‘Eatertainment’ cafés capture global share

Glamorously themed restaurants are opening all over the world and their popularity means the trend is likely to continue.

The chances of meeting Arnold Schwarzenegger at Planet Hollywood are probably about as remote as catching BSE from one of its burgers, but the chain’s founder Robert Earl believes the stars-with-your-fries concept is strong enough to launch a new chain, this time with a music theme (MW June 19).

He’s unlikely to have any difficulty persuading stars of the music business to follow in the lucrative footsteps of Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone and Bruce Willis – the beefcakes who backed Planet Hollywood and made themselves substantially richer in the process. Even a small stake in a business which turns over nearly $400m (240m) a year is a fortune.

For the decreasing number of people who have never visited a themed restaurant – and market researcher Mintel says over two-thirds of adults under 25 have eaten at one – it’s worth explaining that a themed restaurant usually contains memorabilia associated with its particular theme. Examples include the handcuffs used by Kim Basinger in 91/2 weeks and Dorothy’s dress from The Wizard of Oz, along with a predictable and limited menu, often with meals named after its celebrity backers. This is generally about the limit of the celebrity involvement, other than a requirement to turn up when a new restaurant is opened.

The concept has been called “eatertainment”, which means that the food on offer is not as important as the entertainment or surroundings.

Earl himself is quite clear about which business he’s in: “I’m not a restaurateur,” he says, “I’m in the trademark business. I take a name, a logo, and develop it into a consumer brand.”

To prove the point he has already moved outside the restaurant business to launch two Planet Hollywood themed casinos – in Las Vegas and Atlantic City – in a joint venture with ITT Corp. ITT will do most of the work, including building, management and operation of the ventures, while Planet Hollywood will oversee customer attractions and amenities. For that, Planet Hollywood will reportedly receive 20 per cent of the project’s revenues.

For the music cafés Earl has already taken out a lease for his latest venture in one of London’s prime sites, the Swiss Centre just off Leicester Square, and he has another at Times Square in New York.

The move puts him in direct competition with the Hard Rock Café, the company he was instrumental in developing but which is now owned by the Rank Group. And it brings yet another themed café to the market: along with Hard Rock Café, the first of them all, there is Planet Hollywood and Earl’s other outlets in the US called the All Star Cafés, which have a sports star theme and are due to open in London early next year. He has also signed a deal with Marvel Entertainment Group to open comic book-themed outlets.

Then there is the Fashion Café chain, fronted by supermodels Claudia Schiffer, Naomi Campbell and Elle Macpherson and set up by Tomasso Buti, an Italian entrepreneur based in New York. And this week London sees the launch of the Rainforest Café, from Minneapolis-based entrepreneur Martin O’Dowd, who has already opened six units in the US and plans to add nine more worldwide within the year. Rainforest Café comes complete with talking trees, live parrots and fake tropical thunderstorms. Finally, there is even a chain of restaurants planned in the US by Elvis Presley Enterprises, which holds the rights to the late rock star’s estate, which will be based on his life and music.

Indeed, there are so many themed restaurants, they could account for nearly one in ten restaurant meals in a couple of years, according to Mintel, which says Britons will spend over 250m a year on this “leisure experience” by the year 2001.

Yet some analysts warn that themed restaurants are seeing a slowdown in sales and, in an otherwise optimistic report, Mintel notes that as consumers become used to the restaurants they will have to offer more in the way of value for money, service and atmosphere to maintain sales growth.

In the more mature markets like London and New York, consumers can find themselves choosing from up to a dozen themed restaurants within a small area. They are likely to become increasingly demanding. Since an element of the experience also relies on genuine memorabilia – each Planet Hollywood contains about 200 film props – this too could eventually prove to be in short supply as the chains expand.

But Planet Hollywood, for instance, has outlets in 50 cities worldwide and plans to open several more in the next few months. Hard Rock Caf̩ has about 70 outlets in 20 countries. While mature markets will face the problem of satisfying increasingly jaded consumers, this is less likely to be true of the other, less developed, markets around the world. For instance, the reaction to the opening of Planet Hollywood in Moscow shows the concept is still thriving Р10,000 people turned up on the first night to see the star backers arrive. Some even died to be there: there were two fatalities when a couple of rubber-neckers slipped off a roof.

The beauty of Planet Hollywood, Hard Rock Café, the All Stars Café and the Fashion Café is they ride on the back of the universal appeal of films, film stars, sports and fashion. An appeal which is renewed each time a new film comes out or a football match is played or a designer makes it big. It is likely to be a very long time indeed before the world’s appetite for glamour, even if second-hand, is sated.

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