An Interview with Bill Watson
CRO, VP of Marketing
By Lisa Gmur, CSW
raise a glass
CRO, Consolidated Restaurant Operations, is ranked among the largest private companies. Its brands include everything from the upscale III Forks to Authentic Mexican Food at Cantina Laredo to its neighborhood steakhouses, Silver Fox.
CRO was founded in 1998 by John D. Harkey, long regarded as one of the most successful restaurateurs in North Texas. A fifth generation Texas rancher and entrepreneur, Harkey got his MBA from Stanford back in 1987. He started CRO with the acquisition of El Chico and the company has been growing ever since. In 2007, Harkey took his Cantina Laredo brand to the Middle East. Over the years a few other concepts have also headed there.
We talked with CRO veteran and VP of Marketing, Bill Watson, about everything from his original ambitions of having a bi-line (think Newspapers) to the influence younger customers are having on their wine program, especially when it comes to trends.
Pictured Left: Bill Watson, VP of Marketing, CRO
Please tell us a little about Bill.
I am from Fort Wayne, Indiana – a “drive-through” town in the agricultural-industrial heartland. Hard-working, understated and overlooked.
Ha! I have totally heard of Fort Wayne.
On top of that, it has an art museum, a zoo and an "Indonesian Rainforest," definitely not somewhere to be overlooked.
So, growing up in this midwestern town, what did you dream of being?
My aim was to be a newspaperman. I loved the chaos of newspapering. The hospitality industry was my meal ticket for finishing college.
I tried to leave the hospitality business a few times, but I have always been drawn back to restaurant culture.
I love and live by deadlines. I worked in television news for many years. It’s still what fires me up so I totally get that.
Of course, I have also worked in the hospitality industry since I was 16 so I get that too.
How long have you been with CRO?
I joined Consolidated Restaurants Operations (CRO) 21 years ago.
Wow! A true veteran. What experience did you bring with you?
Many of my prior roles required juggling lots of business units with varied priorities. I learned that I thrive on that kind of chaotic complexity. CRO has the same complexity.
Our portfolio spans seven brands including a classic diner, 80-year-old family dining Tex-Mex cafes, polished casual Mexican restaurants, and fine dining steakhouses.
Average checks range from $17.50 to $143.00.
That’s a crazy slide and pretty challenging in terms of selecting wines, no?
We listen to our guests, many of whom are very knowledgeable about wine.
Our wine partners are very good at recommending selections that fit our restaurants.
In our steakhouses, we have sommeliers and wine department managers who provide very smart recommendations.
How exactly do you pick the wines for all the different concepts from Cantina Laredo to III Forks?
Our product mix guides us initially. We look at what sells by varietal and price tier.
Competitors’ lists and partners’ portfolios are examined for opportunities to fill voids. We cull our lists so that laggards are deleted annually.
New placement opportunities are made available first to our current partners.
How often do you evaluate and change your wine program?
Comprehensive changes are made annually. While we might want to make updates more frequently, we recognize that our wine partners and staff need continuity.
Do you find that people buy different wines in different cities? Different regions?
Texas, where we have the greatest concentration of restaurants, is all about wine from California.
Our Florida restaurants sell a more balanced range of wines from Italy, France, Spain, and California.
Given that, do you accommodate the different likes?
Our wine mandates are the same in all locations. We do expect our restaurants to expand offerings that match local demand.
Have current wine trends like bubbly, Malbec and Rosé worked their way into your wine program?
Rosé, Malbec and bubbles are nascent, driven by younger diners – very important to us longer term.
I love that these kinds of wines are what the younger generation are looking for and they have so much future potential!
How do the classics like Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Merlot and Cabernet fare?
The classics, especially Cabernet Sauvignon, are immensely important to us in our steakhouses. We have had some success with wine cocktails that use red wine.
How do you engage your staff?
Our staff need to know the details of our beverage offerings just as they need information about our culinary offerings.
Timely information always engages our staff and really, they are our primary customers doing the front-line work.
They really engage with our customers and are highly regarded by our regulars.
You must get amazing feedback, given that, have you noticed any changes in what people are drinking?
We are seeing more younger customers who are looking for wines formerly missing or underrepresented on wine lists.
All customers are much savvier about fair prices for wine and the qualities and reputations of lesser-known wines.
I love that these younger customers are being more adventurous. Has this changed the focus of your wine program?
These trends have prompted us to broaden our selections and to price wines mindful of our guests’ expectations.
If there was one varietal that you would like everyone to try, what would it be?
Pinot Noir. The range of great Pinot Noir is astonishing. Many are as full-bodied as Cabernet Sauvignons.
The" Heartbreak Grape", most winemakers favorite as well. What’s your favorite part of your job?
The challenge of juggling a wide range of businesses with different customers and competitors.
Cantina Laredo, The Taste of Modern Mexico.
III Forks Steakhouse embodies the Best of the American Steakhouse.
Try our wines
at iii Forks!
Gratien & Meyer Rosé Brut, Crémant de Loire, By-The-Glass
Since 1864 Gratien Meyer has produced fine sparkling wines in the traditional method. Quality initiatives have been maintained for over 150 years throughout the winemaking process, from harvest to ageing in their limestone cellars in Saumur.
What’s the most challenging part of your job?
The challenge of juggling a wide range of business with different customers and competitors.
Touché. What’s your first memory of wine? Of cocktails? Or maybe beer?
Wine at the family dinner table. Cocktails sipped by my parents. Bock beer with turkey dinner at Thanksgiving.
Memories of all three. Love that. Was wine part of your upbringing?
Yes. We were always allowed to sip wine with holiday dinners.
I have vivid memories of sipping at holiday dinners too!
I think learning to drink wine is critical. Appreciating the whole food wine connection equally so.
Do you have a favorite restaurant experience from your childhood?
Lundy’s Seafood Restaurant in the Sheepshead Bay neighborhood of Brooklyn with my brothers. We devoured seafood and managed to trip up a server with a full tray. Epic!
You were one of those, huh. I hope you got your due! *Laughs Out Loud* Do you have a favorite food & wine pairing?
Pinot Noir and sautéed chicken thighs roasted with shallots, Dijon and cherry tomatoes in Sauvignon Blanc.
Sounds delish. Makes me think of Provence. Have you been there?
I have. I have been to Provence, Loire, Tuscany, Alsace, Mittlerhein, Rhone Valley, The Napa and Sonoma, Upstate New York, Virginia and North Fork of Long Island.
Lovely. Any wine regions you haven’t been to but would love to explore?
Too numerous to list here. At the top of the list – New Zealand.
It should be top of your list, it is spectacular. I truly hope you get there. Thank you so much for this.
You are very welcome. It was a pleasure.