The Secrets to Thirsty Lion Gastropub's Rapid Expansion

From humble to rumble

The Thirsty Lion Gastropub & Grill may have started off small in Oregon, but it’s expanded into a formidable chain across Colorado, Arizona, and Texas. The brand was featured in Full Service Restaurant magazine’s “America’s Top 50 Emerging Restaurant Chains” in 2018—and it shows no signs of slowing down.  


John Plew is the creator of Thirsty Lion and the CEO and Founder of Concept Entertainment Group. Plew’s own origins have a similar story. “I started in the restaurant/bar/nightclub business when I was 18…with my current partner. 37 years, we’ve been in business together.” 

Of their most recent concepts, Plew says, “The one we wanted to scale, that we felt had the longest shelf life and wasn’t too trendy, and really was more food-driven, was the Thirsty Lion. And that’s how that evolution came.” 

The Tanasbourne location of Thirsty Lion Gastropub & Grill in Hillsboro, Oregon

Before he created Thirsty Lion, he crafted the Grand Central Restaurant & Bowling Lounge in Portland, Oregon. Including the lounge, Plew tells me, “We have nine stores and we’re getting ready to open four more in four different states, and we should be up to about 20 units in the next three years.”

Thirsty Lion’s rapid expansion can be credited to how meticulous Plew is when planning for each location. He’s extremely selective and protective when it comes to anything that impacts his brand, which is probably why it’s doing so well. Everything from the food, cocktails, bar staff, TV channels, and music must meet or exceed his standards. 

But what are those standards? To identify that, we’ll go back to the beginning. 

Rebranding for higher expectations

“Thirsty Lion was created back in 2006,” Plew informs me over an early morning phone call. “We then transformed more into a pub and grill in 2010, and quickly identified that we needed a new descriptor because we didn’t want to be perceived as an English pub or just a public house, but really a public house with elevated food.”

Plew knew he wanted Thirsty Lion to not only stand out from the typical pubs in the area, but also stand way above them. So, he did his research and turned to the first source we all seek out when looking for something specific: Wikipedia

“‘Gastropub’ was created in the mid ’90s by some chefs in England,” Plew discovered, “because they were in a similar situation where they really enjoyed public houses but the food was always subpar, so they created the term ‘gastropub,’ which means serving high-quality food in a public house environment—serving it without pretension.” 

That resonated with his vision for the brand. “I was like, ‘Wow, that’s a great description of what our mission [is],’ so we adopted that subtitle for Thirsty Lion in 2012 and have rolled forward with that.” 

The interiors of every Thirsty Lion are expertly designed to create an ideal guest experience.

Coincidentally, ‘gastropub’ was added to Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary in 2012. Its rise in popularity speaks to the higher standards consumers demand from the restaurant industry today.

“Especially now, I think the consumers have more sophisticated palates,” Plew theorizes. “People have been drinking high quality coffee from Starbucks and other places for 30 years, and craft beer, particularly coming from Portland, Oregon, you know, the bar is really high and craft beer’s not new and exciting. It’s still new and exciting everywhere [else], but it’s been around for 40 years there. So now we’re on our second/third generation of brewers.” 

I love craft beer, and I’m thrilled to learn from Plew that around 80% of the higher quality hops that are distributed and brewed across the country come from Oregon and Washington. Plew clearly has a lot of love for the region. 

“It’s part of our fabric,” he explains, “and a lot of the higher quality, newer food places that everybody is really going to these days talk about James Beard award-winning restaurants. We’re not quite that chef-driven because we’re more formulated, but you know, James Beard was from Portland, Oregon, so when people say, ‘Why is the bar so high [in Portland]?’ those are the reasons—because we have the resources.” 

He brings that superior quality to each location outside of Oregon, too. When you visit a Thirsty Lion, you notice that the food isn’t the only thing that’s elevated. The ambiance Plew creates is truly next level.

Music videos and sports are offered as entertainment at every Thirsty Lion location.

Elevating the atmosphere for all five senses

As an industry expert, Plew knows all about sensory marketing and its influence on the guest experience. And he makes sure Thirsty Lion hits all the right notes.

“One of the things that I try to do is really think about all five senses and how to impact those,” Plew states. As a gastropub, Thirsty Lion produces mouth-watering menu items and offers delicious cocktails and craft beer to patrons. They even roll out new food times three times a year to complement the seasons. It’s safe to say that the taste, smell, and touch facets are covered. 

