LSU fans fuel decade of growth at Walk-Ons
After opening successful restaurants and bars in Baton Rouge, New Orleans and Lafayette, the owners of Walk-Ons are looking at new challenges.
The next step for Walk-Ons could be locations in Lake Charles or Houma. Brandon Landry, who co-founded the business with Jack Warner, said he’s also fielded calls from people interested in bringing the restaurants to Shreveport, Monroe, Jackson, Miss., and Tuscaloosa, Ala.
“We’ve got a concept that people want now,” he said. “They’re talking about us being in developments with P.F. Chang’s and Bonefish Grill.”
The first Walk-Ons opened on Sept. 9, 2003. Landry and Warner met while they were walk-on players on the LSU basketball team. The roots for the restaurant came while Warner was sitting in an entrepreneurship class at LSU. The two men mulled ideas and sketched out a floor plan for the restaurant on a napkin while they were coming back from a game at the University of Tennessee.
Over the past decade, Walk-Ons has grown from a single restaurant on Burbank Drive in the shadow of Tiger Stadium to Last In Concepts, a $30 million company with four different restaurant and bar brands and a catering business. Last In Concepts has 11 locations in Baton Rouge, New Orleans and Lafayette and a catering business, with 1,000 employees. The number of workers will soon top out about 1,200, now that football season has started.
Warner said there are no plans to slow down or stop the company’s growth.
“We want to grow, so if it means partnering with people on locations, or great real estate or financing, we will do it,” he said.
The rapid growth of Walk-Ons has happened naturally, but not in the same way Landry and Warner originally thought.
“Our original goal, to be honest, was to own the SEC,” Warner said. “That went back to our basketball traveling days when we would go to Ole Miss, go to Florida, go to Alabama. We wanted to own the sports bar section of the market.”
But the duo soon realized how difficult it was just to run one restaurant, much less a location several hours away. After all, Warner said it’s one thing if there’s a problem with a dishwasher not showing up to work a shift at the Walk-Ons by campus; it’s another if someone skips out on working in Athens, Ga.
Instead, Last In looked for opportunities close to home.
In 2005, they opened Roux House, a bar and live music club on Third Street in downtown Baton Rouge. Warner said they saw a niche for a bar that would cater to young professionals.
“You had all these downtown workers and people working for the city and the state, but it would become a ghost town after 4 p.m.,” he said.
Not too long after the Roux House opened, Happy’s Irish Pub opened across the street.
“We had an opportunity to do something,” Warner said.
People thought it was “just stupid” to open a bar across the street from the fledgling Roux House, but Warner said it made sense, because they were two different concepts. While Roux House specializes in live music and draft domestic beers, Happy’s is about pints of craft and imported beers, served by waitresses in Catholic schoolgirl uniforms.
After Happy’s took off, the next step was to open up Schlittz and Giggles, a pizza joint at Third and Florida that sells slices of thin-crust pies.
“We had 1,000 people spilling out of those two bars every weekend,” Warner said. “We had to put food in their bellies.”
Landry and Warner candidly admit that the quality of food at Walk-Ons has improved from when they first opened.
“We still have customers who came to our original location in 2003 and 2004 that had a bad experience,” Landry said. “That weighs on us here in Baton Rouge.”
But Walk-Ons has made an effort to step up the quality of food. Landry said that nine or 10 years ago, when he heard that a customer wanted to see him, he started preparing to cover the cost of their meal because they were disappointed with the food.
“Now, if I hear a table wants to see me, I figure they want to say hello or compliment me on the meal.”
The quality of Walk-Ons’ food began to improve in 2011, just before the first location in Lafayette opened. Landry and Warner said getting the quality of meals right was crucial to winning over diners in Acadiana.
The work paid off. Walk-Ons opened in Lafayette on Valentine’s Day 2011 and had quick success. The Kaliste Saloom Road location was named best new restaurant and best sports bar in Lafayette by The Times of Acadiana in 2011 and 2012.
“I don’t know how we won best new restaurant twice,” Warner joked.
The Lafayette location is the most successful restaurant in the Last In Concepts stable, Landry said, with annual sales of around $7 million.
“It was a risk for us,” Landry said. “We knew from speaking to people that they’ll give you a shot in Lafayette, but they won’t give you many chances.”
The success of the Lafayette location led Landry and Warner to take their biggest gamble and open a Walk-Ons/Happy’s/Roux House in New Orleans, near the Superdome.
“We were at the 2002 Sugar Bowl, when LSU played Illinois, and we noticed that you had to walk 14 blocks from the Superdome to get a cold beer and a burger,” Warner said. “There was no place to eat and watch a game if you didn’t have a ticket.”
Last In Concepts bought a building on Poydras Street that had been a Smith & Wollensky’s before Hurricane Katrina. Walk-Ons, with an adjoining Happy’s and a Roux House upstairs for private parties, opened in fall 2011.
One fan of the restaurant who lived in Houma nominated the New Orleans Walk-Ons for an ESPN contest that sought the Best Sports Bar in America.
“We were one of 5,400 nominations,” Warner said. “A couple of weeks later, we get an email saying we made the top 12.”
That caused the staff at Last In Concepts and the local restaurants to work on a massive social media campaign to encourage people to vote for Walk-Ons as the best sports bar in the country.
“We literally stopped everything we were doing in the office to focus on this,” Warner said. “People came out of the woodworks.”
The campaign paid off and Walk-Ons New Orleans was named the best sports bar about a year ago. ESPN said Walk-Ons earned the honor because of the story of Landry and Warner’s days as walk-ons, along with the unique Louisiana dishes on the menu.
Winning the honor has “been a godsend,” Warner said. Sales at the New Orleans restaurant have shown a double-digit increase and the Baton Rouge and Lafayette Walk-Ons have seen more business.
Walk-Ons plans to further improve the quality of its dishes. The restaurant recently hired Chef Jeremy Coco as director of culinary operations and training. Coco, most recently dean of education at the Louisiana Culinary Institute, has worked as an executive chef at Café Vermilionville in Lafayette and executive chef/partner with Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar in Baton Rouge.
Landry said the goal is to take the food to the next level.
“We have a good burger, but can we get the best brioche bun? Can we get the best Angus beef?” he said.
While Coco has been working with the restaurant since May, his impact won’t be fully visible until after football season ends. The Burbank Walk-Ons gets about 2,500 customers on an LSU game day.
“The last thing we want to do before the busiest time of the year is to change the menu,” Warner said.
Landry said along with building a brand that’s gotten national attention, he’s proudest of the opportunities he’s given to employees.
“Our companies support families,” he said. “Kids come through college and go on to become doctors, dentists or lawyers and say that their best four years were working at Walk-Ons. We see some of our former managers bring their families and spouses in. They created and started their lives here and made a good living.”