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Happy as Clams

Surfside Eatery Gladstone's Finds New Profit in Mixing Fun and Food

September 28, 1996|GEORGE WHITE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Alan Redhead playfully challenged some customers recently to guess the volume of peanuts, crab and clam chowder consumed at Gladstone's, his popular Pacific Palisades restaurant.

For the record, the answers are: 30,000 peanuts, 200 pounds of crab and 1,000 bowls of clam chowder per day.

Such tallies are one reason Gladstone's is the top-grossing restaurant in the state.

Just three years ago, Gladstone's was suffering declining sales. The famed surfside restaurant has mounted a comeback by catering to the consumer craving for fun as well as food.

Gladstone's has reversed its fortunes despite the weak public appetite for restaurant fare. Since 1994, the 650-seat restaurant's sales have outpaced the average for restaurant sales statewide. Statewide restaurant sales have been relatively flat in recent years.

Among the other chains doing particularly well are the Hard Rock Cafe and the rapidly expanding Planet Hollywood, all "destination" restaurants like Gladstone's that stress fun and atmosphere.

The trend has been dubbed "eatertainment" because these restaurants serve up visual attractions too.

Planet Hollywood, whose investors include Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Demi Moore and Sylvester Stallone, displays costumes worn by movie giants. At the Official All Star Cafe, a new sports-themed restaurant in New York that Planet Hollywood International will expand to Los Angeles, customers can touch the basketball shoe of Shaquille O'Neal. And Hard Rock Cafe fans can gaze at the guitars of rock legends.

As do its themed competitors, Gladstone's offers souvenirs and trademarked clothing. At Gladstone's, however, celebrities are frequently the customers--not the investors.

A new photo gallery of celebrities covers the walls at one end of Gladstone's. There are shots of O'Neal, Ted Danson, Heather Locklear, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Stevie Wonder, Anthony Hopkins and South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

Heads turned at the restaurant when Wonder walked in one recent weeknight.

Celebrity diners help draw out-of-towners. About 40% of the customers live outside Los Angeles County, and many are from the East Coast or other countries.

Restaurant analysts credit Redhead for reversing declining sales at Gladstone's. Since mid-1992, he has been chief executive of California Beach Restaurants Inc., which operates Beverly Hills-based RJ's and Gladstone's. (The seaside Gladstone's is not affiliated with its namesake at Universal CityWalk, an independent operation licensed to use the Gladstone's name.)

Redhead's task has been to find new ways of promoting Gladstone's image as a fun-loving destination restaurant. For example, Gladstone's will declare itself a "no tie zone" when its October "Lobsterfest" begins. The restaurant expects to serve about 15,000 lobsters next month.

As a result of such promotions, 1996 sales are up about $1 million compared with the same period a year ago.

In addition to more aggressive marketing, Redhead has improved food quality. A focus on food is unusual at destination restaurants, whose patrons are more interested in atmosphere or scenery, said Richard Martin, an editor at Nation's Restaurant News, a New York-based trade publication.

Gladstone's "is not among our top dining restaurants, but it's good-quality food," Martin said.

"They have the right mix of food and service because people don't mind the large crowds at the restaurant," said Stan Kyker, executive vice president of the California Restaurant Assn.

Service is one of the reasons Richard and Bunny Seiden make the drive to Gladstone's from their home in the San Fernando Valley three times a month.

"It's a very friendly place," Richard said. "The employees make you feel special."

Gladstone's, at its current location since 1981, has retained many of its customers by paying special attention to regulars and customers celebrating birthdays and anniversaries.

Gladstone's employees sometimes tease Dean O'Brien, a Studio City film producer, because he is not a big seafood fan. "When we come in, a waiter will say: 'We know. You want a hamburger, right?' " said his wife, Donna.

And then there's Spike, the 18-pound mascot lobster who has helped put Gladstone's in the limelight.

The restaurant planned to serve Spike when it bought him from a lobster supplier two years ago. Then actress Mary Tyler Moore offered the restaurant $1,000 to keep him alive. Talk show host Rush Limbaugh countered by offering the restaurant $2,000 if it went ahead and cooked Spike.

Gladstone's declined both offers.

The single biggest day of the year for Gladstone's--as with many restaurants--is Mother's Day. This year it attracted 4,000 customers that day, Redhead said.

Recalling that turnout prompted the restaurateur to recite some additional statistics.

"If you stacked all the chocolate cake we serve each year, it would be a mile high," he said. "Each day we serve 400 pounds of fresh fish and 140 pounds of lobster. We use 132 miles of aluminum foil per year. . . ."

It's a fish story. But the numbers are not exaggerated, Redhead insists.

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Back in the Swim

Gladstone's revenue started to pick up again in 1994 after suffering declines in 1992 and '93. Sales, in millions of dollars:

1995: $12.9

* Source: California Beach Restaurants Inc., operator of Gladstone's.

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