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Hollywood Cues Up Food Fight

Rolling Stone is making its red carpet premiere this summer at the Hollywood & Highland Center with the opening of its first restaurant and lounge, but it won’t be the only rock star on that mall’s stage.

That’s because Rolling Stone is set to open its doors just as Hard Rock Café is scheduled to launch a restaurant and live event venue in the same center – in a first-ever competition between the two iconic names.

Entrepreneurs Niall Donnelly and Joe Altounian licensed the Rolling Stone brand to develop the multilevel, 10,000-square-foot space, which sits on the back side of the entertainment complex along Highland Avenue. They’re using the venue’s Hollywood debut as a test case: If it’s a hit, the partners plan to turn it into a national chain.

“We are bringing the magazine and the culture and what it represents to life,” said Altounian, a real estate developer.

“The plan is to absolutely open more,” said Donnelly, an Irishman who moved to Los Angeles a year and half ago after a successful run of operating bars and nightclubs in the United Kingdom.

Meanwhile, Hard Rock, which operates a restaurant at Universal City Walk, has spent the last few years looking to strengthen its presence in the L.A. area. Company executives view the opening of a 20,000-square-foot Hard Rock Café along Hollywood Boulevard – complete with a retail store, restaurant and live event stage – as a way to make a splash.

“We’ve been looking into the Los Angeles area for quite a time for a second location,” said John Galloway, vice president and chief marketing officer at Orlando, Fla.-based Hard Rock Café International Inc. “An opportunity opened up on Hollywood Boulevard and we jumped at it. The opportunity to be in such a vibrant area as Hollywood is one that we couldn’t pass by.”

While executives from Rolling Stone and Hard Rock said the Hollywood & Highland complex is the ideal location for their establishments, they insist that any similarities between the two stop there.

“We are a different concept,” said Rolling Stone’s Donnelly. “They are a memorabilia restaurant and we are slightly different. Our design is vintage chic. It’s a very cool, modern design.”

But some industry observers said a sort of battle of the bands between the music-inspired venues seems inevitable. That’s because Rolling Stone and Hard Rock will be vying for the dollars spent by the 15 million people estimated to visit the Hollywood & Highland complex each year – the majority of them tourists passing through just once.

“Rolling Stone might be a little bit more upscale than Hard Rock and they might have a different menu choice,” said Gary Levy, a hospitality consultant at Roseland, N.J.-based J.H. Cohn LLP. “But it seems to me that they are going to be competing for the same diner.”

Slow start

The Hollywood & Highland open-air mall is anchored by the Kodak Theater – site of the Academy Awards and the future home of a Cirque du Soleil show. Lining the walkways of the multilevel mall are more than 60 stores and nine restaurants. When the complex first opened in 2001 it struggled to draw a steady crowd. The $10 parking fee kept people away, and critics said the layout made it difficult to easily access the restaurants and stores.

Parking charges were lowered, and Hollywood real estate investment company CIM Group Inc. purchased the center in 2004 and spent millions on improvements designed to boost foot traffic.

It worked. Tourists and locals can now be found walking through Hollywood & Highland late into the night.

What’s more, the center’s popularity as also been boosted by the ongoing redevelopment of the area. Hollywood backers said the opening of Rolling Stone and Hard Rock are a testament to the renaissance there.

“To come to this point where we have two iconic brands coming to Hollywood and locating at Hollywood & Highland is a reaffirmation that Hollywood is back,” said Leron Gubler, chief executive of the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce.

The high-profile Hollywood premieres of Rolling Stone and Hard Rock are likely to become an additional draw.

“They are going to be battling,” said B. Biggs, who works as a security guard in the L.A. area and who spends his free time relaxing at the Starbucks near the future site of Rolling Stone. “It’s going to be a tough run, but I think Rolling Stone will be for the old schoolers and Hard Rock for the young ballers.”

Rocking out

Rolling Stone magazine was founded in 1976 by Jann Wenner and music critic Ralph Gleason. The publication became a force in politics, rock and pop culture with the gonzo-style journalism of Hunter S. Thompson and memorable covers – among the best known is a posthumous naked John Lennon wrapped around Yoko Ono.

The magazine has continued to leave its mark on society with provocative photos of stars such as Britney Spears posing with a Teletubby and Lady Gaga covered in bubbles. But Rolling Stone has also been faced with a decline in advertising revenue, which dropped 15 percent from 2008 to 2009, according to Publishers Information Bureau. The decline is blamed on a weak economy and overall slowdown in magazine advertising.

