Wines are grouped and displayed on a wall not by varietal or region, but by taste. Photos by Lasco Enterprises.
Jerry Lasco estimates more than five million glasses of wine have been served at the first Tasting Room that opened in Houston’s Uptown Park 10 years ago. Not bad for an airline pilot, who only came to this business because he’d been furloughed from his job as a Continental Airlines pilot 12 years ago.
He was laid off after 9/11 and hasn’t been back in a cockpit since. He hasn’t had time, and it’s easy to see why: The first Tasting Room that opened two years later has grown from less than 1,000 square feet of space to more than 7,600, and three new units have been added in Houston. His second concept, Max’s Wine Dive, was recently named a Nation’s Restaurant News’ Hot Concept winner and is about to take off nationally. Lasco has another concept that could grow (The Boiler House) and plans for more.
Wine is the common thread among them, and what was once a hobby has turned into a thriving business for the former Air Force pilot whose entrepreneurial passion grew while he was based in New York City with Continental. While there, he attended culinary school and was certified as a sommelier, which came in handy when he was looking for his next career. He worked for two years in Houston at a wine shop while building the business plan for The Tasting Room with his wife, Laura, an attorney and now v.p. with their company, Lasco Enterprises.
On Sept. 15, 2003, almost two years after piloting his last plane, the Lascos opened The Tasting Room at Uptown Park. The motto then and now was “wine by the glass, bottle and case.” By not serving hard alcohol, the innovative concept was able to offer both on-premise and retail wine sales, giving customers drinking and dining there more than competitive prices compared to almost every other restaurant. The concept started out by offering a menu consisting of little more than cheese plates and now each location is chef driven with a full dinner menu.
Lasco, the c.e.o., now has 10 total units throughout Texas and the company has more than 600 employees, topped $24 million in total revenue last year and has been on Inc. Magazine’s list of fastest growing private companies the past four years. Lasco recently took some time to discuss how exactly a former Top Gun instructor has become a successful restaurateur.
RH: This month marks the 10th anniversary of the first Tasting Room. Did you ever imagine this kind of success?
Lasco: This definitely has exceeded my expectations. It started as a very small location, less than 1,000 square feet. Of course we wanted it to be popular, if I didn’t think it would have been successful, I wouldn’t have had the guts to spend the money on it and put in all that time. But as it’s grown, become an iconic place and just the sheer scale of it, I think it is very surprising. It’s a mixture of being at the right place at the right time and hopefully doing some of the right things.
RH: And it all started with the idea of “by the glass, bottle and case?”
Lasco: That was one of the philosophies. We tried to accomplish two things: The first was to alleviate a fear and solve the problem of people being intimidated going into a big wine store or outlet, because if you aren’t sure if a Bordeaux is a white or a red, you’re going to feel intimidated asking questions. The other aspect was how do you trust the recommendation from someone who doesn’t share the same taste palate? I can describe what a Brussel sprout tastes like all day long, but until you taste it, you’re not going to know if you like it.