MINNEAPOLIS - Steven Schussler, the brash entrepreneur who founded Rainforest Café, has not had a winning restaurant concept in more than a decade.
But he hasn’t lost his ability to shock, entertain and, ultimately, to raise millions of dollars for his fairytale-like ideas.
This month, RED Development, a major developer of open-air shopping centers, agreed to build Schussler’s themed restaurant concepts in more than 30 locations across the country, in a deal valued at more than $100 million.
Designed to overstimulate the senses, the concepts include a Chinese restaurant with statues from China’s Qing dynasty; a Parisian jazz club with a giant airplane descending from the ceiling; a restaurant with Harley-Davidson motorcycles, and a hot dog stand with more than 3,000 types of mustard.
The deal with RED is the biggest in Schussler’s 28-year restaurant career — and one that could go a long way toward restoring his reputation as a business visionary after some well-publicized blunders. In 1991, a once-trendy nightclub he founded in down- town Minneapolis known as JukeBox Saturday Night went bankrupt. Then, nine years later, he angered shareholders of Rainforest Café when he sold the publicly traded restaurant at a low ebb in its stock.
Now, Schussler is on a roll again. A year ago, he made $7.6 million when he sold 80 percent of his dinosaur-themed restaurant, T-Rex, to Houstonbased Landry’s Restaurants. And ground has broken on two of Schussler’s restaurants — T-Rex and Asian-themed Yak & Yeti — at Walt Disney World in Orlando.
Schussler leads regular tours of his offbeat headquarters in Golden Valley, where he has converted a one-story warehouse into a playground for testing his restaurant concepts. Inside, visitors find screeching robot dinosaurs, jungle sounds, Harley-Davidsons, original artwork from 15th-century China and fake mists and snowfalls.
“Nowadays, there are so many shopping centers being built, you’ve got to stand out,” said Dan Lowe, managing partner with RED Development, which is based in Kansas City, Mo. “And Steve’s ideas really stand out.”
At times, the scene at Schussler’s laboratory in Golden Valley resembles a Martin Scorsese movie set. His concepts attract the sort of Donald Trump-like characters who favor the grandiose. Gaming entrepreneur Lyle Berman, an early investor in Rainforest, is a frequent visitor. Raphael Ghermezian, one of the four Ghermezian brothers who developed the Mall of America, will tour the facility next week.
Each tour costs about $5,000 and is carefully choreographed by Schussler, who often recruits magicians to perform and chauffeurs his visitors to and from the airport.
On a recent weekday, six executives with Olympia Gaming, which owns Casino Fandango in Carson City, Nev., stepped into a brightly lit room with a red carpet, gold chandeliers and 8-foot statues of knights from 19th-century China.
Schussler, a Joe Pesci lookalike wearing a designer suit over a purple T-shirt, doesn’t speak so much as yell.
“I’m telling ya, you could build a whole casino around this! You could do it!” he shouted in his thick New York accent.
“You know who would really appreciate this is our Asian customer that comes to Vegas,” said Gary Goett, chairman of Olympic Gaming. “They would love it!” Yeah, this is totally off the charts!” Schussler yelled.
Behind each door in the warehouse is a different world. One door leads to a room filled with mechanical dinosaurs. As Schussler talked, a brontosaur tail swiped across the room, knocking one of the casino executives in the shoulder.
Schussler led the group into a jazz club concept, where he explained the marketing benefits of having urinals shaped like saxophones. “Guys, you’ll never forget in a lifetime that you peed in a saxophone,” he said.
He talked louder and faster as he introduced the Hot Dog Hall of Fame. “We should open up one of these in every airport, every stadium, every university around the world!” he yelled.
Schussler’s style seemed perfectly suited to these casino executives, who laughed at his jokes and departed with big grins in a Cadillac Escalade.
“That Chinese concept could really work in Vegas,” Goett said.
But Schussler has wowed investors before with concepts that didn’t pan out as planned.
His JukeBox Saturday Night, with a ’57 Chevy sticking out of the front of the building and King Kong climbing up the side, went from lines of people waiting to get in to a bankruptcy court after the novelty faded.
After the demise of Juke-Box Saturday Night, Schussler retreated to his St. Louis Park, Minn., home, which he transformed into a prototype of his rainforest-themed restaurant. Schussler spent $400,000 turning every room into a rainforest scene, replete with jungle birds, waterfalls and a baby baboon named Charley.
Rainforest went public in 1995, just six months after opening its first restaurant at the Mall of America in Bloomington. Its stock debuted at $6 per share and within the first 10 weeks more than doubled. In the fall of 1996, it was trading at $34.
At the time, Schussler was riding the wave of so-called “eatertainment” restaurants and clubs, such as Hard Rock Cafe and Planet Hollywood popping up all over the country. But like many of these concepts, Rainforest expanded before proving diners would come again and again. Landry’s bought the chain in 2000 for $3.25 a share. After shrinking the chain, Landry’s is expanding it again.
Schussler, however, made about $7 million from the transaction — money he has poured into his headquarters. And he has no misgivings about the deal. “I’ll never forget who brought me to the dance. Never,” he said. “Rainforest Café gave me credibility.”