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Tea Party Lion

From British Pubs to Tea Party Politics:
A Profile of S.A.’s Allen Tharp

by Susan Yerkes

When you walk into Allen Tharp’s office, you enter a lion’s den.

Actually, it’s two lions. Oh, and a tiger, too—three imposing mounted animals that dominate the relatively small space otherwise occupied by a large conference table and an assortment of antiques.

“I thought I could use a lion in ads for the Lion & Rose,” Tharp explains, “and I found one at an auction up at the Will Rogers Center. They also had a tiger so I thought I might as well have a tiger too … and then the guy that had them brought this other lion down so I got him. I love that lion. He looks so tough, so impressive.”

That’s a good description of Tharp himself.

Best known in San Antonio as the owner of the Olde England Lion & Rose British pubs, Tharp reigns over a fast-growing international empire of food-related businesses headquartered here. The Lion & Rose now has four San Antonio locations and plans to expand into franchising. A few years back, Tharp added a minority partnership in the Golden Chick chain to his portfolio, with sole rights to the San Antonio area (he’s opened eight stores already, with plans to expand to as many as 36 stores) and ten Asian countries, including Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand, South Korea and China, where his first Golden Chick will open in Shanghai this summer. This summer he’ll open yet another new venture, Claude Hopper’s Craft Beer, Taproom and Growler Station, at the Blanco Pointe Center. And for almost two decades, his original San Antonio-based business, Allen Tharp & Associates, has been the exclusive contractor for managing food service and staffing more than a dozen dining halls that serve a million-plus meals per month at Lackland Air Force Base and its Medina Annex, Kelly USA, Defenders’ Inn and Camp Bullis. Tharp’s combined enterprises, headquartered together in an unobtrusive former warehouse in the small University Oaks office park in North Central S.A., employ more than 850 people in the San Antonio area alone.

His accomplishments seem more remarkable because of something Tharp rarely mentions—he has been legally blind since his early childhood.

You wouldn’t know it when you met him. At 58, Tharp is a tall, powerfully built man whose heavily tinted glasses are the only clue to his condition. He does not use a white cane or a guide dog, but relies on his other well-developed senses to navigate the world. Today’s technology helps him do daily business. Using text-to-voice software and Braille printouts, he speeds through contracts and other documents, and reads and returns emails faster than most fully sighted folks.

“It happened quickly, and I was young enough that it was no big thing for me,” he says. “It must have been one to my parents when it first happened, but they never made a big deal out of it. Funny thing is, I don’t even recall ever discussing it with them. We didn’t avoid it; the subject just never came up. Growing up, it never seemed like a factor in my life.”

Tharp’s wife of 30 years, Elena (who is also his partner and CFO of his companies) credits his parents for instilling strength and security in him during those early years.

“They always supported him—always encouraged him to do his very best,” she says.

Born in Odessa, Tharp spent part of his childhood in the tiny town of Rio Grande, at the southernmost tip of Argentina, where his oil driller father moved the family for a few years before returning to their West Texas roots. Tharp graduated from Odessa High School and went on the then-new UT Permian Basin to earn his BA in Political Science with minors in Spanish and Russian.

“In college I thought about going on to law school,” he says, “but I decided to set off for California to strike it rich instead.”

The rich part didn’t work out back then. Neither did the career in music he planned at one point. But he did pile up a lot of experience. Life and work pulled him back and forth from California to Texas in those years, through two marriages. He studied for an MA in Businesses at the University of California-Irvine, and tried his hand at various small business ventures, from carpet cleaning to truck leasing.

Tharp’s big leap into the future came after he married Elena, whose father had been an Ecuadorean consul in the U.S. Their connection was pure chance. Tharp answered an ad for a housemate that she and her brother had posted to try to defray the high housing costs in L.A., and friendship turned to love. After the couple moved back to Texas so Elena could get to know Tharp’s family, he decided to immerse himself in studying restaurant management business. With Elena, who had worked in catering in California, he opened his first restaurant in Dallas—a soup-and-sandwich café called the Luncheon Ladle, next to the venerable Adolphus Hotel.

Soon Tharp began to pursue bigger targets, bidding on increasingly large food service contracts. They won some sizeable clients in Austin, including the VA. Then in 1996 his company landed the massive Lackland contract, which brought them to San Antonio to stay.

That military contract is the core of Allen Tharp LLC. But Tharp’s restless entrepreneurial drive led him to branch out into separate restaurant ventures. The Lion and Rose sprang from a trip to England, where Tharp says he and Elena were so taken with the pubs they visited, they decided to try out the idea in San Antonio. The first Lion & Rose opened in the heart of Alamo Heights in 2004.

The pub business led to Tharp’s involvement in the British Society of Texas, when society president Dan Corbett asked him to join the organization’s board. Since then, Tharp and Elena have become very involved in the group, lending the Lion & Rose’s British-style double-decker buses or top-of-the-line Rolls-Royce for events and hosting British Society parties in their home, located in the aptly named Bentley Manor subdivision near their headquarters. While Tharp’s children from an earlier marriage are grown, he remains in close contact with them. The couple’s dog Bruno, a 170-pound Albai, is an important part of the family. They also have two large African Gray parrots.

