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Rockability

Rock star, concert promoter and celebrated restaurateur team up for Rock & Brews


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The three Rock & Brews partners, l to r, Michael Zislis, Gene Simmons and Dave Furano.

The stucco walls, primed a Pepto-Bismol pink, were slowly giving way to the topcoat, a robust red hue. Potted succulents lined the sidewalk, awaiting planting. A mature, fruitless olive tree, rescued from Disneyland for $2,000, dangled precariously from a crane lowering it into a prepared hole where the parking lot meets the building’s entrance. Flat-screen TVs were hoisted into high places, picnic tables arranged and window glass installed. The “marquee,” spelling out Rock & Brews, was lifted into place above the street-corner entrance.

The take-out counter and gift shop were back-burnered until the grand opening a few weeks later, and only a portion of the planned rock portraits and over-the-bar mural, dubbed the Great Wall of Rock, would greet that night’s diners.

To the novice eye, it was unfathomable to think the El Segundo, California, restaurant was on track for its “soft” opening just three hours—hours, not days—later. A soft opening, by the way, is when a restaurant throws open its doors and sees who comes in so staff has a prolonged dress rehearsal before opening night.

Freddie Kusin, Furano’s brother-in-law and a prospective franchisee for northern California, shows off the beer kegs of local brews.

Not to worry, Terry Wills, restaurateur Michael Zislis’ publicist told me. When Zislis, the operations partner in this endeavor, opened his boutique hotel, Shade, it still had scaffolding around the waterfall that would serve as the backdrop for a wedding—the day before the grand opening and the grand wedding. Much to the bride’s relief, it was completed long before the first notes of the wedding march played the next day. Zislis’ seven restaurants are fixtures in the Los Angeles area, and flawless execution is his calling card.

Rock & Brews is Zislis’ partner Dave Furano’s brainchild. A concert promoter with deep ties to the rock industry, Furano envisioned recreating the back-stage experience he has provided rock stars and their family, friends and fans on the road for decades. Why a restaurant? “I wanted to be in an environment to celebrate this,” he said, gesturing to the rock posters being hung. Furano’s career has spanned collecting the “gate” at the ice show at San Francisco’s Winterland (an ice rink that became a legendary concert venue) to crisis control when that same venue was closed after someone put LSD in the water supply at a Grateful Dead concert to handling licensing matters for some of the biggest names in the industry.

His dream concept got its legs when he teamed up with L.A. restaurateur Zislis.

Before this current restaurant sprung to life, Furano and Zislis ran an 18-month “test” of the concept to gauge interest and ease of replication.

From tear-down to opening, the team planned to take 60 days, but settled on 80. Zislis was still dealing with state and city permits as the finishing touches were being installed. As every restaurant owner knows: “We all bleed at the same time when the health inspector shows up,” he said. “Just when you’re out of money, they hit you with another fine.”

The final restaurant preparation was orchestrated as if it was a concert, Furano said. There was a deadline—opening night—and a long list of jobs to do by a long list of workers.

Workers do last-minute touches on the landscaping at the El Segundo restaurant.

City inspectors, several people repeated, said this was an “amazing feat to pull off,” given the short deadlines.

“Michael is a rock star,” Furano said.

It was all hands on deck for the opening of Zislis’ foray into franchising. He directed traffic, as well as performing some of the heavy lifting.

Furano also pitched in, and the third partner, Gene Simmons, front man for the legendary rock band KISS, strolled in around 10:30 a.m. for the photo shoot.

Furano’s comment about Zislis’ rock-star status is ironic, because that would make all three partners rock stars in their own fields.

“Here it is the holy trinity,” Simmons quipped, as the photographer snapped the cover photo for this story.

Simmons provides an international name, thanks to 39 years with the rock band known as much for the members’ painted faces and flamboyant dress as for their music. (They’ve recorded more than 37 albums, according to their website, almost one a year, and have sold  more than 100 million albums worldwide.) In addition, younger generations recognize him from his multiple reality TV shows, including one that’s a cartoon, and “Gene Simmons’ Family Jewels.” All that face time on TV is a bonus, because otherwise Simmons might have to walk around in full KISS regalia for people to make the connection.

