Part of the family for 25 years
Part of the family for 25 years
“In the past 25 years, everything that can happen in a human lifetime has happened at the Lone Star,” says co-founder and director Tim Whelan.
“People have celebrated the birth of their children, got engaged and even divorced here. We share so many memories with so many people.”
Since the doors of the first Lone Star opened with capacity for just 60 people on Christchurch’s Manchester Street on 13 September 1988, the iconic café and bar has become a Kiwi institution – serving dinner to the equivalent of one in four New Zealanders every year.
More than 1,000 people are employed at the 23 Lone Stars that are now dotted throughout New Zealand, each year serving approximately 200 tonnes of ribs, 80 tonnes of chicken and giving away three tonnes of jellybeans and 30,000 Lone Star t-shirts.
Millions of people from all walks of life and corners of the globe have dined on iconic Redneck Ribs, Dixie Chicken or the Lassoo of Hog – original dishes that are still firm favourites and that form part of the ‘bible’ of recipes developed to ensure consistency across all restaurants.
The brand is now one of the country’s most successful home-grown restaurant and bar franchises and is very much a part of quintessential New Zealand.
Five directors run the company including the original founders Tim Whelan and Steve Ward, Tim’s brother James, Shane Hausler and executive chef Johnny Phillips.
The Lone Star Group is poised for steady growth during the next few years, through new restaurants and increased sales. By 2016 the directors’ plan is to have one in three New Zealanders dining at Lone Stars, and 30 restaurants nationwide by the time the company turns 30 in 2018.
The immediate future includes upgrades to existing restaurants and new Lone Stars opening in Timaru and Albany in 2013.
The enduring appeal of the Lone Star is that it appeals to everyone regardless of socio-economic standing, says Tim.
“We have had people from the top echelons of society dine here, and people have celebrated their birthday for 15, 20 years straight with us. The Lone Star is a place that has become a part of their family, and one of the highlights for us is all the fabulous people that we have made happy and shared memories with.”
Launching Lone Star in 1988 was a risk for Tim and co-founder Steve. Country wasn’t a genre that sprung to mind, and people generally went out for dinner to fine dining establishments – places with appalling décor, bright lighting, poor service, tiny portions and an attitude of ‘we’re doing you the favour’ were only too common.
“Having fun and getting value for your money while dining out were foreign concepts back then,” says Steve.
“We didn’t want the pretension that we saw in so many restaurants at the time. There was very little choice and most of it was straight-laced. We wanted to create something that gave customers good value for money – great food, an entertaining atmosphere and a memorable dining experience.
“This was our founding principle and it still motivates us today.”
Despite opening in an area of Christchurch that was virtually desolate at night – you should call it ‘The Lonely Star’ one friend quipped – and its cowboy theme which wasn’t mainstream at the time, the first night on September 13, 1988 was packed.
People, it seemed, loved the Elvis Presley pictures, the tribute to cowboys, the Native American memorabilia that decorated the walls and the country music. Tim and Steve’s enthusiasm was contagious and the value for money meals they served up became a legend in their own right.
A raving review from iconic New Zealand writer and raconteur A.K. Grant two years after opening put the Lone Star on the map.
“A.K. Grant wrote that he had more fun dining out (in New Zealand) than ever before. From that day on we were significantly busier – it was a seminal turning point because the buzz was out that we were a bit different.”
A strong customer focus and doing the basics well are secrets to their success, says director James Whelan.
“Our greatest strength is our customers and we simply wouldn’t be in business without them, we are passionate about that. If guests receive more than they expect on the night for a fair price then they will come back – which they have been doing for the last 25 years.”
Nobody within the inner Lone Star circle however feels that any of the company’s success would have been possible without the influence of Tim and James’ sister and Steve’s late wife Jane, who died of a rare cancer in 2003 aged just 46.
“Jane was just so good at the hospitality business,” says Tim. “She had a special way of connecting with people. It didn’t matter where you came from; she talked to you in your language. Jane really wrote the blueprint for the Lone Star way of service – treat people as if they are in your own home with love, care and generosity of spirit.”
This philosophy still rings true today.
“Looking back, I really wouldn’t do anything differently,” says Tim.
“We are very proud of what we have achieved and believe strongly in what we have created. It’s about doing the simple things well, and we set out to create a business that would trail blaze in terms of being a fun place to be with family values.
“I think the fact that we have opened 23 restaurants in 25 years is a pretty good testimony as to how it has panned out.”
Says James: “We never set out to win awards or to woo the critics – we only ever wanted to be the people’s choice and after 25 years we can proudly say that we are. Long may it continue.”