“Allen loves adventure, and he loves animals,” Elena says. “He has an unusual ability to communicate with them. One time we went to a wild animal ranch, and he got into the cage of a 900-pound Siberian tiger! I was freaking out, but he was determined, and he is fearless, and he was fine.”

Over the years, the Tharps’ pets have included a Manx cat and great horned owl. But the most unusual was probably the cougar.

“We were living just outside Austin, and Elena wanted to get a cat,” Tharp says. “A friend had this cougar cub, and I thought I’d surprise her with a real cat.” He was just about 40 pounds, a kitten, and he’d jump up and grab you around the neck like an attack kitten, and then just stay there purring.”

“The first week or so we had him I decided to take him for a walk, and he did better on a leash than most dogs. But when it was time to turn around and go home, he just planted his feet. So I started pulling on the leash, and then it hit me that might not be a great idea with a cougar. So I reached down and picked him up and carried him…. I ended up carrying that cougar all the way home.”

San Antonians Frank and Mary Ann Samples, long-time British Society members, are among the Tharps’ closest friends. Samples loves to tell the story of their first meeting back in 2002, just after a major flood on the Sabinal had wiped out the Samples’ small ranch in Utopia. Mary Ann’s leg was broken in the raging waters, and they barely escaped with their lives. A few days later, still shaken, they went to dinner at the Omni Hotel with their friend Tony Ferro, and Samples had a passing conversation with a stranger in the hall.

“He said, ‘How has your day been, sir?’ and I said, ‘Well it could be better.’ Then he said, ‘I hear stress in your voice.’ We introduced ourselves and talked a little and I told him about the flood. Much later, as we left, we were told the other couple had paid our bill. When Tony went back to say thank you, he told me Allen had given him his business card to give to me—that when we figured out what it would cost to repair all the damage to our Utopia place, that he wanted to replace everything for me. Just like that. Well, that would have been two hundred to three hundred thousand dollars, easy. I said ‘Give me that card! That’s crazy! We don’t know that guy!’ and I ripped it up right there. I wasn’t about to let somebody else pay my bills.”

“A couple of years later, after the Lion & Rose opened, Mary Ann and I went in with friends and we saw a picture of the owner . I said ‘I’ll be damned! That’s the guy who wanted to pay for Utopia!’ Their office email was on the back of the bill, and I sent him an email, and he answered it, and over the years we have become good friends. He and Elena are absolutely real—not a phony thing about them.”

In the past few years, Tharp has added another passionate pursuit to his portfolio: politics. He’s the president of the San Antonio Tea Party, and has made national news recently for his participation in Halbig vs. Sibelius, a lawsuit aimed at striking down key provisions of the Affordable Care Act. The suit is currently in federal appeals court in Washington, D.C. As S.A. Tea Party president he’s also a plaintiff in another, yet-to-be-tried federal lawsuit organized by the conservative American Center for Law and Justice against the Obama administration, IRS and others, claiming discriminatory targeting of conservative groups on political grounds. Involvement in such actions can be prohibitively expensive. But as one admiring Tea Party colleague says, “Allen puts his money where his mouth is.”

Tharp came to politics relatively late in life.

“I’ve always been basically libertarian,” he says. “I’m not a social conservative, but I believe in fiscal responsibility. The deficits in this country are destroying us. I started supporting the Tea Party because I was so concerned about Bush overspending. And then Obama … The Republicans did such a horrible job when they had control, and then the Democrats took over and put overspending on turbo-charge. I saw the Tea Party standing up and trying to push free market concepts. I’ve always been a bit of a crusader. And I felt like I had to stand up, too.”

He attended meetings of some of the Tea Party groups in San Antonio and began to become more involved, giving speeches and support. Before long, he was on the board, and when former Tea Party president George Rodriguez stepped down, he was drafted to take the helm.

British society president Dan Corbett, a committed Republican who joined the Tea Party board at Tharp’s request, would like to see Tharp take a larger leadership role. “Allen is a great patriot. I’d really like to see him head the national Tea Party movement,” he says.

Tharp says he’s been asked to run for political office in the past, but he “would hate the campaigning and the money raising part of it.” The one time he considered it seriously, he says, was when Kay Bailey Hutchison retired. “But when I started looking at the other candidates I was so impressed … I realized we had some solid folks running already, and that was fine with me. I think Ted Cruz is great.”

As to the future? Tharp can barely say the word “retirement.” That’s definitely not on the horizon for him, with the Lackland contract still going full steam, and his pubs and Golden Chick solidly placed for franchising expansion. His prominence in the Tea Party is definitely growing, wherever that leads.

“But really, I’m still just a little guy,” Tharp says, “taking little bites at a time.”

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