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By DON SHILLING



Published: Sun, July 29, 2001 @ 12:00 a.m.



By DON SHILLING

VINDICATOR BUSINESS EDITOR

SHARON, Pa. -- Owners of Quaker Steak & amp; Lube are hoping they will be as good at franchising as they are at making award-winning chicken wings.

These five franchise locations of the Sharon landmark restaurant have opened since 1997: Valley View, Ohio; Columbus; Erie, Pa.; Cranberry Township, Pa.; and Robinson, Pa.

Results so far are good, said George Warren, co-owner of the original Lube in Sharon.

The restaurants are selling 100,000 pounds of chicken wings a week this summer, with about 20,000 pounds being ordered at the Sharon restaurant.

The Valley View restaurant in suburban Cleveland is the newest location, yet it has been attracting large crowds for its special promotions. The Plain Dealer in Cleveland said as many as 3,000 motorcycle riders have been showing up for weekly Bike Nights.

Their philosophy: "We're more than a restaurant. We're an amusement center," Warren said.

Warren, 56, and partner Gary Meszaros, 54, are as careful about franchising their concept as they are about making their wings.

Warren said they receive two or three calls a week from people interested in franchising, yet they have selected only three people in the past four years to take franchises.

Most are not qualified, he said. Some are bar owners, for example, who are just looking to add the Lube's wings, but Warren and Meszaros are looking for a lot more.

They want the franchisees to re-create the automotive atmosphere of the original restaurant, complete with cars hanging from the ceiling. They also want the restaurants to be large and at a good location.

Their plan is to open one or two franchises a year, with perhaps two or three new restaurants a year eventually.

Warren said they had an original target of seven to 10 restaurants in the first five years of franchising, but they haven't set a goal beyond that. Any metropolitan area could support a Lube, he said.

What works: Warren and Meszaros opened a fast-food-style eatery with the Lube name in Boardman in 1996, and they have stands in PNC Park in Pittsburgh and Gund Arena in Cleveland.

They chose franchising full-scale restaurants for further expansion, however. Launching the restaurants by themselves would have been too expensive, Warren said.

Meszaros said the Bike Nights, classic car cruise-ins and other activities make the restaurants fun, but the key to success is maintaining the quality and consistency of the food.

"It's a fun concept, but we never take our eyes off the food," he said.

The Lube uses fresh chicken that is cooked in computer-operated fryers that give a consistent cooking time, he said. Although the Lube's 14 sauces are developed by its staff, they have been bottled by a Chicago sauce company for a dozen years.

Meszaros said the owners also are proud of their other food.

"Steak is our middle name," he said.

But it's the wings and sauces that receive the most notoriety, having won numerous awards in newspaper readership surveys and at food and music shows.

Adding a sauce: Meszaros said one or two new sauces are introduced every couple years. They are developed by a combination of customer requests and restaurant employees' input, he said.

For example, a customer might say, "I like the ranch, but it needs some heat." A manager might suggest adding some garlic. The sauce is worked on further, and then it is tested at a managers' meeting, where further suggestions are taken.

Finally, it is offered to some customers in the restaurant to get their input.

History: Warren and Meszaros, who were boyhood friends and both graduates of Sharon High School, started Quaker Steak in 1974 after running an adjacent restaurant in a former railroad station since 1971. Warren has a degree in hotel and restaurant management from Cornell University.

They chose the Quaker Steak name because they were opening the restaurant in a former gas station. At first, it was a cook-your-own steak restaurant.

Shortly after opening, however, the two men stopped at the Anchor Bar in Buffalo, N.Y., which is credited with starting the chicken wing craze.

They said they immediately thought the wings were something they should bring to their restaurant. They started by putting a wing or two on everyone's plate.

"Customers said, 'That's really good. What is it called?'" Meszaros said.

They then started offering buckets of wings, and the popularity took off.

Their sauces also grew in demand. People started asking for sauce to take home, so the kitchen crew ladled some out into a jar.

Then the owners bought some plastic jars, prepared some labels and offered the sauces for sale in the restaurant. Soon, grocery stores were asking for the product.

The Lube's sauces now are sold in grocery stores in Erie, Pittsburgh and Cleveland, as well as locally.




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