Pyrotechnics, confetti and the stars igniting Rock & Brews
KISS front men Paul Stanley, left, and Gene Simmons are helping negotiate deals for Rock & Brews inside casinos.
Photos courtesy of Rock & Brews
In a couple of hours, Paul Stanley will have a black star circling his right eye and a furry tail attached to his skintight black pants, and Gene Simmons’ silver tongue will be stained blood red. But first they are playing an acoustic set for the superfans, sans their signature white face paint and 30-pound platform boots. Although the guitars are plugged into amps, they really don’t need to be. There’s enough electricity in the air to power KISS’s private concert and photo opp with a select group of fans willing to pay more than a thousand dollars each for access to the rock stars before they light up the stage with pyrotechnics, a confetti shower and fire eating— and, oh yeah, loud, pulsating music.
We were at the WinStar World Casino in Thackerville, Oklahoma, in late February where KISS was performing to a sold-out crowd. Located in the largest casino in the world, the 3,500-seat theater was way too small to accommodate the legendary band, but the Chickasaw Nation is adept at attracting big names to its small stage.
Jerry Seinfeld, Maroon 5 and Tony Bennett have also performed there. And yes, management is planning to build a new amphitheater with more than 6,000 seats, thanks to the profits from its 7,600 slot machines and other games.
It’s a bit of a stretch to reconcile the sophisticated Stanley, dressed in an untucked shirt and jeans, and the subdued Simmons with his bushy black hair hidden under a black baseball cap pulled low over his eyes with their alter egos on stage, the Starchild and the Demon, respectively. And even more so as the front men for a successful franchised restaurant chain, Rock & Brews.
In the early days of franchising, stars loaned their names to franchised restaurants and then sat back and collected whatever fees were due them. Anyone remember Kenny Rogers Roasters or Minnie Pearl’s Fried Chicken?
Rock & Brews restaurants each has its own personality, but the common thread is beer, good food and rock ‘n’ roll on a really great sound system.
That’s not the model the Rock & Brews crew is following. Simmons and Stanley aren’t silent partners, plus they may be the best rock marketers of all time. All one has to do is look online and you’ll find the KISS name and band’s pictures on everything from a Platinum Visa card to condoms to caskets to Hello Kitty merchandise. Not surprisingly, Rock & Brews has a merchandise counter for its brand as well.
“I want to contribute rather than just lend my name,” Stanley tells me as we sit at a table in the green room. And to his credit he knows that the whipped cream on their desserts will never come from an aerosol can. “I don’t want to serve swill, just to sell T-shirts,” he says.
I don’t know a lot of rock stars personally, but I’m confident when I say Simmons and Stanley, especially now that they’re older, aren’t typical of the genre. Simmons speaks five languages, was a theology major and has parlayed his KISS fame into multiple reality shows, as well as other endeavors, and is a licensing genius. KISS has 2,900-and-counting licenses for branded merchandise.
While he likes to clown around off stage, Simmons lets Stanley do all the talking during the acoustical set. I’d be remiss if I failed to mention that the reason Simmons doesn’t talk much on stage either is that his tongue is tied up doing other gyrations.
In addition to being a musician, Stanley has sold $3 million worth of his own artwork, is an accomplished chef and takes his role as a father of four, from kindergarten to college grad, seriously. He started painting as a way to relieve the stress from touring, and over time, people noticed his work hanging in his home and someone offered him a show. He claims he’s more of a cook than a chef. “I say to my chef friends, ‘I cook the way you play guitar,’” he says.
New CEO Mike Sullivan
Simmons and Stanley are the only two original band members left. Although very different in temperament and style, they have known each other 49 years, and have given each other the opportunity to grow both separately and together. They’re even neighbors in Beverly Hills. “I can see his ego from my house,” Stanley jokes. Would he consider their partnership akin to a marriage? “Yeah,” he concedes, before adding, “but I don’t have to see him naked.”
“The key to a great partnership,” he adds, “is knowing your limitations and your additions.”
