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?’”
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.”
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