Amber: Hey everybody I’m Amber Ambrose and I don’t know if you can tell yet but this is The BusinessMakers Show. We’re getting down to the business of margaritas right now because guess what, we are at the original Ninfa’s on Navigation to talk about reviving and restoring and setting up an iconic Houston brand for the future. We’re going to be talking with Jonathan Horowitz of Legacy Restaurant Group which runs Ninfa’s and Antone’s. So you know what, if you don’t stay for the conversation you should at least join us for the margaritas. So Jonathan Horowitz with Legacy Restaurant Group welcome to the show first of all.
Jonathan: Thank you.
Amber: And secondly tell me about Legacy Restaurant Group.
Jonathan: So we are a locally-owned family-owned restaurant operations business and we currently own and operate two iconic Houston restaurant brands , one of which is the Original Ninfa’s on Navigation where we are today.
Amber: Fajitas and margaritas.
Jonathan: Fajitas and margaritas, you know it.
Amber: And many other things of course.
Jonathan: Yes. And then the second brand is Antone’s Famous Po’boys and Antone’s was established in Houston in 1962 and the Original Ninfa’s on Navigation in 1973.
Amber: I want to get to those two brands and sort of get their backstory because it’s super interesting to me, but also I know that you have been on The BusinessMakers Show before, it’s been about a decade, with someone else.
Jonathan: Just about, yes.
Amber: So give me a little history behind your restaurant world experience.
Jonathan: Sure, so I’ve been in Houston now almost 27 years. Came down from New Hampshire to go to Rice and loved Houston and never left and had a great time and still love it. And after school I went to law school and practiced law for about 5 or 6 years here in Houston. And then in early 2005 I had the opportunity to get involved in a then very small startup wine bar operation called The Tasting Room. And I joined the founders Jerry and Laura Lasco in June of 2005 as their partner to help grow The Tasting Room business and eventually we added some other brands including Max’s Wine Dive and a restaurant called Boiler House and others over the years.
Amber: And they went national because I know they’re in Chicago and San Antonio.
Jonathan: Still going on, correct yes. So we’ve got still a number of those, the one that is outside of Texas is in Denver – is the Max’s Wine Dive still in Denver and that business is still ongoing. So I did that and worked with them about 10 years up until the spring/summer of 2015. And at that point I had an opportunity to do something different and I had spoken a few times over the years with Neil Morgan who is the owner of Legacy Restaurants and these two brands.
And we had talked a few different times over the years and he had asked me about potentially joining him at some point to help run these businesses and at that time in summer of ’15 it kind of worked out that we were both looking for something at the same time. And I joined him in September of 2015, took over as CEO and have been working for the past year and a half or so on these two brands, and working on the operations and trying to make things better and trying to get positioned for potentially some more growth.
Amber: So I would love to know the story of how Legacy Restaurant Group came to acquire two of some of the most iconic restaurants in Houston though before coming together in this group they were not related, is that correct?
Jonathan: Yeah. Interestingly both the Ninfa’s brand and the Antone’s brand were family-owned for a very long times.
Amber: But different families.
Jonathan: Yes, different families; the Antone family one and the Lorenzo family with Ninfa’s. And over the years they both ironically took fairly similar paths and they grew, expanded; had difficulties over the years for whatever reason both ended up in bankruptcy right around the same time. And Mr. Morgan was involved with a group of business people financially kind of in the bankruptcy restructuring of both of the brands at the same time – again, both completely unrelated at the time.
And then in the early 2000s and around 2015 he ended up owning out of bankruptcy both of the brands together and that’s when he formed Legacy Restaurant Group. He had been a real estate investor over the years and this – as he says – was going to be his retirement project. I think it’s proven to be a very large and very interesting retirement project for him. So it’s been now about 11+ years or so that he’s had these brands and has been working on them together.
Amber: Which brings us to today; I know you’ve been working really hard on kind getting things up to snuff almost and then setting them up for, as you told me before we started the interview they’ve been around for – Ninfa’s – 44 years and setting it up for the next 44.
Jonathan: Exactly, so that’s what we’re trying to do. We’ve got these fantastic iconic brands and everybody has an idea of how they should be because it’s what they grew up with. And one thing I’ve found over the years is that a lot of people are very resistant to change; they don’t like when things change.
Amber: You don’t say.
Jonathan: And so it’s a very delicate balance of finding a way to upgrade and modernize and bring things really to where they need to be without disrupting the customer experience very much.
Amber: Like a sense of nostalgia almost.
Jonathan: Yes, it’s really pretty amazing. And it’s well-deserved because they’re great, great brands. What I found stepping into the situation a year and a half ago was that same resistance to change happens internally as well because you’ve got a lot of long term employees.
Amber: Maybe even more.
Jonathan: Maybe even more so. They’ve been doing things a certain way for a long period of time and it’s difficult to come in and say we have to change things because they like the way that things have been for a long period of time.
Amber: Sure, or you get used to doing things a certain way and it’s really difficult.
Jonathan: Absolutely it is so we’ve done a few things over the past year and a half with both brands, Ninfa’s in particular we’ve done a lot of physical changes.
Amber: What are some examples of those?
Jonathan: So the building obviously is very old. We’ve done a lot of work inside and outside the building; last year we completely redid the kitchen which was desperately needed and it turned out really wonderfully. We’ve added on in the back, we’ve enclosed our patios, we built an outdoor waiting area deck.
Amber: Which is nice by the way.
Jonathan: Yes, thank you. It’s a great place to have a margarita if you’re waiting for a table when the weather’s nice. We paved the parking lot which literally was the first time in 43 years that there was a paved parking lot for Ninfa’s, so people really appreciated that; it’s a great upgrade.
