Steve Schussler is Walt Disney of theme restaurants

Behind the scenes with Rainforest Cafe owner

Rainforest Cafe has become as much a part of Mall of America as its wedding chapel, roller coaster, and busloads of Japanese tourists, though few know of Schussler's herculean efforts to get the idea off the ground. To convince investors of the potential of his concept, Schussler spent three years and nearly $400,000 to convert his suburban home into a tropical jungle, complete with waterfalls, rising mist, a life-size elephant replica, and dozens of real tropical birds, tortoises, and fish, plus animatronic alligators and monkeys.

Needless to say, not everyone was as impressed with the results as Schussler. "All my neighbors chipped in and hired a psychiatrist," Schussler says, noting that they also started a watch group, with walkie-talkies, to update each other on the status of his home. One day, Schussler received an unannounced visit from a whole team from the Drug Enforcement Agency intent on searching the house for drugs—his electric bill was so high that they suspected he was growing marijuana. Schussler says that after the agents saw the inside of the house, several wanted to come back with their kids. A few even ended up buying stock in the company.

Theme restaurants in general, from Hard Rock Café to Medieval Times to Bubba Gump Shrimp Company, don't tend to impress food critics. (Schussler hires outside vendors to handle the cooking at all of his restaurants. The food at Galaxy Drive In, for example, is provided by Levy's Restaurants, a division of the world's largest food-service company, Compass Group.) But the theme restaurant's business model makes financial sense: It takes a memorable event worthy of being commemorated by a merchandise purchase and pairs it with a frequent activity. Sure, Schussler could have made his own amusement park, but how often do parents take their kids to Disney World versus dinner?

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

Details

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

While themed restaurants are expensive to build—Schussler says the Kansas City T-Rex cost approximately $20 million—and the tables don't turn very quickly, the dining experience, or "eatertainment," provides more opportunities to shop. The merchandise sold at each of Schussler's restaurants tends to bring in about 18 to 24 percent of its revenue, he says, because profit margins are higher on gift shop items than on food and beverages. But at the Disney T-Rex, which does about $6 to $7 million in annual sales, Schussler says one especially popular souvenir—the custom-designed plush Build-a-Dino—represents roughly half the store's total income.

In fact, my first stop on the Schussler Creative tour was the merchandise room: Long before chefs begin testing recipes for a new restaurant, Schussler's graphic designers create the business's visual brand through colors, fonts, and graphics. Visitors to Backfire Barbeque, for example, will find a veritable buffet of motorcycle-themed T-shirts, wallet chains, baby booties, and leather vests, as well as skull belt buckles and shampoo sold in bottles shaped like those that hold motor oil. Among the Schussler restaurants, Galaxy offers far fewer merchandise options due to zoning-related size restrictions, but Schussler is considering buying a neighboring home and converting it into a retail shop.

Beyond Schussler's T-Rex room, the rest of the warehouse resembles Wisconsin's famous House on the Rock. Unusual artifacts are everywhere, including giant geodes some four feet across, filled with spiky purple crystals, and a 3-D television that Schussler says he's had for a decade. I watched it play a liquor commercial and, without the aid of 3-D glasses, the spinning booze bottle seemed to pop right out of the screen.

A conference room is decorated as a sorcerer's den, complete with gargoyles and wizardry props. A walk-in cooler has been converted to an ice cave complete with an ice block bar and sheepskin-covered ice-block benches. In another area, a room-temperature "winter wonderland" looks like the inside of a snow globe with its collection of reindeer, nutcrackers, gingerbread houses, and model trains that chug along tracks. Schussler plans to open a retro jazz concept, Aerobleu, at the New York, New York casino in Las Vegas next year, and in the warehouse's Aerobleu room a mechanical toy airplane flies near the ceiling as a sax-playing Bill Clinton bobs up and down from the cockpit.

But of all the collections in Schussler's warehouse, the most intriguing may be his concept for a yet-to-be-built restaurant called Zi, which would pair pan-Asian fare with decor from ancient China. In a chandelier-lit room, nearly two-dozen life-size Qing Dynasty warriors, pieced together from yellow-white tiles and decoratively etched, ride horses or hold weapons and shields. They suggest an elite flank of China's Terracotta Army, as the warriors are carved out of ivory and elephant bone, Schussler says.

Schussler bought them several decades ago from a private collector and says they arrived in pieces in crates full of rat dung and urine. "Nowdays you can't bring things like this into the country," he remarks. One of Schussler's employees, a model maker named Kim Anderson—the Kim Anderson who used to be married to Stevie Nicks, Schussler offers—has spent the past seven years piecing the things back together. "Who knows how many gallons of glue and brain cells it's taken," Schussler marvels.

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