Five years ago I visited the first Rock & Brews in El Segundo, California, where I hung out with Simmons and met the team that came up with the idea for a rock-centric brewpub with really good food. The restaurant was to open that night, but work crews still were finishing up last-minute paint touch-ups and tree planting, while Simmons directed the photo shoot of himself with his two partners, concert promoter Dave Furano and restaurateur/hotelier Michael Zislis. Stanley hadn’t yet officially joined the founding fathers, and Furano’s business partner and brother, Dell, was not officially onboard.
As the story goes, Zislis, a huge classic rock fan, was back stage at a KISS concert with the Furanos, and they were toasting how well beer and rock ‘n’ roll went together. “They were talking to me about doing a rock-themed restaurant, and I was cooling it,” Zislis, who owns fine-dining restaurants, says. The three of them went to check on the merchandise tents, and Zislis noticed the beer line was three times as long as the T-shirt lines. That’s when he began to see the wisdom of putting his two passions together with his notable cooking skill.
Zislis was charged with the food and beer. He was more than up to the challenge. At age 13 he brewed his first beer for a science experiment at school. Now a master brewer and chef, he took his best sellers from his restaurants and tweaked them to accompany beer. The Furanos used their connections and talents as concert promoters to acquire the posters, create rock murals and even choose the fonts for the logo and menu, Zislis says. Unlike other rock restaurants, there are no guitars or memorabilia cluttering up the walls.
Simmons and Stanley were brought in as the rock stars. “They’re involved at every level,” Zislis says. “The two are entrepreneurs, not just rock stars. They look at the brochures, go through the website, send us social media ideas.” They’re also “just downright charming.” Need to get some attention at city hall? Have Simmons or Stanley make the call and watch how fast the license is granted.
Gene Simmons, right, and Paul Stanley, (next in line) are the original KISS members.
I witnessed it myself when I was at the El Segundo location. A police officer was about to ticket the emergency plumber’s motorcycle, which was illegally parked, when a staff member ushered him inside the restaurant to meet Simmons. A couple of laughs, a few selfies with Simmons, his fingers in the infamous rock ‘n’ roll sign, and the ticket was forgotten.
Now imagine the irreverent Simmons talking to the press about the restaurant. Bored business reporters are always looking for a great quote from someone who knows the facts and figures, and can give color commentary. The thoughtful Stanley could also paint them an eloquent picture. “Gene and Paul make the hard calls for me,” Zislis says.
When Rock & Brews was up for a spot at the Detroit airport, KISS was on tour and neither one of the spokesmen were at the meeting. “We lost Detroit and it’s bothered Gene and Paul ever since,” Zislis says. “They keep asking when the bid is coming up again.” Detroit is rock ‘n’ roll, he points out, and therefore, by all rights should have a Rock & Brews welcoming travelers to the city.
Simmons doesn’t always play the rock card; sometimes he appeals to the bureaucrats’ patriotism. “Aren’t you an American? Don’t you want to put 100 people to work?’” Zislis says Simmons will demand of bureaucrats standing in the way of a speedy permit process. Patriotism isn’t something Simmons has trumped up for selling his business. The U.S. military liberated his mother from a concentration camp during World War II and he is forever grateful for that brave action.
Stanley also is a military supporter. His mother was born in Berlin and fled to Holland during the war. “I grew up around adults with numbers on their arms,” he says.
“The plight of the military is embarrassing,” he says. Just as the military is honored at KISS concerts, military personnel and first responders are the first guests in the restaurant for their soft openings.
Founders, brothers Dell and Dave Furano, with Michael Zislis (center).
Rock & Brews has 20 locations open and three in development. About two years ago, Zislis knew he needed someone to take the chain to the next stage of its tour. In addition to Rock & Brews, he also runs his own restaurants and hotels. He met Michael “Sully” Sullivan who had helped grow the Buffalo Wild Wings chain to four digits and wanted someone with that expertise to help run his company. It took two years, but Sullivan joined Rock & Brews in 2017 as president and CEO. (Mike Reynolds took on the CEO job in 2014, but left last year for another opportunity.)
