The week before The Squared Circle opened in mid-March, owner and pro wrestler Lisa Marie Varon — better known as Victoria during her WWE days and Tara currently with TNA wrestling — sat in a corner booth of her Lincoln Park restaurant, conducting one of many interviews that month without having served a single gourmet burger or non-traditional pizza.
The media interest had little to do with the food itself, at least not initially. The story was the owner, who would soon be splitting her time between body-slamming opponents on Spike TV’s “Impact Wrestling” and greeting customers at her North Ashland Avenue restaurant.
Varon knows the game. She was well aware that’s why media outlets were speaking to her in the first place, and why wrestling fans would give the place a chance — and she was OK with that. The restaurant, after all, is named The Squared Circle, a wrestling term used to describe the four-sided ring. Its wooden plank walls, still bare at that point in March, would eventually be decorated with autographed photos of wrestlers and framed wrestling tights.
Besides, Varon, who previously owned a gyro stand in Lombard and a pizzeria in Louisville, Ken., acknowledged how hard it would have been to build this sort of buzz around another pizza joint in Chicago before it opened had it not been for her unusual backstory.
“Very hard,” said Varon as her husband and co-owner, Lee Varon, put together appliances in the kitchen. “Chicago is a restaurant town. There’s so much competition here. … I think the media finds (my story) unique. They think of wrestlers as knuckleheads: no brain and all brawn. They’re shocked a wrestler can open a business.”
The Squared Circle is just the latest in the long list of Chicago restaurants with celebrity owners and investors. It joins RPM Italian and the upcoming RPM Steak in River North, both co-owned by “The Apprentice” winner Bill Rancic and his wife, and “E! News” host Giuliana; Toby Keith's I Love This Bar & Grill in Rosemont, named after the country singer and his 2003 hit song, “I Love This Bar”; Belly Q in West Town, which calls Bulls legend Michael Jordan an investor; the short-lived Alain's in the South Loop, which quietly counted the Bears' Israel Idonije as an investor; Giordano's, the Chicago-based pizza chain founded in 1974, which last year added the Bulls' Derrick Rose as an investor; and Big Hurt Brew House, named after White Sox legend Frank Thomas (aka “The Big Hurt”), which is scheduled to open in Berwyn early next year.
These types of restaurants have had a steady presence on the Chicago-area dining scene the past few decades, not counting the celebrity chef trend that has exploded in recent years, and generally rely on their star power to help get customers in the door a first time. Most lasted fewer than five years, as is often the case with restaurants. But the ones that thrive have helped keep the trend alive and inspire others.
Taking the plunge
What makes these celebrities want to get involved in the restaurant industry? The reasons vary. Some are looking for a way to invest part of that multimillion-dollar contract they just signed, some crave the glamour and perks of having a restaurant to call their own — or maybe even a table (Jordan and his family had their own private dining room on the second floor of the now-closed Michael Jordan’s The Restaurant in River North). These sorts of establishments are often a shrine to the celebrity, from the decor to the menu, and help feed their ego. And it has been that way a long time.
“Ego is a biggie,” former Bear Gary Fencik told the Tribune in 1993, five years after selling his share in The Hunt Club, formerly on North Clybourn Avenue. Fencik was one of at least eight members of the Super Bowl champion 1985 Bears who opened or invested in restaurants. “It was a great way to meet people — and all these people are partying at my place. I got off on that. I even met my wife, Sandy, at The Hunt Club. But you can't ride on ego forever.”
Bill Rancic — who worked security in high school at the now-closed Mike T’s in Orland Park, a nightclub for teenagers owned by former Bears backup Mike Tomczak — said he was inspired to open RPM Italian by his mother-in-law’s cooking. Her food was a big hit with friends and seemed like it could translate well into the restaurant business.
“We thought ‘Wouldn’t it be fun to take her recipes and open up a restaurant?’” said Rancic, who originally envisioned a smaller restaurant, possibly on Southport Avenue, than the 8,000-square-foot space he and Giuliana settled on. “Obviously, it was a risk financially and from a reputation standpoint. But we really negated the risk by choosing the right partners.”
The Rancics’ partners are R.J., Jerrod and Molly Melman — the siblings behind Hub 51, Paris Club and Bub City in River North — and chef Doug Psaltis. In addition to the Melmans’ experience, the restaurant benefits from the exposure it receives on the Style Network reality show “Giuliana & Bill.” The cameras were rolling during the months leading up to RPM Italian’s opening and have continued to document the couple’s dealings with the restaurant.
“As we told our chef, we may be able to get people through the door once, but it’s up to Doug to get them to come back three, four or 20 times,” Bill Rancic said.
The majority of the 15 or so current and former athletes who invested in The Fifty/50, on the other hand, do little to no promotion for the Ukrainian Village sports bar and restaurant. That’s because so few of them have been revealed publicly. In fact, they were never originally part of the plan when managing partners Scott Weiner and Greg Mohr were kicking around the idea of opening their own place in 2007. It wasn’t until former Bear John Gilmore — who, like many athletes, befriended Weiner and Mohr while they were working at jock favorite Joe’s Stone Crab — learned of their plans and wanted in that they began considering the idea.
Eventually, they had professional football, basketball, baseball and hockey players on board, not to mention Mohr’s brother-in-law’s good friends, Tom and Todd Ricketts, who went on to purchase the Cubs in 2009. (Mohr said some athletes had to back out due to a clause in their contracts that prevented them from appearing on a liquor license.) The New York Yankees’ Curtis Granderson has served as the face of The Fifty/50’s investors promotion-wise, most of whom also later invested in Mohr’s and Weiner’s other projects: West Town Bakery, the neighboring Roots Handmade Pizza and its upstairs restaurant, Homestead in Ukrainian Village.
“It was less about us asking and more about them inquiring,” Mohr said of the Fifty/50’s investors. “It’s a lot easier for sports guys to be interested in sports bars. It’s a little more attractive to them than investing in a mutual fund.”
Celebrity match game
For every one celebrity who wants to join the industry, there must be hundreds of restaurateurs and wannabe entrepreneurs hoping to work with a star on a restaurant concept. And why wouldn’t they? As with The Squared Circle, the partnership creates instant media attention and curiosity, among other benefits.
“The restaurant industry is very crowded and very competitive,” said Ron Paul, a restaurant industry consultant and president of the research firm Technomic. “It’s all about how you distinguish yourself and what’s different about you. Attaching a celeb is a way to gain publicity and credibility. That’s where being a winner is important. ‘This guy is a winner. Why would he put his name on it if it’s not top-notch?’”