Having Gene Simmons on the property not only creates buzz, but also saves the workers money. A police officer who was just about to ticket the plumber’s illegally parked motorcycle was ushered inside the courtyard to have his picture taken with Simmons. Surprisingly affable for someone known as “The Demon” in the rock band, Simmons  kidded around with the officer, and the ticket was forgotten.
Simmons has fun being himself, no doubt about it. He likes the attention, but there’s a method to his monkeying around. People walking by the restaurant swivel their heads to see if that really is Gene Simmons standing around a busy construction site. They’ll remember the restaurant when it opens.

The marquee being raised above the main entrance.

While making a point to me, he pretended to cover my ears so I wouldn’t hear the expletive he uttered. Instead of being offended, I made a mental note to watch reruns of his reality show on the Internet that evening in my hotel room.

If schools handed out a Ph.D. in licensing, Simmons would be the first candidate to earn one. KISS has around 2,900 licenses for products using the band’s image or name. Think anything can be franchised? Well, the same is true about KISS merchandise. To prove his point, Simmons pulls out his cell phone to show off his KISS case. There’s a KISS-themed mini-golf course in Vegas, a licensing agreement with Archie comics, KISS lottery tickets and thousands of items you didn’t know you needed until you see the KISS faces on it.

As the three owners mugged for the camera, Simmons directed how to hold the glass—just so—to show off the logo and how to roar on a count of three to look furiously successful. When the photographer from the L.A. Times moved the trio away from the stylized examples of the food offerings, Simmons insisted someone run across the street to the office to print a sticker he could add to his T-shirt to ensure the brand’s name was positioned prominently in the picture.

All three were good sports about the amount of time it took for three different photographers to snap their pictures in relatively the same position. They were even game to toss beer from their cups on a count of three, while the photographer snapped away.

Afterward Simmons, who doesn’t drink, groused as he sniffed his jacket, “It smells like beer...but in a good way,” he added, playing to the audience.

The photographer, who also was stained with beer from lying on the floor to shoot up at the trio, commented that he was on his way to give a talk about his career to middle schoolers after the shoot. “They’ll all want your job,” I cautioned him.

Other chains only dream of having someone like Simmons talking up their concept. He’s on radio shows talking about Rock & Brews, he’s on TV, he’s in newspaper articles. He even went down to city hall to see if he could help speed up the permit process.

Workers hang licensed art work above a servers’ station at Rock & Brews in El Segundo. All the art is PG rated to encourage families to settle in at the picnic tables for a leisurely afternoon of pizza, burgers and pitchers of beer.

Can I get an ‘amen’?

Rock & Brews isn’t the first rock-themed restaurant to climb the franchise charts, but the owners claim they can do it better. (OK, what franchisor being interviewed doesn’t make that claim?)

There will be no signed guitars or Michael Jackson’s framed glove hanging on the wall, just licensed artwork of the greats, from the Beatles to Elvis to KISS, of course. Simmons may be one of the partners, but he rejected the idea of naming it Gene Simmons’ Rock & Brews.

“Rock ‘n’ roll is a culture; it’s not just playing music,” Simmons said, preaching to the assembled choir. “Music is the sound track of your life.”

What we now call rock ‘n’ roll was started by slaves, he said. “The white man took over and electrified it,” thereby creating an “electric church.”

Rock & Brews, he summed up,“is our place of worship.” He paused, pointer finger to lips, and added, “It sounds like Christianity...no, it’s KISStianity.  (And) the business model is terrific. No taxes, multi-generational—kids and mom and dad all like it.”

He’s every writer’s dream: a businessman who doesn’t stick to the safe script that results in dull quotes. Now think about a variation on his tribute being told to countless newspaper reporters downtrodden by the sameness of their beats and you’ll see the value of having a rock star as your restaurant’s spokesman.

“You can be the needle in the haystack, or the people looking for the needle in the haystack,” he said, moving on without explaining what that means, to warn the workers not to drop the $2,000 tree they were lowering into a hole. “I paid for that tree. I know where you live,” he threatened, grinning.

