Tapping into that entrepreneurial spirit

Former Army pilot takes off in the restaurant business

By John Walsh

There are about 500 companies in Northeast Ohio owned or operated by John Carroll alumni. John Lane ’82, co-owner of the Winking Lizard Tavern based in Bedford Heights, is one of them. However, the former Army helicopter pilot didn’t start his career in the entrepreneurial way he works now.

John Lane ’82 is part owner of the Winking Lizard. He has helped grow the business from one location in Bedford Heights, Ohio, to 14 throughout the state.

Lane’s life dream was to enjoy a long career in the Army and retire. He wanted to continue the family military tradition – his uncle was a helicopter pilot in Vietnam. While in the Army as a maintenance test pilot, Lane and his family moved seven times in six years. In the late 1980s, they were stationed in Alabama and scheduled to move to Germany.

“I had my dream job, but it scared my wife,” says the Akron native. “She didn’t want to go, and I had two little boys at the time. My wife, Molly Reilly, is one of 12 kids from South Euclid, Ohio, and she wanted to be near her family. With my military career winding down, I knew as long as I found a job managing people, I’d be all right.”

After returning to Cleveland, Lane interviewed for jobs, but all the logistics-related ones were such that he’d have to work for three or four years then move out of town to move up the corporate ladder. That scenario wasn’t an option for his family. While Lane was interviewing, Mo Callam, one of his sisters-in-law and wife of Winking Lizard founder and co-owner Jim Callam, kept prodding him to join her husband to open a second store.

“I have a lot of respect for John’s attitude toward family and his work ethic,” says Mo Callam. “I couldn’t think of a finer business partner for my husband. It was a leap of faith for Jim because he didn’t know John at the time.”

“I didn’t have any reservations after my first meeting with John,” Jim Callam says. “Because our business was built by family, he was a natural fit.”

If I had to do it all over again, I wouldn’t change a thing. Slow growth of the business has meant no regrets and few miscues.I’ve learned to be patient and listen. Much more is learned by listening.Each day, I look forward to visiting a few of our restaurants and checking on the business firsthand. I love to talk to the people who keep this business running and the loyal guests who keep us in business.

My biggest success is being knighted in Belgium this past summer.

My biggest mistake was not balancing work and family enough. Missing some of my kid’s school/sports events. I will never get those back.

I have yet to travel to the Far East.

I never intend to retire. I love the bar business.

– John Lane ’82

At the time, Callam – who had bought out the partners of the bar where he was working – had been operating the first Winking Lizard in Bedford Heights for four years, but the full Winking Lizard concept hadn’t been conceived yet.

“It was just the name of the bar,” says Lane, who received an ROTC scholarship to attend Carroll and became the first of his siblings to graduate from college. “Our focus became all about good service and good food.”

Taking off
In August 1988, Lane went from test flying helicopters to flipping burgers (he needed to know how the back of the house worked).

“I was only 28 years old when I started at the Winking Lizard and was having a great time,” he says. “I poured my heart and soul into the place. Was it rough in the beginning? Absolutely. Cash flow was brutal, but I was never afraid of what the outcome was going to be. Did I think I’d be working in such a job? No. But I knew I’d be providing for my family.”

To become a partner of the business, Lane borrowed $25,000 from a wealthy aunt, who asked him if he knew how difficult it was to start a restaurant.

“I replied, ‘Nothing can be harder than the military,’” he says.

In May 1989, the second store opened in Twinsburg, which wasn’t an ideal location because it was a destination.

“We needed a cross section,” says Lane, who majored in political science and minored in history while at JCU. “We were there for five years then moved to Macedonia.”

At the time, Lane was wearing multiple hats. When the partners opened a new store, Lane became the general contractor. After the store in Macedonia, they opened one in Peninsula in 1991 and one in Canton in 1993, which is when the third partner, former banker Fred Kobzowicz, joined the business.

“After four stores, we knew we had something,” Lane says, adding they opened stores in downtown Cleveland in 1996 and Independence in 1997.

In 1997, when there were six stores open, the owners decided to run them with general managers.

“That’s when we discovered – through the general managers – the partners do things differently,” Lane says. “We’re three different guys but have a strong partnership. That’s when we decided to hire a couple people to help grow the company and be more consistent.”

During the growth of the business in the mid-’90s, the partners learned the lesson not to open two stores only six months apart, as they did with the ones in Independence and Cleveland Heights. As a result of being spread too thin, there was too much turnover among the staff, and the food and service were inconsistent.

Muldoon foster business growth

The Edward M. Muldoon Center for Entrepreneurship at John Carroll University is well known for developing leaders in for-profit and nonprofit organizations. The Muldoon Center was started in 1999 and is run by Mark Hauserman ’68, who has been its director since 2005.

