Steve Schussler is Walt Disney of theme restaurants

Behind the scenes with Rainforest Cafe owner

The offices of Schussler Creative are located in a dull, nondescript Golden Valley industrial park, near businesses that deal in the mundanities of insurance claims and automotive parts. But inside, Schussler Creative has the energy of a Silicon Valley startup. On the day I visited, I could hardly find a seat in the reception area for the assemblage of model outboard motors, revolving Ferris wheels, and Disney characters dressed in Star Wars garb. So I leaned against a ledge where a cloak-wrapped Mickey aimed his light saber at Donald Duck, who had been frozen, Han Solo-style, in a carbonite block.

All this, I soon learned, was merely a warm-up for the contents of Schussler's adjacent warehouse. A staff member led me to the office's utilitarian kitchenette where muffled tribal music could be heard playing behind a set of double doors. The staffer held a remote control, and I noticed that one of the buttons was labeled "FOG." Anticipation built as it does when the line for a Disney ride inches forward: What sort of imaginary world lay beyond?

The doors opened to reveal a full-scale model of a prehistoric age: Giant animatronic dinosaurs lifted their heads and flames erupted from a mock mountain peak. The soundtrack of drumbeats and eerie jungle squawks could have scored Jurassic Park. I didn't know if I should try to order a Bronto Burger—or run for my life.

At Schussler's T-Rex 
eateries, the real profits are in the merchandising
Emily Utne
At Schussler's T-Rex eateries, the real profits are in the merchandising


It's a jungle in there: Inspiring Lessons, Hard-Won Insights, and Other Acts of Entrepreneurial Daring
by Steven Schussler and Marvin Karlins
Union Square Press, $19.95

ENTREPRENEUR STEVE SCHUSSLER is among the country's most prolific creators of theme restaurants, and this warehouse scene is a prototype for the T-Rex eateries he owns in Disney World and Kansas City. Locally, Schussler is better known for launching Rainforest Café at the Mall of America 16 years ago, a business that has grown to include dozens of domestic and international locations.

The theme restaurant business has been good to Schussler. In 1999, the year before he sold Rainforest to Landry's, a behemoth restaurant group whose portfolio includes Joe's Crab Shack and Oceanaire, its $8 million average per-store sales were the highest of any restaurant in the country. Today, in addition to the T-Rexes, Schussler operates the retro-themed Galaxy Drive In on Highway 7 in St. Louis Park, a motorcycle-themed eatery in Kansas City, a Himalayan-themed restaurant at Disney, plus a hot dog joint and a coffee shop in a Pennsylvania casino.

This fall, Schussler reflected on his unusual career by releasing It's a Jungle in There, a memoir he co-wrote with Marvin Karlins. It's a Jungle is a business book that offers tips for entrepreneurial success mixed with personal anecdotes. And as ridiculous as Schussler's antics have proved—he tells readers how he once donned a Superman suit, sealed himself in a barrel, and shipped himself to his future boss—they have led to a position of professional stature that garnered promotional blurbs from Donald Trump and Lee Iacocca.

In person, Schussler bears some resemblance to the suit-and-tie-clad silverback gorilla on It's a Jungle's cover, with his broad shoulders and spiky salt-and-pepper hair. He has the tan skin, white teeth, and immaculate dress of a newscaster, and he moves around the office at a mile-a-minute clip, talking just as fast, with a hint of a Long Island accent.

Schussler's mother was an artist, his father a salesman, and he seems to delight as much in the theatricality of creating restaurant concepts as he does in making a business pitch. He's an affable self-promoter who's quick to give credit to his crew. (Where many people might hang up when Star Tribune gossip columnist C.J. rings, Schussler calls her.) Schussler exudes a genuine, though not necessarily personal, warmth. He might offer an off-the-record tidbit, "as a friend," but, in the same breath, get your name wrong.

Before my warehouse tour, Schussler asked me if I'd like some water. I said no thanks, but he reached into the refrigerator and handed me a Schussler-branded bottle anyway. "I don't take no for an answer," he said.

IT'S A JUNGLE IN THERE details some of the stunts Schussler has pulled to attract the attention of potential bosses, clients, or investors. There was the time, for example, when he was selling radio advertising and delivered a birthday cake to a Coca-Cola executive in a room full of hundreds of people, just to get the guy's attention. Schussler's tactics can sometimes rankle—it was not, in fact, the Coca-Cola exec's birthday, and he was nonplussed by the charade—but he has a way of presenting his pushiness as simply a passionate persistence. After several profuse apologies, Schussler says, he eventually got an order from the Coca-Cola exec.

His flair for the dramatic extends to his personal life. When Schussler decided to propose marriage, he rented out Disney World and, dressed as Prince Charming, rode up to Cinderella's Castle on a white horse and placed a glass slipper on his girlfriend's foot.

Schussler transitioned from selling advertising to creating theme restaurants though an antique shop he called Juke Box Saturday Night, where he restored and resold nostalgic items such as jukeboxes, old carousel horses, and slot machines. The wares didn't sell so well, though they did prove to be popular props for a side business in party planning. Unfortunately, Juke Box wasn't generating enough income for Schussler to repay his loan, and he was forced to file bankruptcy and have his condo and truck repossessed. He says he included this rock-bottom period in the book to help others learn the importance of accepting failure, moving on, and persevering. Eventually, Schussler got the idea to turn Juke Box Saturday Night into a '50s-themed restaurant and nightclub, which opened in multiple markets. "It's my obligation as entrepreneur to inspire other people," he says. "It seems like I've had a thousand lives."

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