LIGHTS! CAMERA! BUT CAN WE GET A TABLE? HARD ROCK, PLANET HOLLYWOOD SET STANDARD FOR THEME EATERIES

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A line of tourists snaked around the block past New York's Carnegie Hall. But the restive audience wasn't waiting for more than an hour for tickets to a Pavarotti performance; they were anxious to catch one of the hottest entertainment events in town-a meal at Planet Hollywood.

There, visitors can see everything from Dorothy's dress from "The Wizard of Oz" to mega-screens previewing movies. And at the nearby Hard Rock Cafe, the rock 'n' roll sights include Jimi Hendrix's black fedora hat and Keith Moon's drums. The two eateries are part of one of the most successfully marketed restaurant concepts ever, mixing memorabilia, entertainment and sometimes a splash of celebrity ownership.

"Since 1991, theme restaurants have blossomed into their own segment and will be one of the fastest growing categories for the rest of the decade," said Dennis Lombardi, a restaurant consultant at Chicago-based Technomic, a food service consulting and market research company.

It's no wonder that adman and restaurateur Jerry Della Femina claims "restaurants have replaced sex as the No. 1 fantasy."

Indeed, a recent Roper Starch survey found that eating out is the top form of out-of-home entertainment, with 34% of those surveyed going out to dinner within a week vs. 14% to a movie and 9% to a club or bar.

Just a stone's throw from Planet Hollywood on New York's 57th Street is the granddaddy of concept restaurants, the Hard Rock Cafe, first established in London 24 years ago. Three ownership groups now manage the Hard Rocks, which have multiplied into some 45 restaurants worldwide. And the fledgling Planet Hollywood, with 14 restaurants since its opening four years ago in New York, has locations ranging from Chicago to Hong Kong.

The Hard Rock and Planet Hollywood eateries in New York and Los Angeles rake in some $15 million in revenues apiece.

Clearly, there's more to these establishments than the quality of their burgers. Though the restaurateurs give lip service to their foods' quality, the menu is usually second to the spectacle at such spots, where tourists are the norm.

The focus is as much on marketing and image-making as on food and service, with both employing in-house public relations staffs.

The Hard Rock Cafe, which also has a marketing staff, carefully nurtures ties to the music industry by promoting concert events and then tying them into the restaurant. The New York club recently celebrated its 10th anniversary with an Aretha Franklin concert at Carnegie Hall followed by an event at the Hard Rock replete with Aretha riding across the street to the restaurant in one of the restaurant's signature pink Cadillacs.

Other facets to the Hard Rock marketing effort are charity events and community-based projects. Their Signature Series is a charity-based marketing program which sells T-shirts designed by rock stars such as Don Henley and the members of Aerosmith. The artists donate the proceeds, which have totaled some $3 million in four years, to their favored charity.

"It's very important that we make a difference and that we communicate our image of bringing people together," says Roger Fishman, VP marketing at Hard Rock Cafe.

On a local level, Hard Rock promotes community-based marketing programs. A recent effort targeting Boston-area college students promotes Hard Rock college VIP passes, music listening parties and samples of new releases.

"We want to be a good neighbor," said Mr. Fishman. "It's part of our image."

The secret to its success is having a universal and eternal theme-rock 'n' roll, said Steve Routhier, one of Hard Rock's founders. "Rock 'n' roll is probably the largest single cultural contribution this country has made in the last half of this century. It has completely weaved itself into the fabric of American culture."

Planet Hollywood's marketing push keys in on Hollywood glitz. Its most successful marketing and image-making efforts entail trotting out celebrity owners Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis, Demi Moore and Sylvester Stallone to gala opening parties and special events.

Meanwhile, the best of the Hard Rock Cafe copycats have quickly monopolized on the savory revenue potential of merchandising. The Hard Rock, Planet Hollywood, Harley-Davidson Cafe and actor Robert DeNiro's Tribeca Grill have free-standing stores within their restaurants hawking everything from T-shirts emblazoned with the restaurant logo to guitar pins and motorcycle jackets.

To hear Mr. Routhier tell it, the beginnings of the New York outlet in 1984 were humble. What started as selling a couple of T-shirts at the coat-check counter soared from $100 to $1,000 in the first week the coat check attendant experimented with devoting her time exclusively to selling merchandise.

Now places like Hard Rock and Planet Hollywood can make as much as 50% of their revenues from merchandise alone, said Tracey Nieporent, who in addition to his own restaurants, Tribeca Grill, Nobu, Montrachet and Rubicon, acted as a consultant to the Harley-Davidson Cafe in New York. "The profit margin on a T-shirt is much higher than on the food."

The latest permutation on the theme restaurant craze is the move into gambling. Hard Rock Hotel & Casino recently opened in Las Vegas, offering an elegant setting replete with French doors, casino couches bearing pictures of guitars and purple poker chips emblazoned with Jimi Hendrix's face.

But Mr. Lombardi, the consultant, is skeptical on whether such branding will work in a gambling venue. "You don't need a brand name to have a successful casino. You just need a lot of money to create the right place."

The benefit, however, is that if the casino concept works it's likely to funnel even more funds to the theme restaurant.

Meanwhile, there's no dearth of new concepts. Planet Hollywood President Robert Earl is considering a huge sports-oriented restaurant. And supermodels Naomi Campbell, Elle MacPherson and Claudia Schiffer opened the Fashion Cafe in Rockefeller Center this month.

And the one who arguably started it all, Hard Rock originator Isaac Tigrett, is slated to expand his House of Blues beyond New Orleans, Cambridge, Mass., and Los Angeles. The blues-themed restaurants, which aim to evoke low-down Southern juke joints, will move into New York and beyond.

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