After 13 years with Raising Cane’s, including a stint as chief operating officer, Ian Vaughn has left the chain to guide the growth and development of Lava Cantina.
Vaughn and his father, Steve, opened Lava Cantina in Perkins Rowe in April 2013. At first, Vaughn split his time between his work with Cane’s in Dallas and the rock ’n’ roll-themed Mexican restaurant.
But Vaughn said after talking with Todd Graves, Cane’s co-founder, he realized he needed to make a long-term decision about the future.
“Todd is very caring and understanding. He’s an entrepreneur,” Vaughn said. “He understood the inner burning passion and desire I had to produce more.”
Leaving Cane’s was difficult, even to work on a restaurant that Vaughn co-founded with his father. Vaughn had worked for the chain since he was a 21-year-old senior at LSU.
Vaughn rose in the ranks at Cane’s as the restaurant grew. He helped open the company’s Siegen Lane location and proposed to his wife there on opening day. Vaughn became the chain’s first “training GM.” He played a role in getting New Orleans-area Cane’s reopened in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. In 2009, Vaughn was named COO.
“I was absolutely in love with the brand,” he said. “I felt like I was as much of an owner as Todd was.”
But a few years ago, when Steve Vaughn was approaching retirement from his job with a local chemical plant, Ian Vaughn started brainstorming with him on the next move. Steve Vaughn was a musician who played with local rock bands, and his son had a background in restaurants, so that’s how Lava Cantina developed. “It came naturally to us,” Ian Vaughn said. “It was fun and things we both loved.”
During his years at Raising Cane’s, Vaughn learned the importance of building a strong brand. So right off the bat, Lava Cantina featured a distinctive logo with Gothic lettering and a flame.
“When we opened, everyone who came in thought we were a chain because it was so well thought out and so well branded,” Vaughn said. “That was the biggest challenge we had.”
Vaughn said Lava Cantina was “blindsided” by how busy the original crowds were and the restaurant faced issues with the quality of its food.
Since the opening, the menu has been tweaked. Now the focus is on a “creole Mexican fusion” — dishes such as boudin balls made with chorizo, enchiladas and burritos filled with alligator or smoked duck and tacos stuffed with fried catfish and shrimp.
The goal of Lava Cantina is to give diners an experience like being backstage at a rock concert, with live music and restaurant staff dancing to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.”
“Casual dining has suffered since the recession because of the focus on profit and the bottom line,” Vaughn said.
The idea of selling more than just a meal to diners and having a strong restaurant culture is something that was instilled in him by Graves and Raising Cane’s.
Vaughn said his goal is to get Lava Cantina ready for growth. “In our eyes right now, this brand ultimately has the potential to drop in every major metropolitan city as a concert venue, like a House of Blues,” he said. By the end of 2015, Vaughn hopes construction will begin on the first concert-sized Lava Cantina, a 25,000-square-foot property. He’s eyeing locations in several major cities, including Dallas.
The expanded Lava Cantina would attract national touring acts and feature a Rockin Taco, a stand which would sell gourmet tacos and margaritas. The idea would be to have the taco counter open for diners who wanted a quick, casual meal or something to eat after the Lava Cantina kitchen closed.
Vaughn hopes to open the first stand-alone Rockin Taco in the next three or four months. “The idea is to find the best location possible for these restaurants,” he said. “They don’t have to be in the backyard by any means.”
To prepare for the expansions, Vaughn said he’s concentrating on making sure the service standards and menu are done right for Lava Cantina and the fundamentals are set up for Rockin Taco. “When the concert venue opens, we have to perform from day one,” he said. “We can’t have any stumbles.”
Even with the planned growth, Vaughn said the Perkins Rowe Lava Cantina will always be the “mothership” location. The restaurant recently boosted its musical offerings by shifting money away from marketing to bring in popular local acts such as Allison Collins, Chris LeBlanc and Werewolf. An expanded patio recently opened to give diners a chance to better enjoy the free concerts held in Perkins Rowe. “One of the things my father and I have discussed is how we can further push the live music for this place and put Lava Cantina on the map as a live music hub,” Vaughn said.
Graves said while the change of losing Vaughn is challenging, he loves that he founded a business that gives its employees a chance to develop.
“I am happy to see Ian pursue his dream of owning his own restaurant,” Graves said. “It has been great to see him grow as a leader. We’ve gone through a lot together so we will remain friends and industry colleagues.”
Follow Timothy Boone on Twitter, @TCB_TheAdvocate .