After 25 years of success with mostly upscale restaurants, Lonnie Schiller was looking for something outside the “shark tank” of an ultra-competitive restaurant market like Houston.

His search took him far off the beaten path, more than 300 miles away from Houston, all the way to Carrizo Springs, TX, and a new meat-and-potatoes concept called Red Dog Ice House.

The c.e.o. of Schiller Del Grande Restaurant Group was a year removed from the closing of Ava, a fine-dining restaurant in Houston, when a small investment in an oil and gas company led him to the Eagle Ford Shale in Southwest Texas. His stake was “very small, but enough to get an interest in this hydraulic fracking,” he says. It took him through Carrizo Springs and other almost forgotten towns between San Antonio and Nuevo Laredo, Mexico.

“It was like the movie Road Warriors,” Schiller says of the scene there. “Giant 18 wheelers storming up and down dusty roads, delivering men and equipment and oil and gas and anything else they’d need.”

Towns like Carrizo Springs, with a population just north of 5,000, are now bursting at the seams. The fracking began in 2008, slowly at first, and now as many as 10,000 workers flood the small town Monday through Friday. They are welders building pipes for $15,000 a month, firewatchers nearby holding extinguishers (just in case) for $30 an hour, supervisors and crew chiefs making even more and then all the others involved in building and maintaining the infrastructure necessary to handle all those people.

Beyond lodging, from housing to hotels, they needed to eat, too. The Church’s Chicken, Pizza Hut and local steak joint weren’t cutting it.

New partners, new approach

Red Dog Ice House isn’t part of Schiller Del Grande, the company Schiller partners with acclaimed chef Robert Del Grande and others to run. They were busy with RDG Bar Annie, the new iteration of the restaurant that put them on the map in Houston, Café Annie, and other successful concepts ranging from casual to upscale. “Frankly,” he says, “I didn’t want to drag them into this and have it be a giant mistake.”

Most of Schiller’s previous projects had been upscale, but he knew this one couldn’t be. “It had to be good basic roadhouse food,” he says. “Steak, burgers and cold beer.”

His other challenge was typical of any new business popping up in or around a shale region like this. No one really knows how long the boom will last, especially in oil country like Texas where people still haven’t forgotten how fast wells and then towns can dry up. Financing can be difficult, if not impossible.

Schiller hatched the idea of creating a portable restaurant, so if the wells ran dry, he could pick up the restaurant and most of the capital invested and move them someplace else. He found willing partners with the expertise he needed—attorney John Pecore, developer and construction expert Rob Axelson and restaurant architect Craig Schuster.

Their new company is called Portable Ventures and the first Red Dog Ice House opened in March. The 4,000-square-foot restaurant has 120 seats and a large bar, all enclosed around a 1,200-square-foot kitchen built and brought from Houston and under an almost 3,000-square foot tent originally made for military use. It’s as sturdy as a permanent structure, Schiller says, and customers don’t even realize it’s just sitting on top of a slab of concrete.