The center follows a John Carroll tradition represented by the fact that more than 500 companies in Northeast Ohio are owned or run by JCU alumni. Successful entrepreneurs such as John Boler ’56 ’96H of The Boler Co.; Jack Kahl ’62 of Manco; and John Lane ’82 of the Winking Lizard developed their success in the center’s mantra of opportunity recognition coupled with the Jesuit value of critical thinking.

“The national recognition of our entrepreneurship program, ranked No. 18 in the country and No. 1 in Ohio, is getting a lot of attention from other universities in the entrepreneurship business, which includes 500 institutions,” says Hauserman, an entrepreneur who started, grew, and eventually sold his companies before coming to Carroll.

The center also houses the Entrepreneurs Association, which consists of private-company business owners. The association is a peer group that abides by the center’s standards for membership. The typical entrepreneur candidate is a principal shareholder of a private company, has been in business for at least five years, and has at least $1 million of revenue.

A limited number of memberships also are available to service professionals who’ve been in their practice for at least 15 years. Applicants are nominated by a current member. Members share a commitment to entrepreneurship, a love for learning, and a willingness to collaborate with one another to discover business opportunities. They also build strong relationships with a sense of camaraderie, which helps improve their businesses.

John Lane ’82, co-owner of the Winking Lizard Tavern, has been a member of the association for about 10 years and was its chair for 2007-2008.

“It has helped me grow by mixing it up and networking with other entrepreneurs,” Lane says. “Additionally, many of the seminars provide a great resource for growing your business.”

For more information about the Muldoon Center, visit jcu.edu/ muldoon. For more information about the Entrepreneurs Association, visit jcuea.org.

Presently, the three partners are owners/operators of their 14 stores. The business’ No. 1 store is the one in Independence because the hotels nearby help fuel a huge lunch and dinner crowd, as well as late-night business. The second highest revenue-generating store is the original one in Bedford Heights because of its loyal customer base and the lack of other eateries in the vicinity.

On the food side of the operation, wings are the longest- running menu item, and pizza is the most profitable. On the beverage side, the tavern began importing craft beer before it was popular. Furthermore, Lane has long espoused stainless steel components for the beer taps and a thorough cleaning regimen to help ensure quality draught brew.

“We had distributors send us samples, and we’d taste them,” Lane says. “Beer was a novel way of establishing loyal guests. My food counterpart and I travel all over the world to pick up on food-and-beverage trends. All the high-profile chefs in town have picked up on pairing just the right beer with food, and I’m proud of that.”

Considering the Winking Lizard’s popularity in Northeast Ohio, it’s surprising the partners never advertise. The brand – including the Lizardville (a bottle shop and whiskey bar) and Winks (focusing on Ohio-made beer, wine, spirits, and food) concepts – has grown solely by word of mouth.

“We’re gorilla marketers,” Lane says. “We support charitable events (raising $75,000 in four years for the Jimmy Malone College Scholarship) and local schools – and we also have our well-known World Tour of Beers.”

Currently, the owners are in the process of hiring their first marketing manager who will focus on social media.

“We’re making our three concepts work together,” Lane says.

Because the market is becoming more family friendly, Lane and company aren’t focusing on the early 20s crowd as much. As a result, food has become more important, the bar is separate from the dining room, and the stores offer a kids’ menu.

“Winking Lizard is a place to hang out and drink beer with food or a place where you can stop in with family for a drink and food before a movie,” he says.

On the horizon
Like the 1990s, Lane and his business partners are in growth mode again. In 2012 and 2013, at least five stores will open in Ohio – Grandview Heights, Canton, Copley, Cleveland, and Beachwood. At the 30-year mark this year, the brand will have 20 stores open. Additionally, they’re renovating the store in Macedonia, which will be shut down for three weeks. That might be scary for a business owner, but not Lane.

“Any time we close, it comes back to us in spades,” he says. “We’re making the restaurant more efficient for employees and guests.”

The owners would like to open more restaurants in the Columbus area, where only one currently exists, before moving into the Dayton and Cincinnati markets. They’ve also discussed the Pittsburgh, Detroit, and Chicago markets.

“There’s so much opportunity in Ohio, we’ll stay here,” Lane says. “We don’t want to get on a jet plane to visit all our stores. We get calls weekly from people as far away as California who want us to open a store near them.”

Medal of honor
This past summer, Lane experienced the crowning achievement of his career. The Belgian brewers’ guild and Knighthood of the Brewer’s Mash staff inducted Lane into the Knights of Honor during a special ceremony (the inductees and beer are blessed by a priest) tied to the Catholic Church, which means a lot to Lane, who converted to Catholicism 15 years ago. Each year, the guild honors people who’ve represented Belgian beer and their breweries positively. Additionally, Lane has a special relationship with the Trappist monks who brew Orval in the Ardennes region of Belgium (65 percent of the proceeds from beer sales by the monks goes to charity). Lane is part of their ambassador program – he’s the first cum laude ambassador outside Belgium – because of the careful and detailed way Winking Lizard presents (correct temperature and glass) their beer.

“I still have a passion for what we’re doing,” he says. JCU

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