It’s this sort of thinking that interested Giordano’s in working with the Bulls’ Derrick Rose, the 2011 NBA Most Valuable Player and 2009 Rookie of the Year. Giordano’s filed for bankruptcy in 2011 before Victory Park Capital boughts its assets later that year. It was in need of positive media coverage and reached out to Rose through his agent and former Bulls player B.J. Armstrong and convinced Rose to invest in the company.
“One of the biggest benefits is that we have associated ourselves with a person who is so well-known, not only for his talents in the sports profession, but also for his high integrity,” said Yorgo Koutsogiorgas, a Lettuce Entertain You veteran who was named president and CEO of Giordano’s last year.
“We want to be a brand of high integrity. We’re a home-grown brand like Derrick. We started in Chicago. When a consumer is considering ordering pizza for tonight’s dinner, Derrick may bring a degree of reassurance since he brings so much integrity to the game of basketball and his own life: ‘Maybe (Giordano’s is) also a brand with integrity.’”
Rose’s image is featured on Giordano’s menus, pizza boxes, billboards and online videos. Koutsogiorgas said there was an understanding that Rose would get involved in the restaurant’s advertising when the two sides were discussing an agreement, but he is not contractually obligated to do so.
Harry Caray’s Restaurant Group also understands the importance of associating itself with a celeb with credibility. The group’s first restaurant, on West Kinzie Street was originally supposed to be called H.I. Cobb, named after Henry Ives Cobb, the architect who designed the building and also the building that later housed the now-closed Excalibur nightclub. That idea was scrapped in favor of Harry Caray’s, named after the now deceased legendary White Sox-turned-Cubs announcer.
“No one knew who H.I. Cobb was,” said Grant DePorter, CEO of Harry Caray’s Restaurant Group. “But everyone knew who Harry was: ‘Cub fan, Bud man.’ His personality worked well for the restaurants. His entire life, he was either at the ballpark or at a restaurant or bar. A guy like that was perfect. I don’t know anyone better to model a restaurant after than someone who loved being with people.”
DePorter said liquor commission laws prevented Caray from being an investor because he was a Budweiser spokesman. The group compensated Caray and later his family through royalty sharing and allowed his wife, Dutchie, to become an investor in the late 1990s.
“Harry was the biggest promoter of the restaurant,” DePorter said. “He was always talking about the restaurant during Cubs games. If Ryne Sandberg hit a home run, Harry would say, ‘Hey everyone watching at Harry Caray’s — a round of Budweisers are on me.’ Or he would say he was going to the restaurant after the game.”
Harry Caray’s, considered to be the model for celebrity-connected restaurants by many of the people interviewed for this article, has five restaurants in the city and suburbs, including Harry Caray’s Tavern at Navy Pier. DePorter, not surprisingly, had no problem securing investors for the latter location. Actors James Denton, once a waiter at the Kinzie location, and Jeremy Piven and the Blackhawks’ Patrick Kane and NFL Hall of Famer Richard Dent are among the more notable names involved.
“They trust us,” DePorter said of the group’s famous investors. “Celebs want their reputation preserved. You see a lot of these restaurants close, and (even though) the celebrity could be a silent or limited partner they’re the ones making the headlines — not the restaurateur who owes half the town money.”
When things turn sour
Customers at celebrity restaurants aren’t the only ones who get excited about the star involved with the establishment. Sometimes the people the celebs partner with on the project are just as excited. As much as The Fifty/50 owners try not to flaunt their famous investors, Mohr, a huge sports fan, admits there is a thrill in working with pro athletes and seeing them bring in their famous friends (Granderson has brought Yankees teammate Derek Jeter to Roots twice), but he never lets his inner fanboy get in the way of business.
The same, however, couldn’t be said for the co-owner of possibly the most unique celeb restaurant in Chicago history: Steven Seagal’s.
James Pomerantz, who in the late 1980s teamed up with racecar driver Mario Andretti on the short-lived, auto racing-themed Formula One Cafe in Glenview, had been involved in martial arts for years when he decided he wanted to make his passion the theme of a new restaurant. He initially reached out to Chuck Norris with his proposal, but after Norris did not respond, Pomerantz tried fellow martial arts star Steven Seagal. Three to four months later, Seagal’s people responded and said the “Above the Law” and “Hard to Kill” actor was intrigued.
