Cafe Reviews

Second Helpings

Variations on a Theme: Ever since Hard Rock Cafe became an international success a generation ago, copycat theme restaurants have rushed in to nab a share of the market.

In what's called the "eatertainment" business, no imitator has made as big a splash as Planet Hollywood. For several years after it started up almost a decade ago, you couldn't read the newspaper or watch local television news without seeing some reference to it.

Well, times have changed, and the tinsel is tarnishing. According to Nation's Restaurant News, an industry trade paper, theme restaurants--including Planet Hollywood, Rainforest Cafe and Hard Rock Cafe, which all have Valley branches--are taking some pretty heavy hits.

Food sales are down, merchandise sales are down and stock prices are down.
What's the reason? Restaurant analysts point to several factors. One is overexpansion, moving into areas where they never should have come in the first place. Among them: Phoenix.

"You start off with the premise that these restaurants are tourist attractions," explains one industry consultant. "That means the residents in one market are going to be your tourists somewhere else. But you upset that relationship when you start putting a tourist attraction in the same market where your tourists are coming from." In other words, why should millions of tourists get excited about going to the New York branch of Planet Hollywood, when there's a unit in their own hometowns?

A second factor: glut. The market is saturated with eatertainment restaurants. There are now more than two dozen of them, hyped principally around sports and music. But how many times do you want to go back and see a sports coat worn by Elvis, animated crocodiles or clips from bad Bruce Willis movies?

But by far the biggest reason for theme-restaurant decline, say industry observers, is the food: It stinks.

"It's not that there are too many restaurants," argues one investment analyst. "It's that there are not a lot of good ones." Says another: "The major failing they all have in common is that not one of them is focused on the food, and the reason people go to a restaurant is food, first and foremost." Trendy merchandise and a cutting-edge theme, it seems, can't keep customers' attention forever. "Do you really want a $9.50 hamburger with a pickle just to stare at some stuff on a wall with bright lights and noise?" asks a third.

One Wall Streeter, bearish on theme restaurants, doesn't think anything--not better food, not cheaper prices--can re-energize this market segment. "I think people are tired of hokey," he says. "I don't care if it is raining two tables away, most of these concepts are not entertaining."

He's got that right. Believe me, there is nothing entertaining about eating bad, overpriced food, surrounded by drooling idiots who think arrows from Kevin Costner's turkey Robin Hood, chains from a Judas Priest outfit or jabbering gorillas make for a cool restaurant experience.

--Howard Seftel

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Howard Seftel