Donnelly and Altounian approached Rolling Stone with the concept of opening an establishment inspired by the magazine about a year ago, around the same time as Hard Rock announced it was coming to Hollywood & Highland.

Donnelly and Altounian are working with Brodin Design in Beverly Hills to turn the space into something that fits with the Rolling Stone concept. The selected motifs are black brick, tufted leather and vaulted ceilings, and there will also be an antique iron staircase connecting the second-floor restaurant with the first-floor lounge.

The pair hasn’t finalized the menu offerings, but Donnelly said the restaurant will serve American fare “with a twist.”

“It will be good quality food at a good price,” he said.

The restaurant will be accessible from inside the Hollywood & Highland complex and cater to the tourist crowd during the day. There won’t be a Rolling Stone retail store comparable to what Hard Rock offers, but tourists will be able to pick up a Rolling Stone T-shirt and other merchandise emblazoned with the magazine’s time-tested logo.

The bar and lounge area will be accessible from the street along Highland, and Donnelly and Altounian are hoping to turn the spot into a hangout for locals by offering pricey bottle service, access to two VIP entrances and celebrity deejays.

“It will be a higher-end lounge where people come to enjoy, relax and get bottle service, and listen to good music and get taken care of,” Altounian said.

The pair also plans to host private corporate events there, and Donnelly said the Rolling Stone name has already helped them book several groups.

Some industry insiders said they’ve got a few hurdles to overcome.

Jim Hustead, an executive with Miracle Mile hospitality consultancy OnSite Consulting LLC, said Rolling Stone is less visible to passers-by since it faces the back of the complex. What’s more, Hustead said Donnelly and Altounian will likely have a challenge making a lounge at Hollywood & Highland a draw for locals.

“A nightclub doesn’t work for Hollywood & Highland,” he said. “You are never going to have the cool kids from Sunset Boulevard and West Hollywood. It’s the tourist mecca of Los Angeles.”

But Donnelly and Altounian swear by the site. They note that it’s visible from Highland, and they’ll attract people from the crowds who go to the mall’s second floor for views of the Hollywood sign.

“I prefer that it’s slightly off of Hollywood Boulevard because it’s not an obvious space,” Altounian said. “We are creating our own area there, and a lot of eyebrows are being raised as people drive by there.”

L.A. roots

They’ll be vying for dollars with a formidable competitor. The new Hard Rock Café will be sitting just around the corner on the more traveled Hollywood Boulevard.

Hard Rock, founded by L.A. businessman Peter Morton, opened its first U.S. location in 1982 at the Beverly Center and then opened a second L.A. restaurant in 1996 at Universal City Walk. Hard Rock now operates 150 venues in 52 countries, including 125 cafes, and nine hotels and casinos.

But the Beverly Center Hard Rock closed in late 2006 and the chain spent years looking for a higher-profile L.A. location that would draw both locals and tourists, many of whom frequent the establishment to sneak a peek at its rock memorabilia collection and snag some Hard Rock T-shirts, collectible pins and even golf balls. So when Virgin Megastore shuttered its Hollywood & Highland location last year, Hard Rock jumped at the opportunity to move in.

Hard Rock is turning the space into a 500-seat restaurant with a concert area and adjoining retail space. The store opened in November and sells limited-edition Hard Rock merchandise.

Hard Rock’s Galloway said the décor of the Hollywood & Highland location will reflect the flavor of Los Angeles by displaying memorabilia from local musicians, including rocks bands Guns N’ Roses and Motley Crue, composer and electric guitarist Frank Zappa, and pop singer Fergie of Black Eyed Peas.

“First and foremost, it will tell an L.A. story once you walk inside,” Galloway said. “The memorabilia will be focused and dedicated to Los Angeles and California music.”

While Hard Rock is known as a tourist-friendly brand, executives are hoping to attract Angelenos with the live music venue, which will feature performances by L.A. bands.

But industry insiders said Hard Rock will take center stage after it opens its doors to diners.

“This is a big splash to put yourself on the map,” said James Sinclair, a principle at OnSite Consulting. “I think this is one of their better moves – going back to what they do best.”

Indeed, entertainment-themed chains such as Planet Hollywood, which has filed for bankruptcy twice but has since made efforts to rebound with fewer locations and a Planet Hollywood Hotel and Resort on the Las Vegas strip, have struggled to turn a profit.

But if Rolling Stone and Hard Rock executives have it their way, both establishments will bring even larger crowds to Hollywood & Highland.

“I think it’s great for the center,” Donnelly said. “Cirque du Soleil, Rolling Stone and Hard Rock will draw in a crowd and feed off each other.”

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