and you press the Braille buttons on this box, and she reads the entire menu to you.

Chef Magazine: What other factors have contributed to the bar's success?
MacKay: Number one would be our people, and when I say our people, I include not only our team members here but also our guests. ... We have lots and lots of very loyal regulars, and a lot of that has to do with how the place feels, I think. And that happens because of the people who happen to be on our payroll. You can't train character, you can't train honesty or cheerfullness or a willingness to help people and a desire to be around them. So, we hire folks with those attributes, and we train the rest. We have a place that has some really nice people in it. It looks classy but relaxed. We have a strong beverage mix, and when you combine that with cost controls that work, that's how we maintain a strong bottom line.

Chef Magazine: What can we expect in future from Lion & Rose?
MacKay: We're close to the end of a lease negotiation in the Austin area, which is about 90 miles north of us. We have a lease that's been signed to put us in the last part of San Antonio that we feel we need to go--the Northwest side of San Antonio. We feel there's a very strong demographic there. ... And we also have developed a franchising program and put together everything we need to launch franchise sales. And we are currently heading out to start selling some franchises in key markets. But we're doing it with a close eye on infrastructure to make sure that we don't get top heavy and have ten frachisees out there, with only one person to go and do the training and follow-up. It's something that must be done carefully. ...

We've got a very strong concept with a lot of character to it, and we can't allow that to be diminished in any way. I think if we were able to sell one franchise every year, we'd probably be really happy with that. If we were able to do it well, yeah, maybe we could sell two or three ... We're a good, solid company. We've got cash because we've been careful, and we're not going to jeapordize that. But we are excited to take the brand to other towns in Texas and across the country.
Kosherfest--the number-one kosher food and beverage tradeshow event serving the retail, foodservice, manufacturing and distribution industries--will take place at the Meadowlands Exposition Center in Secaucus, N.J., October 27–28, 2009. The show will give visitors a taste of the latest and greatest trends and products in the kosher food and beverage industry from around the globe, with more than 13 countries represented.

According to research by the Mintel organization, kosher was the leading claim on new products in 2007 and 2009. Exhibitors are invited to enter their new kosher products in the Kosherfest New Products Competition, which awards prizes in 17 categories. The competition will be held on Oct. 15 in New York City prior to the tradeshow. A panel of culinary experts will select the winners of these coveted awards. Winners will be announced and products will be showcased at the show.

Have a favorite pastrami or corned beef sandwich? Noted chefs will prepare their kosher deli sandwich and side of choice at the 2nd Annual Kosherfest Culinary Competition (last year the competition was for the best kosher sushi). A panel of industry professionals will judge and decide who takes the title at the show.

Menachem Lubinsky, president of Lubicom Marketing and founder of Kosherfest, will discuss how the industry can use its kosher status to make inroads with different segments of the food market during the event's keynote address, scheduled for 9:00 a.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 27.

For product entry deadlines and general information, visit, contact Vianna DiGristina at or call (207) 842-5583.