They later met in his trailer on the set of “Out for Justice” and hashed out a deal — against Seagal’s adviser’s wishes — that would allow Pomerantz and his fellow investors to use Seagal’s name. As part of the agreement, Seagal was supposed to get paid when the restaurant made a profit. Steven Seagal’s opened in 1991 (in the River North neighborhood building that is now home to Baume & Brix and The Grid) and was decorated with photos and movie posters featuring Seagal and martial arts weapons.
“It was cheesy-cool — like ‘Roadhouse,’” said Pomerantz, who now co-owns the six-year-old Bat 17 deli and pub in Evanston. “It was, like, a classic, cheesy, good, crappy movie. It was fun. And the food was great, kind of California-American cuisine.”
Seagal attended the grand opening, as did Oprah Winfrey and Walter Payton, according to Pomerantz, but the action star would not be seen at the restaurant again; it closed two months later. Because Seagal never signed a contract, and was supposed to get paid from profits the restaurant never made, Pomerantz said Seagal never received a cent for the use of his name.
“I got wrapped up in the star part of it,” said Pomerantz. “I was 32 and going out to his ranch to meet him and not spending as much time putting the Xs and Os together. It was cool flying out to L.A. and having dinner with Seagal and my wife at restaurants and having everyone look at us. It was fun, but it took me away from what I should have been doing. It was underfinanced. The general rule is to have enough operating capital to last a year. Not everyone is Hub 51 and opens with a line out the door. This one is on my head.
“I also learned that if you’re going to have a restaurant with someone’s name on it and they’re not there on a consistent basis, that’s probably going to hurt you. You should get a local celebrity — not one who lives in California. That wasn’t the smartest plan in the world.”
Fire coach and ex-Fire player Frank Klopas can relate. The Mather High School alum admitted he should have visited The Pitch, the soccer-themed bar and restaurant he opened with friends in Lincoln Park in 2010, more often. The Pitch featured a Frank Klopas pizza, soccer memorabilia on the walls and “the beautiful game” playing on more than 30 flatscreen TVs. All that was missing was the soccer fans. The Pitch closed less than a year later.
“Nobody is going to care more than you,” said Klopas, who was the Fire’s technical director at the time and was often out of town for Fire games and out of the country for scouting. “You learn fast that you have to put a lot of time into it. I didn’t do that. You have to be there 24/7.”
(There are exceptions to the rule. You likely won’t find singer Jimmy Buffett at Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville in Navy Pier or legendary NFL coach Don Shula at Shula’s Steak House in the Sheraton Chicago Hotel & Towers or the Westin Chicago Northwest Hotel in Itasca, but they’re both also national restaurant chains that benefit from brand recognition and their tourist-heavy locations. Paul said tourists frequent celebrity restaurants often because they’re drawn to a name they recognize in an unfamiliar city.)
Klopas is in good company when it comes to closed celebrity restaurants. Chicago’s biggest stars have seen their restaurants come and go for various reasons, including talk show queen Oprah Winfrey (The Eccentric), rapper Kanye West (Fatburger in Orland Park and the Beverly neighborhood) and Chicago sports greats Jordan (Michael Jordan’s The Restaurant, One Sixtyblue), Walter Payton (America’s Brewpub in Aurora), Jim McMahon (Jim McMahon’s Restaurant in Lincoln Park, McMahon’s Steakhouse in Glenview) and Mike Ditka (Ditka’s on Ontario Street, Ditka Dogs in Naperville).
(Jordan bounced back locally with Belly Q and Michael Jordan’s Steak House in the Intercontinental Chicago hotel, and Ditka bounced back locally with Ditka’s in the Tremont Hotel and in Oakbrook Terrace.)
So what are the keys to succeeding as a celebrity restaurant?
The most common answer among expert restaurateurs was to put the emphasis on the food and service and not rely so much on the celeb’s star power. On the other hand, Pomerantz gave the Tribune a similar response in 1991 before Seagal’s opened, which tells you it’s much more complicated than that. It’s also important for both the celeb and their partners to understand the dedication and expertise required. And as Bill Rancic said of his partnership with the Melmans, celebs should probably leave the restaurant decisions to restaurant people.
According to DePorter, Caray had a harder time grasping this lesson.
“(Caray) let his views be known at every turn,” DePorter said. “A good example is, I think we were charging $20 for a steak and he wanted to charge $10. He wanted to be very fan-friendly on prime steaks. ‘But Harry, our cost is $15 on this steak.’ He says ‘Don’t worry about that, Grant. You’ll make it up in volume.’ He didn’t understand the economics. That’s why it would be dangerous if he were calling the shots. We would have closed in less than a week under Harry.”