Backstage passes

The newly constructed building—consisting of half patio seating, half high tables under a roof—is designed to resemble the backstage area of a rock concert. The outdoor venue works in Southern California, but even there outdoor heaters are a must (and rain did chase away guests on one of the days I visited).

Flat-screen TVs show vintage rock videos  and live-concert footage, and stage lights illuminate the area. The hostess station is a large trunk used to pack the band’s musical instruments before hitting the road.

The oversized, outdoor patio is populated with picnic tables. “Picnic tables are a mom’s best friend,” Furano claimed. “The dog’s under the table and the stroller’s parked at one end.” And the kids have the space to run around, while mom and dad split a pizza and pitcher of beer, he added.

Under the metal awning is a long bar with more than 50 beers on tap, poured at two different temperatures. Most of the section are craft beers, about one-third of which are brewed within 50 miles of El Segundo, according to Brandon Halvorson, the bar manager and a graduate of the cicerone certification program. A “cicerone” is similar to a sommelier, or wine steward, except his or her expertise is beer. Servers also will be required to take the cicerone server training, which includes a six-hour test, he said. Flights of beer will be offered in the afternoon when the bar is less busy, and servers will need to know how to talk to patrons about the beer experience.

The beers on tap will constantly rotate, but styles of beer—such as pilsners or lagers—will always have at least one representative. Currently, the best-selling beer (based on the original Rock & Brews’ sales) is Paulaner Hefeweizen, which outsells even Diet Coke, Halvorson said.

At home: KISS’ Gene Simmons puts his feet up on the desk in his home office that also doubles as a museum of KISS memorabilia. The rock band has around 2,900 licenses for a bonanza of promotional products, including the masks styled after the four performers, below.

And while beer connoisseurs can sometimes be as snobby as their wine counterparts, Halvorson claimed he doesn’t mind when customers ask for a Bud Lite.

“Who am I to tell them what they can like,” he said.

The one red and one white wine they offer also are on tap. “It stays fresher and cleaner in a keg,” Halvorson explained. “It’s part of the craft-beer movement. I see it being bigger than bottled wine when the stigma wears off.”

The menu also will not have the stigma many themed restaurants suffer from—mediocre food. Since Zislis’ background is in upscale food, Rock & Brews has been fashioned after “the great food of the gastropubs,” Zislis said.

It’s bar food—or in this case, what rock stars like to eat backstage—heavily slanted toward pizzas and hamburgers. But the hamburger buns are fresh-baked brioche and the sauces are complex. The wood-fired pizza ovens use red-oak pellets and ovens are Cvaps, which can cook, hold and inject moisture into food.

A Bavarian-style pretzel, served with spicy-sweet mustard, is actually flown in from Germany.

Rockin’ in the franchise world

The original two partners met when Furano, a fan of Zislis’ Rockin’ Fish restaurant, asked Zislis if he wanted Furano to put “a little rock  in your fish.” Zislis, who is a big fan of classic rock, was more than happy to have rock-themed artwork in his restaurant.

A concert promoter who toured with virtually all the great acts in rock ‘n’ roll, Furano and his brother, who runs Live Nation, have the rights to a whole host of stars’ images. “Almost all concert artists don’t run their merchandise” business, he said. “They put merchandise out for bid. My brother and I signed these artists before they were big.”

In the company’s office across the street from the restaurant, one entire wall is covered with oversized posters of everyone from Madonna to John Lennon to the Rolling Stones. It’s like stepping back in time. Rock star images even decorate wine bottles as labels, another promotion in which Furano was involved.

The two brought in Simmons to help design the authentic rock ‘n’ roll experience, and then turned to iFranchise, a consulting firm, to make it legal.

Originally, they planned to offer licenses for their brand, but Mark Siebert, CEO of Chicago-based iFranchise, flew to California to advise them their concept may be a winner, but it was also a franchise.

“Mark came out here and said, ‘We see hundreds of opportunities and we think you have a good one, maybe a great one, but you’re going to screw it up,’” Furano said.

Dave Hood, iFranchise’s president who  worked on the project, sees the concept’s strengths as strong business-minded people running it, plus a professional restaurant background in Zislis.

