The hospitality industry isn’t an easy one to be in but the good operators who manage their finances and menus well enjoy the ride through the ever-changing hospitality business environment, but it is unusual for a restaurant or restaurant chain to survive pretty much unchanged, on the outside anyway, for 30 years.
One restaurant chain that has been very successful in making the change from a single restaurant to many while sticking to its roots is Lone Star, this week they are celebrating 30 years since the opening of their very first restaurant in Manchester St, Christchurch in 1988; most impressively the original owners are still involved as shareholders and directors of the franchise so they must be having fun doing what they do.
Lone Star shook up the established players in the dining scene in Christchurch by providing a much more relaxed, fun atmosphere where families could dine and get outstanding value for money, ie big servings of beautifully cooked meats and great service with a smile.
In Nelson the premises built by the late Tony Smith for his Flinders on Hardy restaurant and bar has proved to be the perfect premises for the Lone Star franchise here.
I sat down with Steve Gardiner, or ‘Gardi’ as he is affectionately known, who has owned the Nelson franchise since May 2016 to find out more about the man and why he bought this particular franchise.
He is Nelson born and bred and before joining the police force aged 25 he had a number of jobs, “I always wanted to join the police so while I was waiting I did a range of things from roofing contracting and building to being a postie, a caregiver at a rest home and working at the Honest Lawyer for over a year, I had young kids at the time and was trying out for the police so kept my nose clean in what would normally be the party years.”
He stayed in the police force for 15 years and has seen the hospitality scene change significantly, “there has been a lot change in hospo over the years, the days of the big corner pubs are all but gone, replaced by venues that have a focus on food and happen to serve alcohol too.
“Drink driving laws had a big impact on the way people consume alcohol and more stringent liquor laws have sorted out some of the less responsible owners, but there was a huge paradigm shift when alcohol went up in price, people started pre-loading at home and turn up in town at about 10pm already half drunk, we don’t see a lot of these people at Lone Star because we are a family focussed restaurant that has a bar too, our customers are seldom the midnight onwards drinking trade.”
The building is also perfect for the Lone Star operation, Steve says “it is a fantastic building, incredibly well built and set out for our use, it has great spaces inside and gives us lots of options for larger groups while still being able to keep the great atmosphere for couples”.
Lone Star is famous for its generous servings but as Steve told me one of the secrets to the longevity of the franchise is keeping up with changes in what people are looking for when they dine out, “We have smaller sized and less costly options now but will always have the classic sizes people grew to love. It’s about giving diners more choice nowadays. Portion sizes are more relevant to modern dining, carbs aren’t dominating the plate anymore, but it is still about serving a great quality protein.
“We just won’t compromise on the quality of the meats we serve and have moved a couple of dishes to a more finer dining approach with fresh seasonal vege rather than huge carb loading. We serve only free range chicken and free range eggs and can cater for everyone’s needs including coeliac, vegan, dairy or gluten free, vegetarian to paleo”.
A couple of dishes that helped make Lone Star a family favourite are the Redneck Ribs, pork ribs that are “blanched in honey and spices, blasted in the Lone Star fire, piled high and smothered in their famous ribs sauce”, a dish that is famously messy and fun. With ‘all you can eat ribs’ coming soon it will be a crowd pleaser.
Steve says the thing that really makes a difference to a hospitality business is the staff, “we have 23 full and part-time staff at the moment with most of the part-timers local high school students, we have five full-time kitchen staff and three full-time floor staff.”
He says things he saw in the police force made him realise how important it is to retain staff, “when someone leaves and they take experience with them even though the replacement person might be qualified they still need to learn the job, and it costs money to train them so it is much better to retain staff, to do that you need to look after them and give them job security.”
He has two head chefs, Bobby Learmonth who has been at Lone Star on Hardy St for more than nine years and Karen Fournier who has been there for about four years, “together they run the kitchen, I’m mainly just the barman, but also do maître’d, maintenance man, sweeper, painter and they guy who pays the bills.”
“We also have a general manager who tells me what to do, Brooke Helem has been here almost seven years so we have long serving staff, if you look after staff they will look after you and I believe that is how hospo should be.”
Lone Star have a philosophy of ‘Love, Care and Generosity’ and to help deliver on that promise Steve is a big supporter of local sports clubs, schools and other organisations with lots of prize sponsorships for things like player of the day prizes and auction items, “Lone Star has always been big on giving back to the community, we don’t say Love, Care, Generosity to our customers, we show it.
“For our 30th birthday we have a special anniversary plate and if your meal is served on it then it is free, it’s just a small way we can surprise people and celebrate too.”
Lone Star also has an App free the app store called Lone Star Loyal to stay in touch with customers and help reward loyalty.
So as we approach summer and Christmas party time I think it is the perfect time to book a space at Lone Star for your next party or celebration dinner, or maybe just drop in for some of the best steak you will find in town.
Check their menu and opening hours at www.lonestar.co.nz