Hard Rock Cafe maintains the rock 'n' roll fantasy after 40 years

When the first Hard Rock Cafe opened in London 40 years ago this summer, guests were watched closely as they came through the door, mainly because those guests might have been rock royals Eric Clapton or Pete Townshend, both of whom dined regularly at the place-to-be.

These days, guests at the 150 Hard Rock Cafes in 53 countries are still watched closely as they stroll in — but now for entirely different reasons.

Joey Mazzant is one of the watchers. They call him "vibe host," sometimes "vibe ambassador," and it's his job at the Orlando Hard Rock Cafe to make sure diners — now more likely to be from Palatka than the Who — get an "authentic experience."

"If someone's wearing a Rolling Stones shirt, I'll ask them, 'Hey, do you like the Rolling Stones?' Then, boom, I'll make sure Sympathy for the Devil plays on our sound system."

Certainly, lunch is always improved by a melodic visit from Mick and Keef. And Mazzant, a smooth-pated, tattooed guy who looks like Chris Daughtry's hunkier brother, is a genuine fan of music fans. He loves us. He really does.

But the very nature of rock 'n' roll is dangerous, rebellious, unpredictable. It's also unfailingly hip. And none of those words — not to mention "authentic" — can be used to describe the current incarnation of the cafe.

Clapton and Townshend don't eat there anymore. But 40 years later, the rest of us sure do.

• • •

Launched by American businessmen Isaac Tigrett and Peter Morton, the Hard Rock Cafe wasn't the world's first chain of escapist theme restaurants. That distinction goes to Trader Vic's, which in the '50s started selling sultry Polynesian daydreams to landlocked stiffs hunched over scorpion bowls. The walls were adorned with all manner of tiki wanderlust, much as the Hard Rock Cafes now feature musical memorabilia, more than 73,000 pieces at last count.

The number of Trader Vic's locations started to shrivel up when the tiki craze did (although the chain has since had a bit of a renaissance). The Hard Rock Cafe, however, is still getting bigger. A lot bigger. What it lost in rock star clientele it gained in celebrity-obsessed mortals. Tapping into our legitimate fears that most of us are boring was a flawless business strategy.

The restaurant's original model didn't involve "memo," as artifacts are called there. But as the legend goes, one day Clapton rolled into the London establishment and found his favorite booth taken. Not pleased at all — he was a rock star, and rock stars get their way — Clapton told Tigrett to put up a plaque, Clapton's Table, or something like that. The restaurateur had a different idea. He got Clapton to donate a red Fender Lead II guitar, and up it went, forever marking the star's territory.

A few days later, another guitar showed up in the mail. There was a note attached: "Mine's as good as his!"

Signed: Pete Townshend.

It's fair to say that without the donations of Clapton and Townshend — which spawned a truly awesome collection of rock memo to rival that of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland — millions of people in the '70s and '80s wouldn't have worn those Hard Rock Cafe T-shirts. You remember the gold circle, the cool font, the exotic locale: Bangkok, Barcelona, Beijing. "Love All, Serve All," "Save the Planet" go the slogans. Those shirts — you had one, you know you did — helped the Hard Rock sell the illusion of inclusion; it commodified cool.

Look at me: I ate a $15 burger next to Mick Jagger's trousers.

• • •

But much like an indie band that goes "major label," losing trendy points in the transaction, the Hard Rock Cafe, which started its global takeover in 1982, took a hit to its hip quotient in the late '80s and early '90s. That's what happens when everyone, even the losers, start wearing your shirts. The restaurant's raging popularity would also contribute to a midlife swoon, as the Hard Rock Cafe spawned numerous theme-restaurant competitors fighting for the same Average Joe dollar: Planet Hollywood, House of Blues, the Rainforest Cafe, the Motown Cafe, the Fashion Cafe, the NBA Cafe, the NASCAR Sports Grille, Jimmy Buffett's Margaritaville and Quaker Steak and Lube, to name a few. Instead of being an original, it was now just another float in the faux parade.

"Staying cool as a brand is really, really important," says John Galloway, Hard Rock International's chief marketing officer. "But that's a tough thing. . . . We got lumped in with the pack."

But the Hard Rock survived, and eventually thrived once again, because it does a few crucial things well, things other theme joints often overlook. "It's a combination of the memorabilia that a lot of us feel and the core simple food that is good," says Tim Zagat, founder of the Zagat Restaurant Surveys, which have rated about 30 of the 150 Hard Rock Cafes around the world. (They mostly rate "okay" in his guides, Zagat adds.)

"Most of the other theme restaurants didn't have much of a theme or they had lousy food. Rock 'n' roll has a huge audience; a lot of the other theme restaurants have a narrow interest level. At Planet Hollywood, they forgot that they were supposed to be a restaurant, too. Once you saw the movie memorabilia a few times, you never had a reason to go back and eat. But you could always have a good meal at a fair price and have an enjoyable time at Hard Rock."

