A Rare New Venture for Lawry’s

Times Staff Writer

When the California Lottery hit $85 million recently, the most Lawry’s Restaurants Inc. head Richard R. Frank was willing to gamble was $5. It was a hedge -- money spent just to make sure he wasn’t left out if the office pool won the jackpot.

In much the same way, Frank -- the lean, clean-shaven grandson of Lawry’s co-founder Lawrence L. Frank -- is hedging his bets as the company launches its first new restaurant concept in nearly a quarter of a century.

Though the Pasadena-based concern dabbled in other concepts in the 1970s -- from Italian sit-downs to English pubs -- it is known for its fine-dining prime rib establishments in Beverly Hills, Chicago, Dallas and Las Vegas. The privately held company posted total revenue of about $40 million last year.

Now, Frank, 47, is wagering that he can grab a healthy slice of the growing quick-casual dining segment with Lawry’s Carvery, a smaller, less expensive version of the mother ship that opened in November in upscale South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa.

Along with Spago’s Wolfgang Puck, Frank is one of the few fine-dining impresarios to venture into the quick-casual market, a niche marked by fresher, healthier entrees and prices higher than the typical fast-food joint. The segment raked in $5.2 billion in revenue in 2001, according to Technomic Inc., a Chicago-based restaurant consulting firm.


In Frank’s case, he’s starting off small -- with just one store -- to minimize the downside risk.

“I may be a risk taker in some respects. On occasion I’ll play craps with my buddies. But I don’t gamble,” said Frank, the company’s president and chief executive.

Gambling, as Frank sees it, is a game of chance with the odds stacked against you. Opening the Carvery, which specializes in high-end sandwiches of prime rib, turkey and pork, is a “calculated risk,” he said, taken after years of discussion and study.

“We’re hoping the odds are stacked in our favor,” he added.

Many of Lawry’s past spin-offs didn’t survive. The company started and sold off several ill-fated concepts in the ‘70s, from Tonio’s Italian restaurant to Ben Johnson’s pub. Nearly all are gone, and Lawry’s has spent recent years building on the 64-year-old flagship, whose menu has not changed substantially in a decade.

The company roster includes four Lawry’s in the U.S., four licensed Lawry’s in Asia, the Tam O’Shanter Inn in Los Feliz and the Five Crowns in Corona del Mar. The Lawry’s Foods portion of the company, which makes spices, was sold to Thomas J. Lipton Co. in 1979.

At Lawry’s the Prime Rib on La Cienega Boulevard’s Restaurant Row, diners are served at linen-covered tables by waitresses in neatly pressed uniforms (melon-colored dresses, white aprons, white hats pinned in place). Benny Goodman reigns supreme on the sound system, and white-gloved meat carvers steer Airstream-esque carts from table to table, dishing out generous slabs of red meat.

At the Carvery, customers queue up to place their orders and reach into wallets and handbags to pay at a central counter, a la fast food. Then servers clad in khaki-colored polo shirts and slacks deliver the meals to the indoor or patio cherrywood tables, in a nod to the spot’s full-service roots.

The least expensive prime rib dinner at Lawry’s costs $23.95, not including a side dish or drink.

At the Carvery, a hand-carved prime rib sandwich with house-made chips goes for $8.99; turkey and pork cost less. A prime rib meal, with one side dish, goes for $13.99.

That pricing, one analyst said, may be the nestling’s undoing. Though low compared with the flagship, the average check of $11 makes the Carvery more expensive than the average quick-casual restaurant, where the tab generally ranges from $6 to $10.

“That price is so far above the price of a quick-casual restaurant they can’t possibly succeed,” said Hal Sieling, managing partner of Carlsbad-based Hal Sieling & Associates, a restaurant consulting firm. “People are not going to pay $14 -- that’s more than, say, Red Lobster, a sit-down restaurant. They may do it once, but they won’t do it twice.”

With increasing competition in the quick-casual space, consumers can afford to be pickier. For example, Panera Bread Co., a high-end bakery and sandwich maker whose average check is $6.30, plans to open stores in Southern California this summer, a spokeswoman said.

But Frank maintains that the price tag fits the product, especially in a tony place such as South Coast Plaza, where the Carvery is flanked by Saks Fifth Avenue and Bottega Veneta.

“It’s at the high end of the range in part because we are serving a hand-carved, quality prime rib sandwich as our featured item,” Frank said.

“By definition it almost has to be there. We didn’t want to cheapen the Lawry’s name by using some other meat,” he added.

For Russell Jenkins, who was dining at the Carvery recently with his younger brother, Scott, the prices were a pleasant surprise, given the Lawry’s name.

“I thought, Lawry’s, uh-oh -- $30, $40 a head, and it was $15 a head,” Russell Jenkins said. “If you’re shopping in a place like South Coast Plaza, $12 is nothing.”

Frank said the company spent about $1.5 million to launch the Carvery, a bargain compared with the $6-million-to-$7-million investment in its Las Vegas restaurant.

Though the company saw its revenue dip in 2001 -- its Las Vegas branch was hit by the post-Sept. 11 drop in tourism and business travel, and fewer busloads of Japanese tourists made pilgrimages to its Beverly Hills restaurant -- Frank insists that those challenges were not the motivation for going with the Carvery.

In fact, he said, the concept has been under discussion for more than eight years. It grew out of the takeout sandwich business at several of the company’s restaurants, especially the Tam O’ Shanter.

“We thought we could take something we were doing in three of the restaurants and turn it into something on a stand-alone basis -- do it using the Lawry’s name,” explained Frank, who started with the company as a teenager working part-time as a busboy.

“We felt that we had in Lawry’s a name and a brand and a following in the community ... and why not take advantage of that?”