Amber: It was a harrowing walk back to the car after you’ve had a couple margaritas.
Jonathan: Well and particularly if it had rained, it was muddy and dirty so it’s improve a lot. We’ve been working on the landscaping – still in progress.
Amber: So a lot of this sounds like it’s efficiency as far as the operations go but also something that seems sort of mundane and boring like paving a parking lot can really add a lot to the guest experience I would imagine.
Jonathan: And that’s really what it’s all about. People have been coming here literally for generations and having fantastic experiences, food, drink, family time, celebrations; all of those things and we’re trying to do everything possible to continue that and make it better at the same time. For example, the room we’re in right now years ago it was nothing, then it became an outdoor patio uncovered, then it became kind of an enclosed patio and was part of the dining area and then last year we blocked it off a little bit and created a really exceptional private dining and event space which the Original Ninfa’s has never had. So now we’re able to do rehearsal dinners and things where as before we were never an option for that. So it’s exciting, it gives people a little bit more reason to come here which is great.
Amber: Or it reminds them why they want to come back.
Jonathan: Yeah. And then on the Antone’s side we currently operate two physical Antone’s locations and we’ve done some again physical upgrades to make the places look nicer. We’ve also worked hard on the menu. We’ve added some really, really exceptional sandwiches and salads and things, gumbos, to supplement what everybody really knows which are the four classic sandwiches that everybody sees and that we distribute to restaurants.
Amber: You pick up on your way to a picnic or just grab it and go, yeah.
Jonathan: Right, so our wholesale business is great, we distribute those four classic sandwiches – po’boys – to 250 grocery stores in the region, all the way from Beaumont to College Station to Galveston to Katy.
Amber: That’s the first time I had an Antone’s po’boy was from a grocery store.
Jonathan: And a lot of people have experienced it that way so what we’re trying to do is make it so that they understand that we also have restaurant locations, you can get a broader offering and more things there and come in and actually make it a part of your routine for weekday lunch and things like that, so that we’re also trying to expand. We’ve got a couple of leases working for new locations, we opened a kiosk concept which is truly just grab and go, but we’ve got one in Greenway Plaza, we’re opening one in the tunnels Downtown and hopefully more; so that one is kind of poised for more growth.
Amber: Well it makes sense because obviously Ninfa’s is a totally different animal.
Jonathan: Yeah, a much bigger undertaking. Although I will tell you we are looking for another spot for the next Original Ninfa’s and we’re working hard on it. It is very, very difficult.
Amber: There’s probably a lot of things on a checklist there.
Jonathan: Yeah, well it has to be perfect. I mean it had to be perfect. The good part is we don’t have to rush, we can take out time and find just the right spot because it’s crucial that it succeeds, that it’s perfect, it’s great. We’re not looking to necessarily recreate everything about the original but we obviously want to pay homage to it and bring some of the feeling. But we want to have an updated, modern space for the next one.
Jonathan: It’s exciting.
Amber: Well I think it says a lot that you’re working on doing your best to make the original Original the best it can be before moving on to the next step.
Jonathan: Well and we want this one, the one on Navigation, we want it to be ready for the next 44 years. It’s important not only for people’s nostalgic memories of everything and the family aspect but it’s great for the city. Visitors come here from all over, we had…
Amber: George Strait!
Jonathan: Was here yesterday, I know. George Strait was here yesterday.
Amber: No big deal, just the king of country music.
Jonathan: It was pretty cool. We had some great people come during Super Bowl. We had literally people from all over the world who came here to the birthplace of the fajita to check it out so that was a lot of fun, it was really cool.
Amber: Yeah, I’m sure it was. Well lastly I know that you’re heavily involved in the Restaurant Association.
Jonathan: Labor of love.
Amber: What are sort of the most important things that you think as a whole in the industry and Houston are happening right now?
Jonathan: It’s amazing what we’re seeing, as you certainly recognize, we’re seeing a little bit of upheaval, we’re seeing some places have some difficulties financially. The market is very, very difficult right now and particularly in Houston, but we’re seeing it nationally as well. There’s a lot of pressure on this industry financially. Costs have gone up, you’ve got things like healthcare costs and insurance costs and just fees – labor is very difficult right now and so there’s a lot of pressure on the industry.
A lot of people are really trying to find ways to optimize and to make their businesses run leaner so that they can get through some of these tight times. A couple weeks ago I spent a few days up in Washington D.C. with the National Restaurant Association, spent some time lobbying Congress about some very important issues that really impact the industry; obviously big things like healthcare, tax reform, immigration, etcetera, etcetera.
Amber: Things that are important to all businesses.
Jonathan: All businesses, obviously retail in particular, which is again seeing a lot of pressure around the country but locally we’re dealing with things like permitting and fees and labor issues. So as an association we’re heavily involved in that aspect of things but we also try to do things that make the industry better, help people run their businesses, so we focus a lot on educational activities. We also have a very big presence in high schools through our state Pro Start program where we give kids in high schools – there’s 50 or 60 high schools at least in the region that have a specific curriculum for hospitality that allow them to study and to learn to potentially go into the hospitality field. And as I alluded to earlier…
Amber: Where there will always be jobs.
Jonathan: Well it’s a great entry level job, it teaches people a lot of things about business and responsibility and things like that. So as an association we really try to foster and work with the schools to get kids involved, to give them that path and that opportunity which will then hopefully lead them to bigger and better things.
Amber: So thank you so much Jonathan for joining us today.
Jonathan: Yeah, my pleasure.
Amber: And I’m Amber Ambrose, this is Jonathan Horowitz and this is The BusinessMakers Show.
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