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Eatery Owner Hopes to Cash In on 2 Trends : Business: Falling rents, rising popularity of country music lead to opening of Country Rock Cafe on Friday in Lake Forest. Similar start-ups have failed.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Hoping to cash in on two trends--falling rents for retail space and the rising popularity of country dance music--Country Rock Cafe will open here Friday.

The restaurant and dance hall, which will feature live music four nights a week, is in a retail and office plaza at 23822 Mercury Road in Lake Forest. The previous occupant of the site was a 1950s-style restaurant and concert hall called The Hop, which folded.

“The timing is good for aggressive marketing if you have something new to offer,” said Ken Moon, vice president for Country Music Cafe Inc.

He would not identify the owner of the new venture except to say that the person owns several restaurants in Orange and San Bernardino counties.

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The local restaurant-entertainment business has had several notable failures during Southern California’s prolonged economic slump. Among them was the Rhythm Cafe in Santa Ana, a concert hall and dining establishment that trumpeted plans to go national but wound up closing early this year after only a few months in operation.

Several country music clubs are operating successfully in Orange County, however, including the Crazy Horse Steak House in Santa Ana, Cowboy Boogie in Anaheim and In Cahoots in Fullerton.

Mark Fichtner, manager of In Cahoots, said a well-run country venue can be a success even during a recession.

“I think there’s plenty of room in Orange County,” said Fichtner, whose club is one of a nationwide chain. “But there’s no room if you don’t understand the country market. People have to be careful about getting into this business.”

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Moon is betting that his venture will be one of those that survive.

“Landlords are willing to make deals,” said Moon, who was with the Peppers Inc. restaurant chain for eight years. “We’re not paying the $2 or $3 per foot and putting out $30,000 per month that was the norm about five years ago.”

The owner spent about $500,000, Moon said, for a dramatic Southwestern decor that features a huge sunset mural with life-size sculptures.

Entertainment will be a mix of local bands and recorded music on a 2,200-square-foot dance floor. Well-known country stars will perform every three to four months to generate publicity, Moon said.

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That format will work particularly well in South County, he said: “The overall design concept of Country Rock Cafe is to incorporate the ranching and cowboy culture steeped in Orange County with the more progressive country music that is dominating the music scene.”


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