“Other ‘themed’ restaurants didn’t have a strong food component,” Hood said—this one does. The downside to the three strong partners, he added, was that none of them has franchise experience. But once it gets up and running as a franchise, they will hire that person, he said.

Simmons is an asset celebrities don’t always add, Hood pointed out. He knows licensing, promotions and he wants to do things the right way. In addition, he has an affinity for the military—a direction franchising is marching toward to find franchisees.

Menu items are being sourced so the current recipes don’t lose integrity when handed over to multiple franchisees in multiple locations.

Manuals, which are on iPads, were designed for visual learners. So rather than read how to make a cheeseburger, the franchisee watches a video of one being made.

One bit of advice Hood didn’t have a chance to offer was on international expansion. Rock & Brews already had penned an agreement with a group of investors in Japan to open a rooftop version of the restaurant there this summer.

In a unique deal, Furano said they teamed up  with Crews of California, a company that licenses concepts for the Los Angeles airport, to open a Rock & Brews Concert Bar in the Delta terminal of the international airport.

The concept was sold sight unseen to the airport commission, based on the fact that Los Angeles—as the capital of the U.S. music scene—should have a music concept to greet visitors.

“It wasn’t a tough sales job, because Dave (Furano) had done so much work on his concept,” said Deborah Crews, COO of the 18-year-old company. The airport management is excited about the concept, she said, adding it was the executives who decided they wanted this concept in a prominent location in terminal 5—the Delta terminal.

Crews of California already operates seven locations in the airport, including Lemonade, a concept described as part old-fashioned lemonade stand and part school cafeteria—only the lemonades here are flavored with basil and watermelon and the toasted-cheese sandwiches include quince.

“I walk right by sports bars” in an airport, Crews says. “That doesn’t appeal to me at all.”

But Rock & Brews does. While she declined to say which other airports are on their radar for more Rock & Brews, she did say her development team has alerted her that Dallas and Houston airports are putting out some of their locations for bid.

The LAX concert bar will have seating for 100 and a full menu. “They got the food better than right,” she said. “The food will blow people away.” Because of the limited storage space, the airport location will only have 15 beers on tap, but it will also sport a full bar.

Crews attended the El Segundo location’s grand opening in early April and was impressed with Simmons joining the team. “Gene is amazing,” she said. While she expected the other two partners to know the ins and outs of the menu, she was surprised Simmons knew as much about the food offerings as his partners. “They want the best and that’s what we want,” she said.

Returning to the scene

The day after the soft opening, I returned in the late afternoon to observe a few of the tables filled in the patio area—families had set up camp, just as Furano had predicted. I spotted a stroller, but not the family dog, although, in Southern California, an outdoor restaurant without the obligatory dog will be remedied in good time.

By the time my calamari arrived, crowds of young people had claimed spots at the long, high-top, communal tables in the bar area. The music was at a reasonable volume, allowing conversation, as well as eavesdropping (although I was the only one doing that).  Faithful customers of the original Rock & Brews, which had closed in order to reconstruct this new version, stopped by the bar excited to welcome back the staff. “We’ve missed you,” one woman called out, speaking about the bar, not the bartender.

Ironically, one of the touches designed for the gadget-loving generation was wasted on the casual beer drinker. When a young woman asked what kind of beer they had on tap, she was referred to a flat-screen television scrolling a list of beers. She rolled her eyes and sighed as she asked: “Don’t you just have it printed on a piece of paper?”

At the grand opening, the three owners presented a check for $25,000 to the Wounded Warrior Project. The oversized check with the three owners’ signature might be worth more than the value of the check.

Included in the grand opening were rock stars; Simmons’ wife, Shannon Tweed, a former Playboy model and star in her own right; media, as well as the general public fortunate enough to score a ticket. When asked about the event, a jubilant Furano emailed: “We have been full every day with 45-minute waits. Things are running relatively smoothly because Michael built a kitchen to handle 300 people at one time.”

Perhaps, this line from Simmons sums it up best: “My partners are on the inside. I’m the perennial sugar-coating on the outside of the picnic basket that attracts ants.”

No small contribution. These are “ants” a business desperately needs.

 

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