Kiss rockers Gene Simmons, Paul Stanley to open rock ‘n’ roll-themed restaurants in Chicagoland

Who likes to breathe fire, wear makeup and platform shoes, and open restaurants in the Chicago area?

These guys, of course: Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley, also known as Demon and Starchild.

Simmons and Stanley, bassist and guitarist, respectively, for 1970s rock band Kiss, plan on bringing their Rock & Brews casual dining chain to Chicagoland in a big way by opening 10 to 15 locations, as well as a corporate office, over the next five to seven years. The first Chicago area restaurant is scheduled to open next year, though the exact location is still being negotiated, the company said.

Such a large expansion in the Chicago market for a chain with no existing presence here is a bold gambit considering the hypercompetitive restaurant industry and recent declines in casual dining. But then again, Simmons is known for spitting blood onstage while shredding bass solos.

Suffice to say, the 67-year-old rock star isn’t scared.

“Either Chicago is America or it’s not. Everywhere we’ve gone, it works beyond expectation. The only thing you could say is, it’s not going to work here because we’re in Zimbabwe,” Simmons said over a plate of poached eggs and English muffin on the 12th floor of the Ritz-Carlton.

Sure, but 10 to 15 of them?

“Easy,” Simmons said. “Look, we’re not McDonald’s, we’re in a higher end, but when it works, boy, it works. When a brand gets it right for their audience, it can work almost anywhere.”

Since launching in 2012, Rock & Brews has grown to 20 locations, 18 of which are franchise-owned. The planned Chicago restaurants would all be corporate-owned — a testament to how much the company believes the brand will succeed here, said Mike “Sully” Sullivan, Rock & Brews president and CEO who’s also a Chicago native.

“Chicago is a big city. You can’t just dip your toe in the water. You have to dive in. And you have to open many locations to build a solid brand,” Sullivan said.

Rock & Brews is pretty much what it sounds like: a rock-themed casual dining restaurant with loads of locally brewed craft beer on tap. The restaurants average about 6,000 square feet, typically with an additional 2,000 square feet of patio space, Sullivan said. Each location has 30 to 40 televisions, about half of which are dialed into sports while the rest play rock videos.

Large garage doors open to give an open-air feel meant to evoke the feeling of being at a concert. Images of rock legends adorn the walls. Pets are welcome.

“It’s not like a museum where you have people’s cloaks or Michael Jackson’s socks on the wall. We’re more of a true tribute to rock ‘n’ roll,” Sullivan said.

So far, the top two locations in terms of sales are located at Los Angeles International Airport. Sullivan, who declined to provide revenue and figures for Rock & Brews, which is a privately held company, said he’d also like to open restaurants at Midway and O’Hare airports in Chicago.

As for the food, it’s not so different from what you might find at other casual dining restaurants — burgers, wings and salads — but Simmons and Stanley swear by the quality. And not unlike the idea behind Kiss, the Rock & Brews experience is meant to be accessible and worth the money, Stanley said.

“I think the challenge for us up to this point is making sure we don’t go full-speed into a wall,” said Stanley, 65, who, like Simmons, will be in town Friday for a Kiss concert at the Chicago Open Air Concert in Bridgeview.

The company’s plan is to get to 100 locations in the next five years, with about 30 of them corporate-owned and 70 of them franchises.

“It is a very bold move,” said Bonnie Riggs, a restaurant analyst with research firm NPD, on Rock & Brews’ Chicago plan. “The industry is not doing well. The thing we’ve been talking about is we have more supply than demand.”

Customer traffic at casual dining restaurants, in particular, has declined for four consecutive quarters, Riggs said. The overall number of units in Chicago has shrunk, too, because there are just too many restaurants for them all to succeed, she said.

Rock & Brews might appeal to millennial and Generation Z consumers known for seeking out new experiences, Riggs said. But the trick will be getting customers to come back for more, again and again.

“Ten to fifteen? I just can’t see the market supporting that,” Riggs said.

A businessman at heart who, alongside Stanley, has built and curated one of rock music’s most successful brands, Simmons exuded no such concerns. They’re betting that the philosophy that built one business will help fuel another.

“Once you get in, you’re in a party,” Simmons said. “It feels like it’s your party.”

Twitter @GregTrotterTrib

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