Fried Chicken and Champagne: Meet Jerry Lasco of Max's Wine Dive

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Houston diners may not be familiar with his name, but many have been to at least one of his restaurant concepts. Jerry Lasco is the owner of The Tasting Room and Max’s Wine Dive — the latter of which became notable in part for its slogan, "Fried Chicken and Champagne? Why the Hell Not?!"

With a career spanning over 13 years and a portfolio of the same number of restaurants and bars, including six in Houston (The Tasting Room, Max’s, Añejo, Boiler House & Flow), Lasco has had the kind of career that most restaurateurs only dream about. However, that success hasn't come without a few battle scars.

Surprisingly, he had no prior experience in hospitality and nothing in his early years would indicate an interest in owning a restaurant. Military service runs in Lasco’s family. He’s a self-proclaimed “Air Force brat," and his father, Jerry Lasco Sr., was an Air Force pilot who completed two tours in Vietnam.

Lasco served in the Air Force 14 years, four of which were spent as an instructor pilot for the Academy in Del Rio, Texas. His work included fighting in the Gulf War, transporting medical supplies to the Red Cross and providing support to various embassies and consulates. After being discharged, Lasco was a pilot for Continental Airlines for three years before moving from New York to Houston to start a family with his wife, Laura.

The start date of his Houston assignment was on September 9, 2001. Two days later was September 11, the day terrorists hijacked four commercial airliners and crashed them into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and in a rural area of Pennsylvania, killing thousands. It decimated the airline industry for months. With layoffs at Continental Airines and no others hiring, Lasco had to change careers. He had no job prospects, a new house mortgage and car payments — and all he knew how to do was fly.

While in New York, Lasco had started taking classes at Peter Kump’s famed cooking school. “My father was a great cook and many memories of my father involved cooking,” recalls Lasco. “Maybe that encouraged me to get into restaurants, but I have always had a passion for food and cooking.” In 2002, he took a part-time job at Houston Wine Merchant making $6 an hour to gain experience in food and wine.

After taking classes and earning his Level 1 Sommelier certification from the Court of Master Sommeliers, Lasco borrowed money from a bank, and more from friends and family, to open The Tasting Room in a tiny, 900-square-foot space at Uptown Park. His wife's younger sister, Emily, moved to Houston and helped him run the store. For the first two months, they were the only employees. One would open the store and the other would close – seven days a week.

“You had to put up a sign just to be able to go to the bathroom,” laughs Lasco. “Whenever I wanted to leave the front of the bar, I would always tell one of my guests to “watch the register and I’ll make the cheese plate.” The idea of The Tasting Room in 2003 was to help customers understand the colors and flavors of particular wine styles in an nonintimidating environment. People could then buy the ones they enjoyed. It was also the first wine bar in Houston that also sold retail wine.

Since then, many other wine bars have followed precedent. Two more Tasting Room locations followed. By then, Lasco wanted to get deeper into the restaurant side. The end result was Max’s Wine Dive, which Lasco named after his eldest son and says was inspired by two New York restaurants: Blue Ribbon Brasserie in Soho and Yogi’s in Manhattan. Blue Ribbon was an unpretentious, casual concept with fantastic comfort food, like fried chicken. Yogi’s was a classic dive bar in Manhattan with a “shotgun bar” setup and a jukebox.

Max’s Wine Dive and its Southern fried chicken would go on to receive national and local recognition including from the Food Network, The New York Times, USA Today and the Cooking Channel. Despite hitting home runs with the Tasting Room and Max’s, Lasco has not been immune to the pitfalls of the always-changing restaurant industry. Failure is Lasco’s greatest fear. “I have never been one to have the luxury of feeling like I have made it,” says Lasco. “I am always worried about what could happen.”

He refers to his failures as “learning opportunities.” The first was a failed gourmet food store concept in 2005 called “The Tasting Room Gourmet” in Uptown Park. With its thin margins, Lasco learned that the packaged specialty grocery business was really tough. The River Oaks location of the Tasting Room was never able to make as much profit as the Uptown Park location and was eventually sold.

In 2013, bolstered by the success of Max’s Wine Dive and with help from private equity interests, Lasco ventured outside of Texas and opened Max’s Wine Dive concepts in Chicago, Denver and Atlanta. The locations in Chicago and Atlanta were never embraced by customers and both had to be closed. “We were competing against deeply ingrained local restaurateurs who were part of community,” says Lasco, “We were never perceived as local.” He also says he had a hard time dealing with the store closings and was forced to re-evaluate his growth strategy and eventually scrap his aggressive, five-year expansion plan. “I was down, but I was not going to allow myself to start feeling down and out,” says Lasco. “Through this failure, I learned how to get up and that was the most important lesson.”

His most recent concept may present one of his biggest challenges to date. In March 2015, Lasco opened Añejo, an attempt at a chef-driven concept with a focus on authentic Mexican cuisine and añejo (aged) tequila. Judging from consumer reviews on Yelp, the initial public perception was that Añejo was just expensive Tex-Mex, and the response after more than a year of operations has been mixed. (It also received an unfavorable review from Houston Press.)

Lasco admits that Añejo was too hastily thrown together and the story behind the concept has not been properly conveyed. He has brought in a new chef to reinvigorate the concept with more sophisticated Mexican cuisine that is not Tex-Mex. In other words, he has listened to some of the complaints about Añejo and has adjusted the concept accordingly – something he would not have considered a few years ago. Lasco thinks that Añejo will still be able to carve out its niche in the marketplace because Houston diners want more authentic international fare.

Jonathan Horowitz, a former partner who retains an investment interest in the Tasting Room and Max’s Wine Dive concepts, characterizes Lasco as someone who tends to move forward quickly and is sometimes overly optimistic. “Jerry was always the one shooting for the stars and plowing forward,” states Horowitz. “I was known as the 'realist' — Lasco often said pessimist — who would take a more cautious approach to plans and decisions.” Horowitz is now the CEO of the Legacy Restaurant Group, which runs The Original Ninfa’s on Navigation and Antone’s Famous Po’ Boys.

Lasco admits that he has very high standards and is extremely driven. He says that if he could go back and change anything, he would have collaborated more and focused on building a stronger team early on. “I had a mind-set of wanting to figure out everything on my own,” he says. “I should not have been so stubborn – I should have asked for more help and hired someone smarter on the operations side.”

These days, he’s spending more time developing relationships with customers, collaborating with other restaurants and looking for partnerships and synergies within the industry. “It is harder to stand out nowadays and you have to communicate so much more now than 13 to 14 years ago,” Lasco says. “What was done in the past just doesn’t matter as much anymore."

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