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Rainforest Cafe Joins Menagerie of Area Eateries

June 07, 1997|GREG JOHNSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Storefronts at South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa might have reputations that stretch around the world, but the button-down shopping mall rarely allows a tenant's actual business to spill out into the common areas.

The upscale shopping center is making an exception for Minnesota-based Rainforest Cafe, which will open its first Southern California restaurant at the mall Monday.

Experts say there's a good reason for letting the $6.5-million eatery, with its entertaining features, spill out into the mall. South Coast Plaza operators are betting that the restaurant will lure free-spending families that also will drop a few bucks at nearby retail shops.

The idea that eating can be fun isn't new--not in an industry that's employed roller-skating carhops and singing waitresses. It will take more than glitter to impress Californians who've been hanging at Hard Rock Cafe and Planet Hollywood.

But a new generation of establishments--using schemes honed by the likes of David Copperfield, Dick Clark, Beach Boy Mike Love and the NASCAR racing organization--is placing a heavy and pricey emphasis on entertainment.

Instead of admiring Eric Clapton's guitar on the wall of a Hard Rock Cafe, restaurant operators say, diners now want to be immersed in an interactive dining experience.

For example, NASCAR is revving up electronic and multimedia games to surround diners with the sights and sounds of a stock car race.

Patrons who wander into the Rainforest Cafe are greeted by live parrots, massive saltwater aquariums and a menagerie of robotic animals. Throughout the day, carefully orchestrated thunderstorms wash through the restaurant, creating a gentle mist that hangs beneath the restaurant's ersatz Spanish moss.

Operating on the "bigger-is-better" theory, the Rainforest Cafe's retail counter has blossomed into a full-fledged store.

Diners hoping to put knife and fork into a $12.95 Siam Stir Fry chicken dish must first pass through a 2,200-square-foot gift shop crammed with 3,000 different items--most bearing the chain's copyrighted logos.

Indeed, retailing can be as important as a good wine selection for upscale restaurants. T-shirts, toys and videos now generate 25% of the six-unit Rainforest Cafe's $22 million in annual revenue. And Rainforest Cafe founder Steven Schussler expects the percentage to continue to climb.

"We think merchandising will be even more important as our name recognition spreads," said Schussler, the chain's senior vice president.

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Most of the new "eatertainment" restaurants are clustered in New York, Orlando, Fla., and Las Vegas--major tourist destinations.

Southern California's wealth of tourists needs places to eat and drink, but the region's urban sprawl makes it difficult for developers to pinpoint profitable locations. There's also the problem of competing with the Golden State's myriad tourist attractions for visitors' time and money.

But developers are betting that the new restaurants will fit into entertainment centers that are being built around Southern California.

For example, Irvine Co. is expected to incorporate themed restaurants when construction begins later this year on the second phase of the Irvine Entertainment Center. Mills Corp., a Washington, D.C.-based developer, will apparently lease space to entertainment-oriented restaurants at City Mills, a new development being built in Orange.

Rainforest Cafe plans to open a restaurant in Disneyland as part of the Anaheim attraction's major expansion.

Rainforest's Schussler, whose publicly traded company operates in several suburban locations, argues that if the concept is broad enough and well-executed, "you don't always need--or want--to be downtown."

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At South Coast Plaza, Rainforest Cafe's entertaining motif spills out into walkways leading to a parking garage. And rather than making do with a simple frontdoor, the restaurant opens to the mall's common area across its entire front.

There is food on the menu, by the way.

Operators maintain that good-tasting fare is the core of their business, but industry analysts say consumers don't really expect to find four-star dining in the middle of a three-ring circus.

"We've done surveys, and only 10% of customers at eatertainment places say that great-tasting food is the key driver," said Randall Hiatt, an Irvine-based restaurant industry consultant. "And that leads some people to claim that these are expensive delivery devices for burgers."

But given the wealth of ethnic and specialty restaurants in Southern California, restaurateurs say the quality of food could become more important, particularly in places where repeat traffic is needed to keep cash registers ringing.

"After the novelty wears off, the question is, 'How good is the food and service?' " Sykes said. "And that's been a bit of a problem for some of the concepts that have lost out as entertainment-oriented dining proliferates."

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