It might be hard to pick out two restaurants more different than Geisha House and the Cheesecake Factory.
Geisha, which serves up high-priced sushi at a trendy Hollywood Boulevard location, has a crowded bar, stylized d & #233;cor and lines teeming with L.A. hipsters. The Cheesecake Factory is a family-friendly chain with heaping portions of most any cuisine imaginable.
But Cheesecake Factory Inc. is the model that partners Mike Malin and Lonnie Moore are looking at as they grow Los Angeles-based Dolce Group, owner of Geisha House and Dolce Enoteca, an upscale Italian restaurant. Their aim is to put their restaurants in urban markets across the country.
"We want to evolve in the vein of a Cheesecake Factory, where they are the first phone call a developer makes when they go to look for retail," said Malin.
That's heady stuff for a pair of show business refugees who didn't open up their first establishment until 2001, a West Hollywood bar called Belly that has already closed. But Malin and Moore are moving fast.
The company has deals to put restaurants in mixed-use developments in Atlanta, Dallas and Santa Ana, as well as the Luxor casino in Las Vegas and the Grand Sierra Resort in Reno. Also on the way: another Hollywood location.
In the next three to four years, Malin envisions Dolce Group expanding to 15 restaurants and generating $100 million in revenues. This year, Dolce's most successful restaurant, Geisha House, will rack up $10 million in sales.
To fuel expansion, Malin is betting that developers will be attracted to the hipness of the restaurants, not to mention celebrity investors who include "That '70s Show" co-stars Ashton Kutcher, Wilmer Valderrama, Danny Masterson and Laura Prepon.
Still, what works in Hollywood runs the risk of losing its punch elsewhere. "If they are going to come out and put 100 Geisha Houses across the country, that would not be something I would be excited about," said Brian Leary, vice president of design and development at Atlantic Station in Atlanta, where Dolce has a deal for three restaurants.
Leary has reason to be cautious. Other restaurant chains that were built on celebrity attachments had early success, only to fizzle later on. Most notable: Planet Hollywood, which was launched with Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis and other celebrity investors, but wound up losing its star power.
Leary said that Dolce Group is being smart about its growth, only targeting key areas that desire a taste of the L.A. entertainment scene. He added that the hands-on approach by Malin and Moore will help the company avoid missteps.
Restaurant and hotel designer Dodd Mitchell, who worked on Dolce Enoteca, said the Dolce Group has created restaurants that translate well outside L.A. "The concept is good. The celebrity attachment is good. That gives them name recognition when they come into every city," he said.
Moore and Malin go back a long way. Now in their mid-30s, the pair met 15 years ago when they were both counselors at a camp in the Catskill Mountains. Moore came to Los Angeles for college at USC, and Malin followed him to become an actor.
Malin appeared on the reality television show "Big Brother" in 2001, while Moore eventually became a programming executive at NBC and UPN. But he had other ideas and approached his friend Malin with the idea of opening a bar.
They maxed out their credit cards to open the West Hollywood bar Belly in 2001, with Malin seizing on his status as a minor celebrity to meet Kutcher and other actors and sell them on the idea of investing in a restaurant.
They then opened Dolce Enoteca on Melrose Avenue in 2003 and it quickly became a celebrity hangout. Geisha House opened last year and was even more of a success. (They closed Belly in 2004 after getting fed up with running a liquor establishment and all its attendant liability problems.)
Plans to expand nationwide were jump-started by another celebrity connection: an unexpected encounter with singer Kenny Rogers, who happens to be an investor at Atlantic Station and thought the restaurant would be a good fit for the upcoming development.
The Rogers meeting tipped the pair off on how mixed-use developments were on the lookout for unusual restaurants, giving Dolce Group plenty of room for additional eateries. "I knew this loft thing was taking off, and this Grove thing was taking off. But I didn't understand how prevalent they are becoming in today's marketplace," Malin said.
Now Dolce Group is trying to adjust its concepts to fit with different markets. That means having more seats than in L.A. and setting prices that reflect the region.
The company also has more money to put into its new restaurants, with construction costs pushing $8 million at Atlantic Station. That compares with $700,000 for Dolce Enoteca and $2.7 million for Geisha House.
Malin said one reason more capital is available is because there are fewer investors putting in more money ($200,000 to $1 million plus) than in the past when smaller amounts were sought from more individuals.
For developers, the Dolce Group is also creating specific concepts to address certain needs. In Dallas' Victory Park, for example, the company will operate a yet-to-be-named upscale sports bar similar to rapper Jay-Z's 40/40 Club in Atlantic City and New York.
Malin expects to have five different concepts covering seafood, Japanese, Italian, American and Chinese cuisines. That way, the company will be able to have numerous venues in one development.
But what about quality control? Moore and Malin, who have been known to spend every night at their restaurants' host stands monitoring operations, are now learning to delegate. "Our first bar, we were closing and counting the money," Malin said. "With each restaurant, we get a little less hands-on."
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