Growth Chains: Thirsty Lion

Growth Chains: Thirsty Lion

Oregon pub concept leverages global menu strategy for national growth

As casual-dining chains across the country work to plump up alcohol sales, John Plew is moving out with a new pub concept that he hopes will soon be nipping at the heels of such top bar operators as BJ’s Restaurants, Buffalo Wild Wings and Yard House.

The Thirsty Lion Pub and Grill is a two-unit upscale “global pub” in Portland, Ore., with two more locations set to open in Arizona by 2012 and two units planned for Seattle within three years.

As president and chief executive of Portland-based Concept Entertainment, Plew knows how to run a bar. 

Over the past 20 years, Plew has grown seven bar and nightclub concepts around Portland, from the Lotus Cardroom & Café, which he calls “a dive bar by design,” to the beautifully renovated Grand Central Restaurant and Bowling Lounge.

Concept Entertainment opened the first Thirsty Lion location in 2006, converting one of the company’s bars in Portland into what was designed to be a British pub.

Though the bar side was a hit, the company found the food side of the pub concept a tough sell. British pubs, said Plew, were not really known for having great food.

Headquarters: Portland, Ore.

Market segment: upscale casual
No. of units: Two Thirsty Lion Pub and Grill units, seven bar and nightclub brands
Average check: $12-$15 at lunch, $18-$27 at dinner

Method of growth: internal funding

Leadership: John Plew, president and chief executive; Jeff Plew, vice president entertainment operations; Wes Curl, vice president restaurant operations; Dean Haskell, chief financial officer; Keith Castro, executive chef

Competitors: Yard House, BJ’s Restaurants, P.F. Chang’s China Bistro

Target markets: Oregon, Arizona, Washington State, Texas, Colorado

The following year, Seattle-based Restaurants Unlimited Inc. acquired Portland-based multiconcept operator Pacific Coast Restaurants Inc., known for such casual- and fine-dining concepts as Newport Bay, Henry’s 12th Street Tavern and Stanford’s. 

Plew scooped up several Pacific Coast executives, including executive chef Keith Castro and chief operating officer Wes Curl.

Castro is now executive chef for Concept Entertainment and Curl is vice president of restaurant operations. Plew also hired Leo Puebla of Pacific Coast Restaurants, now Concept Entertainment’s head of training.

The team completes what Plew calls the “four-legged stool” of food, bar, entertainment and service.

“We were really good at bar and entertainment and OK in food and service,” Plew said. “Pacific Coast was great at food and service, so as we brought them in our stool became balanced.”

With the team in place, the company decided to rework the Thirsty Lion. Rather than return to the original location with its small kitchen and urban limitations, they created a larger, freestanding unit at a shopping mall.

The second Thirsty Lion, a 7,200-square-foot location that serves as the prototype for future growth, opened in November 2010 and is on track to hit between $4.5 million and $6 million in annual sales, he said.

The restaurant has 240 seats inside and another 96 outside. An open kitchen gives the dining room “energy,” said Plew. Live music is featured on weekends, alternating with a disc jockey and music video programming.

More than 52 craft and import beers are available on tap. Wine and cocktails are available, too.

That variety bodes well for Thirsty Lion as consumers order more drinks away from home. U.S. restaurant and bar alcohol sales are projected to grow 1.9 percent in 2011, versus 0.4 percent in 2010, according to Technomic.

The Chicago-based research firm predicted last December that cocktails would see the greatest sales growth, rising 2.3 percent in 2011, compared with 0.7 percent growth in 2010. Meanwhile, beer sales, which were flat in 2010, are expected to climb by 1.6 percent this year, supported by strength among craft and microbrew products. Wine sales are expected to grow 1.4 percent in 2011, compared with 0.8 percent in 2010.

The Thirsty Lion’s menu is eclectic, with brick-oven pizzas, burgers and such dishes as seared ahi salad with wasabi-ginger vinaigrette and kung pao chicken. 

The average check at lunch runs between $12 and $15. The happy hour average check is about $18, and dinner checks fall between $18 and $27, Plew said.

About 60 percent of sales at the new prototype unit is food, with 40 percent bar.Such high alcohol sales are rare for the casual-dining segment, Plew said. 

“Everyone’s saying, ‘How can I get back into the bar business?’ because they’re not able to grow their food business,” he said, noting that brands that stayed strong through the recession are generally known for strong bar business.

Concept Entertainment is planning for 24 Thirsty Lion units in 10 years, which Plew said can be accomplished with local lenders and internal funding. In addition to Arizona and Washington state, the company is targeting Texas and Colorado.

“It’s very similar to a Houston’s mindset,” he said. “More is not better. Make sure you do it right; do it really well.” 

Contact Lisa Jennings at [email protected] [3].