Not your typical pub grub. Thirsty Lion has an elevated menu as well as an elevated atmosphere.

But there are two other very key senses that a successful venue needs to cater to: sound and sight.

“Too many times, people forget about the audible. It’s not just the music,” insists Plew, “it’s also how you build your restaurant or nightclub. It’s about the audiovisual. So, we do audio and visual.” Thirsty Lion implements Control Play’s music and music video service, which unites sight and sound with its innovative digital audio/video entertainment solutions.

This combination has proven to be a powerful one-two punch for Plew. The music guests hear playing over the strategically placed speakers is the same as the music videos they see displayed on several television screens. 

Music videos are available alongside sports events at the Thirsty Lion.

Plew is also able to upload his own marketing materials using Control Play’s “Infotainment” feature, so promotions for upcoming events and menu specials appear on his screens. Guests will never see a competitor’s commercials on the TVs that play music videos. They will see him promoting his newly rebranded ‘happy hour.’

“We’re changing the term ‘happy hour’ to ‘social hour,’” Plew unveils. “[I] just literally found the idea yesterday and we’ll be implementing it on our next menu change.” Thanks to his subscription with Control Play, he can program the new messaging to appear across all eight locations at the right time, without so much as printing a single piece of paper. 

“You know how easy it is for me to change the graphic and shoot it through the TV versus what it used to look like?” Not only is it environmentally friendly, but it’s quick and intuitive. “It allows for speed.” Plew praises, which is important because his social hour will be rolling out May 24.

“We use your control to automate through all our stores so we can use it for point of sale versus having fliers all over the place, because again, we build our restaurants with that flexibility. Not everybody has that.” He gives me an example, “If I want to make sure that [every location] has a current poster on whatever we’re promoting—might be Mother’s Day—I can push it right out, and it’s the same thing that’s sitting on a table or on a window, so there’s consistency.” 

Thirsty Lion displays digital signage with feature menu items to influence customer behavior.

Consistently exceeding expectations

Plew’s attention to detail contributes to the excellent brand consistency Thirsty Lion has. So many of the design choices and even hiring decisions stem from his desire to create a truly human, social experience.

“I think that's the other thing that people crave and why I love public houses,” Plew says of the environment. “We design our restaurants to be very communal so people are more easily social, and especially in today's world with all this technology and things that are clogging up our brain, it's a great environment to talk to your friends and go out with six to eight people or talk to the person next to you, you know?” 

Another key ingredient to designing the ideal guest experience is hiring the right personalities for your brand. Speaking about the bartenders and waiters, Plew says, “They’re really the actors because they’re engaging with the guests. If they aren’t engaging, all that [effort] goes out the window.”

Thirsty Lion trains all their bar staff to be approachable, sociable, and memorable. “They should introduce themselves, reach over the bar, shake somebody’s hand and say, ‘Hey, my name is Allie! How can I help you today?’ And then we write their name down on a little card. The front has the bartender’s name, so when you’re saying, ‘God, what was her name?’ instead of nametags, it’s like, ‘Oh hey, Allie! Good to see you again,’ you know?” 

Calling people by their names adds to the critical element of personalization that several big brands lack. But the personalization at Thirsty Lion gets even more intimate than that: 

“On the back of the card, it has the drink that you might like,” Plew elaborates, and he creates a tiny, personalized example just for me. “Let’s say you have an Aperol Spritzer, and then another bartender—because we have two or three working at the same time—can walk up. And it has your name, it has ‘Nicki’ on it, and it says she had an Aperol Spritz. So now that person, that bartender, has engaged with you—someone that you didn’t know before—by name, and see what I’m saying? That, versus, ‘Can I get you another drink?’” 

It would certainly make a first-time visitor want to become a regular!

“It breaks the ice,” he concludes. And now all I can think about is ordering an Aperol Spritz with ice from Allie. 

A behind-the-scenes look at constructing the perfect atmosphere

Control Play is much more than just software. In business terms, it’s technically “Software as a Service,” but in all honesty, we prioritize the “service” part of that title. Plew has an extensive background in music selection and curation, but he’s a busy man. So, he’s worked with our Playlist team to train them on what he wants his brand to sound like.  

“When Control Play came out with a dedicated service person to assist someone like myself, it was a godsend…”
—John Plew, “Do You Have a Professional Music Mixologist Helping You Craft Your Brand?” 

To learn more about how Control Play can help your brand craft a consistent, custom sound, schedule a live demo with one of our Business Development Executives using the button below!

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Nicki Ogaki

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