Concepts of Tomorrow
Growth Strategies For Emerging Full-Service Restaurants
Cars and wings add up to big
volumes for Quaker Steak & Lube
NOT JUST A GUY THING
Wouldn’t it be great if there were one place guys could go to get their fill of things guys love, like chicken wings, hot rods and Harleys? And wouldn’t it be even better if the whole family could go along for the ride? Quaker Steak & Lube might be just that place.
The fact is that this casual dining concept actually looks more like a retro gas station than it does an eatery. And in the words of one of the concept’s founders, Gary Meszaros, who recently gave RH the Quaker Steak tour, the theme of this restaurant is "everything with wheels." And while this is indeed a theme restaurant, observers should make no mistake about the seriousness of this operation: It racks up annual food and drink sales to the tune of $5 to $7 million in each of its ten restaurants throughout Western Pennsylvania and Ohio. And now, armed with a new prototype, they’re taking this high-volume show on the road. Three new units are scheduled to open this year.
Although this big wing joint is just now starting to stretch its legs, the concept is not a new one. Quaker Steak & Lube began its life as Best Wings U.S.A., a company founded in 1971 by high school chums George S. Warren III and Gary J. Meszaros. In that year, they first opened a restaurant called "Old Express" in the abandoned Penn Central railroad station in downtown Sharon, Penn. They expanded, adding a night club in 1972, and finally, a Quaker Steak & Lube in 1974, a restaurant whose theme came from the space it occupied, a vacated gasoline and service station. The QS&L menu was pretty standard—steaks and burgers—until 1976 when Warren and Meszaros borrowed trendy idea they’d run across in Buffalo, N.Y. "We started putting chicken wings on the plate next to the steaks," explains Meszaros. "At first, the reaction was, ‘Yuck. I’m not eating that.’ But we knew that if we could get customers to try them, they’d start ordering them on their own."
Of course, they were right. And today "The Lube," as its founders, employees and regular customers affectionately call it, fancies itself better than anything that came out of Buffalo. Gary Meszaros says, "Buffalo invented the chicken wing, but we’ve perfected it."
But the executive doesn’t deny that his concept faces real competition. With a menu of steaks, burgers, sandwiches and salads and average checks in the $12 range, "We are up against all of the other casual dining restaurants people can choose," he says. But helping to differentiate the operation is its theme: Cars and motorcycles. Unlike a lot of theme restaurants, many of which have met their demise in recent years, this concept’s theme actually helps drive its business. This restaurant is not just a museum with food—it’s a place where car and motorcycle enthusiasts actually gather to eat and engage in entertainment that supports their hobby.
Just show up when any big auto race is televised—profitable days for Quaker Steak & Lube restaurants. Patrons gather to watch NASCAR and other events on the many screens dotting the dining rooms and bars of the restaurant. QS&L posts schedules of upcoming races so that guests can plan their next visits.
But making QS&L truly unique is "Bike Night," a weekly event held in warm weather months in which up to 3,000 motorcycle enthusiasts ride their bikes to The Lube, park them in the large space surrounding a secondary building adjacent to the main restaurant, and hang out with their fellow bikers. This building features several garage doors around three sides of its perimeter that are opened for Bike Night. Inside, there’s a kitchen, serving a limited version of the regular menu, a bar, and tables. The design allows guests to meander in and out of the building and check out their friends’ rides. Similarly, occasional "Car Cruise" events bring auto shows right to Quaker Steak parking lots.
There’s no doubt that such events help contribute to customer counts that can run up to 10,000 per unit per week, driven by frequencies that average four to five monthly visits. It’s also worth noting that a Friday afternoon visit revealed not just guys here, but a wide range of patrons from kids to old folks—even a lot of women. Most guests order wings, which account for 65% of sales. Quaker Steak sells them in buckets, an idea Meszaros admits they borrowed from KFC. "At the time we started this, only the Colonel was doing buckets, but we adopted them, and we divided them," he says, referring to the company’s popular "split bucket" offering. Most guests opt for the split bucket, which lets them choose two types of wings for $.89 more. These buckets are hot sellers, says Meszaros, because they represent value and choice to the guest. What’s more, lids easily cap off the buckets, making leftovers easy to take home.
Second to wings in popularity are high-profit margin sides and other "bar foods," such as "Wrench Fries," and the "O-Rings Ontenna" (onion rings served stacked on a car radio antenna, anchored by a small hubcap). The rest of the menu’s offerings, though not especially creative, strategically appeals to a broad audience, and, with names like Chevy Chicken Salad, GTO Gyro, Harley Hoagie and New York Drag Strip, support the theme of the restaurant.
The menu is updated every six months. QS&L is able to grow the menu rather easily because much of it is based on the sauces created for their chicken wings. Wing sauce is used in everything from chicken sandwiches to a dip for hot pretzels. To make the sauces, including the fiery Atomic variety (a fun gimmick: Guests must sign a "release" excusing the restaurant from liability) Meszaros says major name brands like Frank’s RedHot and Tabasco are chosen. "We’ve had to resist the temptation to do it more cheaply, but it’s important," he says.
Going forward, new QS&Ls will be built according to a three-year old prototype design created by restaurant designers Babcock and Schmid. The 400-seat prototype takes that "anything with a motor" idea to amazing lengths. Like other themed restaurants, every wall, every nook, even the ceilings, are packed with stuff that supports the theme. There are even steering wheels on the backs of restroom stall doors. Each restaurant is divided into separate rooms, with names like Thunder Alley, the ’Vette "VVVRoom," the Handlebar and Pit Row.
The company employs a curator who helps deco rate each QS&L from a stash of stuff (three tractor-trailers full) bought or even borrowed from private collections. It includes collectible and vintage motorcycles, real Indy 500 race cars and odds and ends like 20-odd traffic lights just waiting for new homes. Bar stool foot rests are fashioned out of exhaust pipes. There are also auto garage decorations—mechanics’ tools, even car lifts and gas pump handles that serve as doorknobs. Vintage gas pumps, their guts removed, encase TV screens. Franchisees reimburse the company for items used to decorate their restaurants, but they can also secure local items themselves. Above one booth in the Sheffield, Ohio location are car doors from local police cruisers.
The first franchised QS&L opened in 1997 and the company has slowly added a handful of franchise partners since that time. Scheduled to open this year are franchised units in Florida and North Carolina. The growth rate will quickly pick up from there, increasing 30 to 40 percent per year. Long-term, QS&L is looking for a 90-10 franchise-company owned ratio. Future growth will take the form of area development agreements. For now, the company and its franchisees are focusing locations along major Eastern and Midwestern highway corridors.
Why grow through franchising? "We’re late bloomers, in terms of expansion, and this seemed like the fastest way to grow," Meszaros says. He adds that if the right partners are found, the company can enjoy the benefits of growth without the hassles. "We’re not the ones always looking for managers," he says.
Going forward, a major goal is to reduce construction costs, now at about $2.5 million, to $2 million. Also, a smaller prototype to be employed as a secondary location in large markets, is in the works. It will be 8,000, versus the current 10,200 sq. ft. They will not host special events like Bike Night, but will instead serve as "feeders" to the primary units. Also, corporate chefs are working to add more non-bar food (read: fried) items, such as an easy-peel garlic shrimp.
Meszaros says the biggest challenge—and the most important thing—will be to keep a close eye on the people and the systems behind Quaker Steak & Lube. "You can’t invest too much in training and execution. It’s about keeping good people enthused and motivated about what you’re doing."