Smart business sense kept the Average Joes coming. But in 1995, the hipsters returned as well. That's when Peter Morton opened the Hard Rock Hotel in Las Vegas, an $80 million gamble that turned out to be the perfect fit for the most inauthentic town in America — and a defibrillating boost to the brand. So much for catering to the Middle American masses: The Vegas Hard Rock sold sex, gambling and vice, and the people who poured in were beautiful and famous. A small concert venue, the Joint, lured bold-faced names who always made the news: Guns N' Roses, Paul McCartney, even the Rolling Stones. The stars had returned.

According to Jim Allen, chairman of Seminole Hard Rock Entertainment and CEO of Seminole Gaming, the brand's biggest challenge as it got older "was capitalization, putting money back into the business." That challenge was met in 2004, when the Seminole Tribe of Florida, which wanted to add a sexy spark to its lackluster gaming operations, licensed the Hard Rock name for two casinos. Two years later, the tribe acquired most Hard Rock entities. Price tag? $965 million. The first American Indian tribe to buy a major international company, the Seminoles now own all Hard Rock entities except the Vegas hotel. The tribe expanded in a major way, primarily internationally, from the Caribbean to eastern Europe, including a 1,790-room (plus 11 pools!) complex in the Dominican Republic. Said then-tribal council representative Max Osceola: "We're going to buy back Manhattan one hamburger at a time."

According to Zagat, Hard Rock is a rare phenomenon: "Very few things that have that kind of history, that kind of ownership change, have been successful. But the Hard Rock is one of those things."

Twenty more Hard Rock Cafes were opened after the Seminole purchase; the restaurants eventually juiced their menus from lackluster meals to smarter, if still familiar, fare, including regional delicacies. The memorabilia kept piling up, but archivists made sure that current artists were represented. Justin Bieber's skateboard next to Jimi Hendrix's guitar? Why not? To further titillate an oncoming generation raised on videos games, booths and waiting areas are plugged in with interactive gizmos. And after years of having no live music at the restaurants, last year there were more than 3,000 concerts at various Hard Rock venues.

Even the bad news has been good news. On Feb. 8, 2007, Playboy tragedy Anna Nicole Smith was found dead in Room 607 at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Hollywood, Fla. The cause? "Combined drug intoxication." Her death was sad. But there was another message attached to her cautionary tale: The Hard Rock was now a place to be bad.

• • •

There are more Hard Rock Cafes in Florida (six: Tampa, Orlando, Miami, Destin, Key West and Hollywood) than in any other state in the country. "I think it's 'cause Florida rocks!" says Galloway, who's always selling. That's a kind notion, but it's also because the Sunshine State is a tourist mecca, and the Hard Rock Cafe, which showed a 20 percent growth in profits last year, successfully feeds, and feeds on, people looking to take flight from reality. Galloway stresses his restaurant's desire to offer an "authentic experience," but that's actually the opposite of what his company does so well.

Much as Space Mountain promises a ride through the cosmos, the Hard Rock promises closer proximity to "backstage," where (we think) we'll encounter mayhem and groupies and randy adventures far beyond our suburban imaginations. It promises just a whiff of what it's like to be a rock god. You are that much closer to VIP heaven.

But here's the thing: You aren't. In the cafe, you can't be backstage because there often is no stage; it's a burger joint. In fact, even at the Hard Rock Cafe in Orlando, most diners won't even see the coolest part of the restaurant. Guess what? You're still roped off from VIP.

If you see Joey Mazzant, ask him for the "tour." Depending on several factors — including how much of a rock nerd you are — the vibe host might oblige. But let it be known that there are incredible treasures at the Orlando location (the original art work for the Beatles' Revolver album, John Lennon's couch from the Dakota building) that you will never see.

And maybe that's appropriate. At the Hard Rock Cafe, you are always chasing the unattainable. You eat the food with faux-cool names. You check out the "memo" on the walls. You might even be singled out for your head-bangin' sartorial choice.

But to paraphrase the Stones, you will never get what you really want. In your endless pursuit of Jaggeresque cool, you won't even get what you need. You will, however, get a T-shirt. Rock on, dude.

Times news researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report. Sean Daly can be reached at sdaly@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8467. His Pop Life blog is at tampabay.com/blogs/popmusic.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
A story in today’s Floridian incorrectly identifies Max Osceola of the Seminole Tribe; he was a tribal council representative. Also, the tribe announced in 2006 that it was acquiring most Hard Rock International properties, but it had already licensed the name for two of its casinos in 2004. There are now six Hard Rock Cafes in Florida. The story, which was printed in advance, gave a different number.

From Aug. 10-12, Hard Rock historian Jeff Nolan will bring an 80-foot traveling memorabilia "museum" to the Tampa location. Admission is free. Here are a few of the treasures you'll see:

Jimi Hendrix's Flying V guitar from 1970's Isle of Wight Festival and Buddy Holly's iconic nerdy black glasses. (Nolan will tell you that the rocker also tried contact lenses!)

Michael Jackson's jacket from the Beat It video — How many zippers, you ask? 27 — and Katy Perry's birthday cake dress (as in she plunged into a birthday cake while wearing it), from a Latin American version of the MTV VMAs.

Hard Rock Cafe maintains the rock 'n' roll fantasy after 40 years 07/13/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, July 13, 2011 7:50pm]

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