Photo credit: Lawry’s

Ryan Wilson is a fourth-generation Lawry’s executive, leading the brand’s marketing, strategy, finance and operational growth. Beginning his career as an entry-level cook, Wilson has risen up the ranks through his decades with the company. Now, the Stanford grad is looking to continue expanding his family’s illustrious dining empire with the same attention to detail, care for the customer and devotion to the legacy of the Lawry’s dining experience that’s been the lifeblood of the brand for nearly a century.

But don’t think for a second that Wilson simply walked into success at the family business. His journey to the top and strategic outlook on fine dining sheds insight on the passion and innovation needed to command success in hospitality.

Your great grandfather, Lawrence L. Frank, founded Lawry’s. You stated in previous interviews that you weren’t pressured into joining the family business, so what inspired you towards culinary arts and eventually led you to join Lawry’s? 

I grew up in Northern California and would brush up against the restaurants 2-3 times a year, unlike my cousins, who grew up in Pasadena and would go all the time. My mom was an amazing cook and would spend a tremendous amount of time cooking dinners from scratch, and yet I was a very picky eater. I stuck to ‘shades of beige’ until I was in college. 

But every Saturday morning, I would wake up and watch cooking shows instead of cartoons. I loved the chemistry of food and what made a dish taste great. I love the cultural influence that makes a cuisine resonate with any given population. When I was 10 years old, I would make vinaigrettes but wouldn’t eat the salad. I’d grill fish but wouldn’t eat the fish.

I went to a liberal arts college in California. My junior year, I had to cook for myself while studying abroad in Australia. That’s when things clicked. I began actually eating the food I cooked and the floodgates opened. When I returned to college in the US, I remember making simple vinaigrettes in a Dixie cup in the dining hall. 

After college, I began to pursue professional cooking. I spent time at the Five Crowns as an entry prep cook. I made the decision to leave, though, because I knew I needed to learn the craft outside of the family business. I spent time working in Michelin 3-star restaurants, then came back to [Lawry’s] to learn the trade, as well as spend time with my grandparents. I saw the opportunity to get to know them better as people and as friends…that’s a time in my life I look back on and truly cherish. 

I returned as the culinary development chef, where I got to develop new concepts and do two openings, in Asia. I went on to become Executive Chef, then Director of Operations, and then VP. Then, in 2016, as I was looking at my future and the trajectory of the company, my wife told me this was the time to take a break and go back to business school. I spent a year earning my MBA at Stanford, then returned as Chief Marketing Officer, and now I lead operations, finance and strategy as well. 

You manage multiple different concepts as well as overseas locations. Talk about how you differentiate these experiences, as well as ensure consistency internationally. 

It's not an easy task. Domestically, the markets are different across each of the cities we serve. We rely on our general managers to give us insight on what each market demands. We’re always looking for information on the best beverages and menu items to offer. 

All of our brands are legacy brands. From a marketing perspective, we’re always having a conversation about the right way to drive traffic through loyalty and repeat business vs. new customers. There’s certainly not a playbook on how to do this. You have to market in a much more dynamic fashion than you’ve ever done before.

Our restaurants abroad are all licensed, so we don’t operate them. Depending on the market overseas, part of what that guest wants is some Americana. They want the tradition, the heritage of the meal, they want to feel that legacy we’ve built over 81 years. It’s about staying true to that dining experience and hospitality. The feel of the restaurant carries the brand there. 

Many of your restaurants provide an iconic fine dining experience that’s not as prevalent as it used to be. Do you see the pendulum swinging and more restaurants moving back to the type of ambiance and service you create, or will the trends go in a different direction?

I believe confidently that timeless hospitality is always going to be that: timeless. People are always going to want to walk into a place like ours. I want to give guests great memories and a great time at the table. Our restaurants break out of the ubiquitous, jean-wearing server at just another gastropub. 

The prevalence of gastropubs grew out of the chaos of the recession, with people pushing back on the cost of fine dining. But I feel like guests are starting to experience a bit of fatigue around that kind of menu and experience. Operators are starting to see a challenge in small plates as well, which involve a lot more labor to reach the same average check as you’d get with far fewer dishes at a traditional restaurant. 

As a chef by training, I also think there’s only so much international flare that the broader population can consume before it just starts to get confusing. Too many menus are pulling from so many cultures and cuisines that there isn’t any authenticity to it. When you have Vietnamese spring rolls next to ricotta ravioli with egg yolk on top, there’s just too much dissonance at that point. Also, all this ‘stunt food’ has reached a peak. What else can you even put on a hamburger? Can you even eat it now?

I know that pendulum is swinging, but not sure where it’s swinging to. I don’t think it’s going to go back to classic fine dining like we had in the 90s, but it’ll probably be something in between what we had and what we have now. 

Talk about some of the new items you’ve added to your menus? How do you test these items and what do you feel gives them the ‘modern touch’ you’re looking for?

We’ve conducted what we call the ‘revitalization of the Lawry’s the Prime Rib’ brand, and that’s taken about 5 years. The brand hadn’t been given any attention in about 30 years before that. We did a ton of work with focus groups, staff and our VIPs. We asked them about what we’re doing well and what we could do better. This gave us great perspective on how to shape our menus and ambiance.

We went about improving the Beverly Hills location, shaping what we see as the template for our locations moving forward. We worked with The Culinary Edge, who helped us shape Lawry’s Carvery in 2002, to create new menu items and experiential elements for us. 

What are the advantages to Lawry’s being a family-owned company? Conversely, are there scenarios where this makes business more difficult?

We look at restaurants differently. You can look at restaurants at a nightclub model, where you operate for 3-5 years and then get out. Or, you could look into building a legacy that operates for decades. This means taking your time to make strategic decisions when opening a new place, and spending money on details that the 3-5 year operator wouldn’t choose to do. Everything from upholstery and wall coverings to making sure that your glasses are polished. It’s the little things that people notice and remember, and what ultimately helps build a legacy. 

The tradeoff to that is that we’re a fully owned and operated family business. That can pose budgetary restraints to growing the business in the way we’d otherwise want. Additionally, the whole leadership team has either grown up with the company or been with it for such a long time that sometimes we needed a third party to shed new light.

Where do you see Lawry’s 10 years from now? 

I see Lawry’s The Prime Rib continuing to grow domestically and internationally. We’ve had to pause on international growth for a bit because we’re focusing on revitalizing our brands here in the US, but since the revitalization we’ve placed greater focus on finding new markets to expand to internationally, as well as domestically. I’d love to see our restaurants on the east coast. 

Beyond that, I want to get to the point of being able to create new concepts. Possibly casual, maybe more fine dining. I also want to build a concept that doesn’t revolve around red meat. There’s tremendous potential in that space, and it’s an opportunity we should capitalize on.