Eat Fast, Before the Crocodile Snaps Its Jaw

It's lunchtime in the suburbs - time for Mary Ann Trankina to take her daughter and toddling grandson down to the mall and into a dark jungle.

As the family settles into lunch at Rainforest Cafe, a nearby herd of faux elephants flap their ears and lift their trunks in a trumpeting chorus. Cockatoos squawk, gorillas hop and grunt, and a crocodile snaps its jaws. During dessert, the lush canopy of fake vines and banyan trees suddenly grows dim. Thunder rumbles and lightning flashes as rain hits moss-covered rocks.

Across the country, the curtain is rising on "eat-ertainment," by some accounts the fastest-growing and most lucrative sector of the American restaurant industry.

Annual sales for the theme restaurant sector - which serves up brash entertainment along with food - will reach $4 billion by 2000, up fivefold from last year, industry experts predict.

"Definitely, this is the beginning of a boom," says John Ecklein, president of Ecklein Communications Inc. in Novato, Calif.

Still, industry experts question whether the tinseled restaurants have staying power.

"Is this a fad or a sustainable boom?" wonders Mr. Ecklein, publisher of Entertainment Real Estate Report, a newsletter.

Regardless of their durability, entertainment eateries have so far sharpened the rivalry in a highly competitive industry.

"Good food is no longer enough to attract [many] customers," says Christopher Weis at Hanifen, Imhoff Inc., an investment banking firm. "The crossbar has been raised: Eating needs to be an experience, it needs to go beyond the food."

At Rainforest Cafe, patrons can return to a wild and riotous garden, where virtually everything but the live tropical birds is a choreographed safari fantasy in plastic and fiberglass.

Variety of themes

Another eating and entertainment chain, Dave & Buster's, offers a sprawling indoor amusement center for adults. It mixes restaurants, billiards, theaters, and a bowling ally with simulated golf, virtual reality, and other electronic games.

At Planet Hollywood, a chain of 31 restaurants, diners can fade into a silver-screen glitz with dreams of mingling with Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, or other movie-star owners of the publicly traded company.

Hard Rock Cafe, considered the original entertainment-theme restaurant, features rock and music memorabilia. Other expanding theme establishments tap the glamour and allure of fashion modeling, motorcycles, race cars, Motown music, and professional sports (see chart).

The restaurants are especially popular with America's many two-career households. The combination of food and amusement is less logistical bother than a dinner-and-movie evening, industry experts say.

Theme restaurants are riding on a tide of industry prosperity. Restaurant sales in general grew at 8 percent annually from 1970 to 1990, according to a recent report by Hanifen, Imhoff.

To investors, there is far more to entertainment restaurants than cavorting gorillas or heavy-metal rock. An average establishment annually generates $6.7 million in sales and logs a 31 percent return on investment.

The payback far outstrips that of traditional dinner houses. A McDonald's, for instance, typically brings in total annual sales of $1 million to $1.5 million per year, analysts say.

Start-up challenges

Yet for many eat-ertainment entrepreneurs, the road to riches has been no easy street. Before the first successes, investors balked at putting down $4 million or more to build a single site.

When Steve Schussler, the creator of Rainforest Cafe, described his idea, friends and potential investors thought he had lingered too long with his pet macaws.

"Everyone told me the concept I envisioned was crazy," he says.

Mr. Schussler turned his Minneapolis home into a prototype restaurant, outfitting it with a jungle ambience from tortoise pools to treetops. Over several months he invited in skeptical investors and refined his wild verdure until a well-endowed backer also succumbed to the parrot calls and wildflowers scents.

Today, Rainforest Cafe Inc. registers some of the most enviable returns among restaurant chains. The flagship Bloomington, Minn., establishment annually brings in $12 million; its sister site in Schaumburg, Ill., about $14 million. The company plans to open five new sites this year.

With "A Wild Place to Shop and Eat" as its slogan, Rainforest Cafe takes in some 30 percent of its revenue from logo T-shirts, key chains, caps, sweatshirts, mugs, and other merchandise. Its entrees include Rumble in the Jungle (turkey tossed with Caesar salad), Rasta Pasta (with garlic cream sauce), and Eyes of the Ocelot (meatloaf topped with sauteed mushrooms).

Calling itself "an environmentally conscious family adventure," the company capitalizes on green sensibilities. It snubs beef from "rain forest countries," fish caught in nets instead of with hooks, and produce inorganically grown. It hands over coins tossed into an entranceway wishing pond to three conservation groups. And it gives leftover food to local hog farmers.

The environmental angle ensures broad appeal and longevity for Rainforest Cafe, Schussler says. Still, he acknowledges that the company commits a few environmental sins.

For one, Rainforest uses a huge amount of electricity for its lights, stereo speakers, waterfalls, ersatz thunderstorms, and filters for more than 10,000 gallons of saltwater aquariums. More conspicuously, the restaurant's herd of fake elephant heads inadvertently resembles the lineup on a game hunter's trophy room wall.

"Make no mistake about it, we are a for-profit company and we're certainly not environmentally pure. I don't pretend to be," says Schussler.

"The place is fun and the food is very good," says Trankina, strolling through the Rainforest shop after a Canopy Cobb Salad. "But it would be nice to know they give some of their receipts to environmental causes."

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