Sullivan accompanied Zislis, PR maven Terry Wills and me to WinStar for the concert and tour of the new Rock & Brews located in the heart of chain-heavy The Colony, in Dallas. He’s pumped and primed to start expanding. He was already cracking open his Rolodex for operators and support staff when we met.
Current locations are primarily in the West, in airports and now casinos, and there are two restaurants in Mexico. Average unit volumes are $5.2 million and each one has its own style. The original location is a $10 million restaurant. Franchisees can add items to the menu—if they’re approved and if they’re delicious, Zislis clarified.
“We struggle on how to stay hip and not corporate,” Zislis says.
I didn’t think I could find someone else as high on the concept as Sullivan, but I did at the first stop we made. The franchisees behind The Colony location bought the rights to Texas, Arizona, Florida and New Mexico. Their goal is 100 $5-million-in-sales restaurants, one of the partners told me. The partners, all of whom have years of restaurant experience, showed off their restaurant with the pride of a new dad—a new dad who knows his baby is going to take care of him in his old age.
The restaurant concept I saw five years later in Texas was very different from the one I was first introduced to. While that one was California cool, this one was Texas with a capital “T.” It’s large and red, with both the U.S. flag and the Texas flag flying high. A memorial to fallen soldiers is roped off in the rocks to the right of the entryway. There are several seating areas, all serving a different clientele: an inside bar by the kitchen for traditionalists, an oversized dining room with long tables and booths for families, a patio-style dining room with its own bar and a mini-stage for local performers, and an outdoor patio with misters or heat lamps, space for dogs to lie under tables and couches for hipsters to converse and sip beer and mixed drinks under the open sky.
There are two mammoth rock ‘n’ roll collages by a local artist, reclaimed wood from Kentucky horse farms and a state-of-the-art audio system. “It’s important ‘cause we’re rock ‘n’ roll,” franchisee Scott Paul says about having an expensive sound system.
A tour of the back of the house revealed something I had never seen before in a restaurant—mounted TVs for the staff to watch as they prepped. At 10:45 every morning, the TVs come on to play the first 30 seconds of Jimmy Hendrix’s famous rendition of The Star Spangled Banner from Woodstock. And everyone stops what they’re doing to say the Pledge of Allegiance. Servers dress like they’re going to a concert (no goth, however) in jeans with nametags designed to look like backstage passes. I would give them all an A+ for friendliness, but I was surrounded by the owners of both the franchise and the franchisee, so I’d be grading on a curve.
The kitchen is large because everything is prepped fresh. Since a fine-dining chef is the menu planner, the food has a gourmet touch. We sampled burgers, fries, pizza, wings, stuffed jalapenos and a few healthy items. There are 52 craft beers on tap. On the night I visited, the cook was preparing 700 jalapeno poppers by hand.
“We do a lot of to-go,” the franchisee says. “You don’t get that in the beginning, you have to earn that.”
A modest size display case in the front had several Texas-themed Rock & Brews T-shirts. Some of the other locations will carry additional rock merchandise as well as their own.
As Sullivan points out, the founders are all “strong personalities, but genuine people.” Each, he said, is famous in his own industry. Franchisees don’t buy into this because they’re star struck, but there’s no getting around the strong pull of having the two front men from KISS cutting your grand-opening ribbon. As Stanley told me back in the green room, “If you address your own needs, you address those of others.”
Why do he and Simmons, who appear to have more money and fame than anyone could hope for, front for a restaurant brand? “‘Cause I’m alive,” Stanley says. “I feel sad for anyone who sees success as finite. You never know what kind of success is around the corner.”
But let’s not discount his other premise: “Anyone who wants to stand in front of a crowd for approval, has some self-confidence issues. And I raise my hand.”
Some musicians exist only on stage, he says. But when the Starchild and the Demon take off their make-up, peel off their leather and remove their 30-pound, five-inch platform boots, they put on their pants one leg at a time, and dine in a shrine to rock ‘n roll, just like the rest of us.
Nothing trumps a KISS concert. There’s pyrotechnics, confetti showers, loud music and fans who know the lyrics to every song and aren’t afraid to belt them out.