Why Lion’s Choice thinks the second time's the charm in KC

Lion’s Choice failed at its first attempt to expand to the Kansas City market in 1999. But this time around, the St. Louis-based fast-food chain is counting on roaring success.

Its two area locations in Independence and Olathe have exceeded sales expectations, and the prototype building design and expansion strategy represents the company’s “best thinking to date,” CEO Mike Kupstas told the Kansas City Business Journal.

In November, Lion’s Choice plans to open a store in Overland Park, and by year’s end or early January, it plans to open a Liberty location followed by one in Lee’s Summit in mid-2020. It’s aiming for a 10- to 12-restaurant presence locally and wants to reach 65% of that goal within three years, he said.

Challenges during first expansion

When Lion’s Choice first ventured outside St. Louis in 1999, it started with a restaurant in Overland Park near 119th Street and Metcalf Avenue. Plans to expand beyond the lone location never came to fruition, and the restaurant closed three years after opening.

“At the time, the management and the owners hadn’t had experience with that kind of expansion, and they were mostly franchised,” Kupstas said.

So it was up to individuals, some of whom didn’t have restaurant experience, to build out the brand in a remote market. The Overland Park restaurant was like an island, he said, and it wasn’t backed by the right marketing or systems in place to make it viable; it lacked structure. A single restaurant couldn’t generate enough energy for the brand, he said.

What’s different this time

This time around, all of the area stores are company-owned. It’s akin to putting your money where your mouth is, Kupstas
said. Plus, Lion’s Choice opened its two area locations about three months apart and has three locations under letters of
intent. The progress far outweighs what happened years ago. And Lion’s Choice now is applying all of the lessons it has
learned through 52 years of operation, he said.“

We’re feeling really good about (our two restaurants), and it’s giving us confidence in why we’re building those next three
restaurants right now,” he said.

During a recent visit, Kupstas met a customer at the Olathe restaurant who first tried Lion’s Choice years ago in St. Louis. He
now eats at the Olathe location about four times a week.

“Don’t let these go away,” he told Kupstas.

New start, new look

For its do-over in the Kansas City market, Lion’s Choice introduced a prototype building that creates a “more iconic look.” “It doesn’t look like a rectangular box,” he said. “It doesn’t just blend into the landscape. … It makes you take a second look.” It features a shed roof that overhangs on the front and an image of a lion gracing a tower.

Leslie Collins
Staff Writer
Kansas City Business Journal