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RH: And Max’s sprang from the idea and now motto, “Fried chicken and champagne?…Why the hell not?”

Lasco:
Yes, it was about taking all pretention out of wine. It’s really based on a dive bar, a comfortable place, and instead of buckets of beer and peanuts, we have great wine and gourmet food. The food tends to be along the lines of comfort food. We have great chefs, completely scratch ingredients and 50 percent of the menu is original to each location. The classics—like fried chicken, a Kobe burger—are on the left side of the menu, the other side is the chef’s creation.

RH: How do the check averages compare?

Lasco:
These are estimates, but we’re about $35 at The Tasting Room and at Max’s it’s upper 50s. Sales at Max’s are about 50 percent food. At The Tasting Room, a lot of people come just for a glass of wine.

RH: And there’s another concept…

Lasco:
The Boiler House. It’s at a cool location, a culinary mecca in San Antonio [called Pearl Brewery], that won’t even allow chains. It has to be local. We created a concept for that center, around the building we’re in, which is historic and built in the 1800s. It was a boiler house that drove the old Pearl Brewery. We gutted those boilers and put grills in instead and now we’re burning meat and creating food. It’s a Texas grill and wine garden, kind of a play on a beer garden with local Texas foods.

RH: Has the wine world changed in the decade since you first opened The Tasting Room?

Lasco:
Yes, even in the last five years. What has changed is the profitability of selling wines. We’re a wine-centric business. We don’t have any hard alcohol, no mixed drinks, but we do have beer. The profitability and pricing structure has changed drastically. Wine was sold in white tablecloth restaurants and steakhouses and the markup was three or four times retail. That was normal. Concepts like The Tasting Room, wine bars and other restaurants that found success became much more aggressive with their pricing. All our pricing is based on retail and this really changed the model and I remember when we first did it, we got a lot of accolades and positive press and our customers loved us. They were paying half or a third for the same bottle of wine down the street. It felt really good, but we weren’t making any money.

RH: You obviously figured something out?

Lasco:
To be competitive and have wine lovers, you have to price more aggressively. You can’t get away with those old markups, especially in lieu of the commoditization of wines, or what I mean is that now wines are at Costco and Walmart, other big box retailers, on the Internet and in low-overhead locations. What it has done is anyone with a smart phone can plug in any wine in the world and see that it really costs $8.27 at some place in New Jersey, so if it’s on the wine list for $70, they’re going to feel gouged. It’s really difficult. The reality is the restaurateur can’t buy that wine for $8.27 from the distributor, and frankly nobody can probably buy it from that place in New Jersey, they probably don’t even have it. The point being it’s much more difficult to make money selling wine. Customers are savvier, they have access to info and very low cost providers of good, name-brand wines. How does a restaurant combat that? Our secret is a lot of scale. It’s one of those businesses built on smaller margins and it’s hustle. It’s value-added services. We have lockers that our clients get and they pay a monthly fee for. We’ve figured out ways to do it. Our by the glass sales, we make a little more because we do a quarter pour, but get five five-ounce glasses. We don’t hide that, it is what it is. It’s doing the little things and building scale.

RH: Any comparisons between the restaurant industry and flying?

Lasco:
In commercial flying, there’s a saying that it’s hours of boredom with a few moments of sheer terror. The restaurant industry is more like the Air Force: hours of sheer terror and a few moments of boredom.