Missouri-based Lion’s Choice brings the beef – roast beef, that is – to St. Louis. The legacy brand has 32 units and has opened eight in the last four years.
While burgers remain a QSR staple, there’s another sandwich holding its own in the segment: roast beef. It’s the meat behind Lion’s Choice, a St. Louis-based brand with 32 units, of which 29 are corporate owned and three are franchised.
Lion’s Choice president and CEO Michael Kupstas. Provided.
The legacy brand got its start in Ballwin, Missouri, in 1967 by founders Marv Gibbs and Arthur Morey as Red Lion Beef. The name was soon changed to Lion’s Choice, and a second location opened in Creve Coeur, Missouri.
Today, the company is helmed by president and CEO Michael Kupstas, who sat down with QSRweb in a phone interview to talk about Lion’s Choice past and present.
“At the time in 1967, there was a change in the dynamics of the household where suddenly there was the origination of the dual-income family in many ways,” Kupstas said. The founders “saw that an opportunity existed to provide meals and foods that were as wholesome and as good for you and proud to be put on a plate by your mother or father at the time.”
After looking at a variety of different products, the founders settled on roast beef, a hearty, traditional product that allowed parents to feel good about it when they were time-crunched to feed the family. They spent a lot of time trying to perfect their roast beef recipe, “and today we do the same thing,” Kupstas said. “We roast real roast beef rounds in our stores every day, sometimes four times a day, a minimum of three hours, and we roast those to a medium rare.”
The roast beef is sliced “paper-thin” to order to make every sandwich, Kupstas added, and can be cooked to any level of doneness. It’s usually served medium rare, where it is popular in St. Louis. But in Kansas City, guests seem to like it more toward medium.
But the roast beef isn’t the only product to take center stage. Gibbs and Morey also spent plenty of time on what would accompany sandwiches in the shop, meaning the shoestring, natural-cut French fries are brined, blanched and fried to perfection and other sides are just as important.
Lion’s Choice is also known for its customization: there’s a sauce bar available with everything from pickles to jalapenos and onions to a variety of sauces, including a proprietary horseradish sauce, honey mustard, two different kinds of barbecue sauce and a chipotle ranch sauce.
“We’ve come to experience guests who make their own sauces by a pump of this and a pump of that,” Kupstas added. Some of the guests’ creations have even made it onto the menu in the form of LTOs.
Frozen custard is also popular and is sold in 50-cent mini-cones. It’s the perfect amount to satisfy the sweet tooth without worrying about too many calories.
While roast beef, is of course, the top seller (sandwiches comes in three sizes), it also is used in an Italian beef sandwich and a French dip served with au jus. There’s even a machine on the toppings bar that stirs the au jus and keeps it hot.
Sliced turkey also makes a great sandwich, as does honey ham. Most recently the brand has introduced a line of salads, including the Chili Lime Chicken Salad as well as a Butcher Block Salad which uses roast beef, turkey and ham. A chicken tender sandwich started as an LTO and is now a permanent fixture on the menu.
“That’s been one of the highest-selling non-beef items the company has introduced,” Kupstas said, adding that he believes chicken is the No. 1 protein in the country. The chicken tenders used are gluten-free, another boon for the item. A gluten-free bun is available as well.
The company tends to cater toward people who are health conscious and want to know that what they’re putting in their bodies is wholesome and to know where it’s from.
Kupstas said one of the most popular items Lion’s Choice has introduced this year is a plant-based meatball sub.
“We recognize that even though we eat a lot of it, not everyone is going to eat roast beef sandwiches five times a week,” he added. “There are also people who go out to eat with others or family members who would shy away from a roast beef restaurant either because they’re vegetarian or vegan. They just don’t eat that much beef and we wanted to make sure that we provided opportunities for what we call the ‘veto vote’ – families that have other dietary needs.”
Roast beef is roasted in-house, and all of the meats are sliced and salads are made in-house.
Kupstas said like many other brands, Lion’s Choice has struggled with recruitment and retention throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. He estimates that the company is understaffed in 85% of its restaurants. Where the brand would have had 915 employees last year, “this year we’re probably sitting somewhere at 125 shy,” he added. As a result, Lion’s Choice has had to change its systems and the abbreviations on its POS systems to make it easier to operate; it’s had to close double lines down and work harder on single lines in order to serve more people in a quicker, more accurate way.
Supply chain issues have also plagued the company. Kuptas said that in November they had 25 items they couldn’t get or had to make substitutions. In early 2022, issues with supply chains were the result of transportation issues, Kuptas said. Today’s issues are about staffing at the suppliers.
“I want to be cautiously optimistic that all of that changes in 2023, but I’m also wise enough to know it’s not just going to be a switch that flips,” he added.
The company has an app and a website, and has a partnership with DoorDash for delivery.
Social media is Lion’s Choice’s prime advertising outlet, and like the rest of the world, it has moved toward digital advertising. They also work with a local agency in St. Louis.
The brand is also involved in the community through sponsorships like the arts, food-insecurity companies like food banks, school fundraisers and sports teams. “We try to be top of mind in micro-markets so that people get to know us. We want to become good community partners,” Kupstas said.
The three franchise units have been with Lion’s Choice a long time, Kupstas said, and added that since the company changed ownership in 2013 to current owners Millstone Capital Advisors, franchising hasn’t been a focus for the brand. It’s in the process of updating its franchise disclosure document with franchising expected in the future, however.
Eight restaurants have opened in the last four years — five in Kansas City and three in the St. Louis area.
“I think our focus on growth going forward would tend to be more on second generation conversions,” Kupstas added.
Mandy Wolf Detwiler is the managing editor at Networld Media Group and the site editor for PizzaMarketplace.com and QSRweb.com. She has more than 20 years’ experience covering food, people and places.
An award-winning print journalist, Mandy brings more than 20 years’ experience to Networld Media Group. She has spent nearly two decades covering the pizza industry, from independent pizzerias to multi-unit chains and every size business in between. Mandy has been featured on the Food Network and has won numerous awards for her coverage of the restaurant industry. She has an insatiable appetite for learning, and can tell you where to find the best slices in the country after spending 15 years traveling and eating pizza for a living.