What is in this article?:
The former pilot discusses how the concept has grown and led to others like Max’s Wine Dive, which is set to expand nationally.
Wines are grouped and displayed on a wall not by varietal or region, but by taste. Photos by Lasco Enterprises.
Focusing on food
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So we built the concept on those two things. We simplified selections and put wines together not by region and varietal, but by how they tasted—the lightest, freshest whites on one wall, the deepest heaviest reds on the other. It didn’t matter what part of the country they were from, or the varietal. It’s all flavor based. The second thing is the taste question: Try before you buy. So before you invest in a glass, let’s taste some wines. Let’s say you like chardonnay, but not real buttery rich chardonnays, so our bartender or server will bring out two chards on both ends of the spectrum: One more crisp, clean and oaky, and the other side something richer. We try to resist going into more technical terms, but instead let you taste them first. Then we can tell you some facts about them, but not before. Ninety-five percent of people just want to know what they like and be able to order it.
RH: And you offer all wines by the glass? Is that practical, and how do you manage it?
Lasco: We offer everything by the glass if you commit to two glasses. The practicality of it? If I’m doing that chardonnay test for you, I probably have those two bottles open already, and if not, they’re going to be shortly, considering there are others after you. It’s not like we’re opening odd bottles for every individual. We’re trying to find broad strokes and have a multitude of bottles open every day. And if they decide to have two glasses and walk away, then it becomes an exciting opportunity for our servers to find a home for the other two, either through another tasting or by finding a new fan. And we feel proud of everything we offer—you have to, with 100 to 250 bottles of wine, and not thousands. Then it’s just finding the right homes and right food for the wine.
RH: How important is the food side of the business and how did it grow?
Lasco: In the beginning we started off with bread and cheese plates, which was appropriate for our size and staffing. We became a very successful wine bar, and sold a lot of glasses of wine, but it was a Catch 22. We tried not to have a lot of barriers; you didn’t have to come in and spend hundreds and invest three hours of time. We were very casual. You could come in and out, knock back an $8 glass of wine and be on your way. Or you could meet someone for a short period of time before dinner. We ran into low-check averages, with people coming in and then going somewhere else to spend the bulk of their money on dinner. So we started to incorporate more food into the mix, and people stayed longer, and now we do events and wine dinners. It’s a way for us to capture more business rather than sending people to a different restaurant.
Now we have top-tier chefs, and at one of our latest, we just imported a wood-burning oven from Italy. We sent our culinary team to get training in traditional Neapolitan pizza. We’ve just gotten more aggressive, experimental and ambitious with our chefs.
RH: How much revenue comes from food?
Lasco: In general, somewhere between 20 percent and 25 percent.
RH: Would you consider expanding the concept outside Houston?
Lasco: Absolutely. We have four units, and they’re of different sizes and shapes. In order to be ambitious with food, wine and do the things we want to do, we have to be a little larger. The smaller ones, even if crowded, can’t justify the culinary team’s salaries. We need those economies of scale. It’s an ambitious project and the large ones work best. For us to go to a different location, it would have to be a great location and a market we feel confident in and one that can support us.
RH: Which brings us to the concept you really are growing outside Houston at a quick pace, right?
Lasco: Yes, we’re going into other markets with Max’s Wine Dive. It’s a smaller footprint; much more restaurant than The Tasting Room. It’s just a different concept and easier to pull off. The average sales per square foot are higher and it’s easier to duplicate. And then as we get to know a market more—and we’re opening in Atlanta, Denver, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Indianapolis soon—and get more established in those, then the goal is to expand there with other opportunities, and some of those could be with The Tasting Room, The Boiler House or another one. The sky is the limit.
RH: How fast can you grow Max’s and would you consider franchising?
Lasco: All those are teed up to open by early next year, and then a slew of other locations will follow. Our goal right now is to open about one a month. We have no intention of franchising.