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Love’s--Sweeter the Second Time Around? : Restaurants: Harry Shuster sold the barbecue chain in 1990, then bought it back. Now, he thinks he has a recipe for success.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Harry Shuster doesn’t know a thing about spicing up a red sauce, basting a side of ribs or spinning a head of foam on a cup of cappuccino. And, though he runs a chain of restaurants, he couldn’t care less.

Shuster, chairman and president of United Restaurants Inc. in Costa Mesa, is a deal maker, and he has plenty on his plate these days.

United Restaurants, which owns the Love’s barbecue chain, signed an agreement just last week to license the Love’s concept to an Indonesian company that wants to build units in Pacific Rim countries.

The next project is to launch a chain of upscale coffee and pasta houses based on a prototype the company is developing in Beverly Hills. To test recipes and operations, Shuster bought a controlling interest in a popular Italian restaurant in Santa Monica to serve as a model. And after that? Maybe a steakhouse.

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“I’m a businessman. I don’t know anything about restaurants. I don’t know anything about cooking,” Shuster explained last week over a tuna salad sandwich and iced tea at his flagship Love’s eatery in West Los Angeles.

Shuster is perhaps best known in Orange County as the man who built the now-defunct Lion Country Safari theme park here in the late 1960s. After that venture failed, he bought the Love’s restaurant chain in 1986.

The chain, which started with a single barbecue restaurant in the San Fernando Valley in 1945 and expanded by selling franchises, had changed owners several times and was losing money. Shuster said he simply sold off leases to losing restaurants, putting the chain in the black.

In 1990, he sold Love’s to a Japanese company for $3.2 million. But the chain, hurt by consumers’ growing preference for lighter restaurant meals and faced with increasing competition from newer barbecue chains like Tony Roma’s, started losing money again.

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The Beverly Hills businessman formed United Restaurants in 1993 to buy it back, he said, paying a fraction of what he had sold it for. Following the same recipe, he sold the leases to unprofitable restaurants in Huntington Beach and La Mirada.

The chain, which lost $3.8 million on revenue of $3.2 million for 1992, reduced its annual loss to $349,763 last year and has continued to improve.

The chain has brightened its decor and added salads and other light fare to its meat-heavy menu. With the help of the Indonesian licensing agreement, which will bring in revenue for the use of the Love’s name, plus a capital infusion from an $8-million public stock offering, the company appears to be on the right track, said Janet Lowder, a restaurant analyst and consultant in Rancho Palos Verdes.

Shuster appears to be making the right moves, Lowder said, given that Love’s had not been keeping pace with trends in food and restaurant design. But barbecue has been making a comeback, she said.

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Shuster said United Restaurants will post a loss this year because of spending on developing its new concepts and launching an expansion. But, having set the Love’s changes in motion, he said, he can turn his attention to the coffeehouse, named On Canon after the street where the prototype will be.

He describes it as a cross between an informal Northern Italian bistro and an upscale cappuccino bar. United Restaurants will test the concept at Santa Monica’s popular Il Forno, in which it recently bought a controlling interest.

Analyst Lowder said Italian eateries are in vogue now, but the volatility of coffee prices because of a drought in Brazil could make java houses risky.

Shuster, however, said that coffee has high profit margins, and that should ensure the restaurant’s success.

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“I’m going to have the next Starbuck’s,” he said, referring to the successful national coffee house chain. “At least I hope I am.”

United Restaurants at a Glance

* Incorporated: 1993

* Business: Parent company of Love’s restaurant chain

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* Initial stock offering: April 12, 1994

* Headquarters: Costa Mesa

* Chairman and CEO: Harry Shuster

* Employees: 37

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* 1993 revenue: $2.1 million

* Expansion plans: In addition to revitalizing Love’s, the firm is developing several other restaurants, including On Canon in West Los Angeles.

Source: United Restaurants Inc.

Researched by JANICE L. JONES / Los Angeles Times

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