Steve Schussler is Walt Disney of theme restaurants
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.
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."
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?
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.
If the pieces are indeed authentic, they've been restored with methods outside the typical museum or academic protocol. Anderson, a bearded guy in a denim shirt and turquoise jewelry, says has never been to China and researched his reassembly process by reading a few art and antique books.
Schussler, for his part, says he has the $40 million collection very carefully protected. "The FBI has been here four times telling me how to secure it," he says. As with many Schussler endeavors, it's hard to say where exactly reality ends and imagination begins.
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