Biggest Name in Shrimp : National Chain of Bubba Gump Eateries? That's 'Eater-tainment'

TIMES STAFF WRITER

If you loved the movie, you'll love the food.

That's the reasoning behind Bubba Gump Shrimp Co., a seafood restaurant chain planned by Rusty Pelican Restaurants Inc. and Paramount Pictures that will incorporate scenery and themes from "Forrest Gump," the popular 1994 movie that won six Oscars.

While the movie's improbable hero--played by Tom Hanks--parlayed a captivating blend of homespun wisdom and an uncanny streak of good luck into a multimillion-dollar shrimp-catching business, Rusty Pelican and Paramount hope to profit from growing consumer interest in themed restaurants, where fun is as important as the food.

San Clemente-based Rusty Pelican will occasionally add to its existing 14-unit seafood restaurant chain, where the average dinner entree runs about $20. But company President Scott Barnett is betting that--to paraphrase "Forrest Gump" the movie--stuff is more likely to happen with the planned Bubba Gump chain, where menu items will range from $5 to $15.

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"We're not going to sell as much shrimp as Forrest Gump caught in the movie, but we will have at least 12 different shrimp-based items," Barnett said. Initial plans call for Rusty Pelican, which will have ready access to Paramount's prop room, to build 23 locations nationwide during the next five years.

Bubba Gump will debut in April inside a building on Cannery Row in Monterey that Rusty Pelican is spending $1 million to renovate. Barnett is "actively scouting" for other locations, preferably on the waterfront, in Los Angeles and Orange counties, as well as San Francisco and Orlando, Fla.

Rusty Pelican's joint venture with Paramount is the latest example of what restaurant industry pundits have dubbed "eater-tainment"--restaurants that incorporate everything from high-technology video walls and requisite memorabilia to live entertainment and--presumably--good food at reasonable prices.

"Everyone likes to go to a place that's fun," said Selwyn Joffe, chief executive officer of Santa Monica-based Wolfgang Puck Food Co. "That's always been the fundamental challenge--making a comfortable, vibrant place to enjoy the food."

Hard Rock Cafe and Planet Hollywood are credited with upping the ante by incorporating popular culture and the sense that, your parents' protestations aside, it's OK to play with your food.

Industry observers say that, soon, there should be a niche restaurant for just about every taste.

Like comic book heroes? Check out Marvel Mania, a comic-book-themed restaurant planned for Universal Studios. ESPN and Sports Illustrated reportedly are readying sports-themed restaurants. The Harley-Davidson Cafe in New York City--where Peter Fonda's star-spangled hog was put out to pasture--envisions a worldwide chain, and NASCAR is racing to open a string of cafes for stock car fanatics.

Country Star and Motown Cafe are using musical themes to corner that segment of the market, and New York-based Jekyll & Hyde is talking about a chain of restaurants that incorporate sophisticated magic shows.

A neighborhood in Manhattan is leading the way with what's known in the industry as "theme restaurant row," where the Harley-Davidson Cafe, Planet Hollywood, Jekyll & Hyde and the Brooklyn Diner--complete with its mural of Ebbets Field--sit cheek to cheek.

Fun food also is getting hot in suburbia, particularly at tired shopping centers where developers are struggling to inject a bit of pizazz to jump-start stalled sales.

Los Angeles-based Helios Inc.'s planned $30-million renovation of the aging Buena Park Mall, for example, includes space for some "signature" restaurants that will incorporate entertainment elements to appeal to thousands of tourists who pass the mall each day while heading to nearby Knott's Berry Farm.

Wall Street seems to be enamored with some of the better-known names.

Minneapolis-based Rainforest Cafe--which bathes diners in simulated thunderstorms and keeps full-time bird and fish curators on staff to maintain livestock--in January raised more than $60 million in a secondary stock offering. Planet Hollywood International Inc. recently filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission for an initial stock offering that's designed to raise nearly $200 million.

Restaurants that blend food and fun also are increasingly popular in traditional entertainment venues, including Disney World, which is now adding a Rainforest Cafe. Rainforest's founder and vice president, Steven Schussler, is eyeing a role in Disneyland's upcoming expansion, which is expected to include several themed restaurants.

Restaurants must stick close to their chosen themes.

That's why each Bubba Gump location will incorporate a replica of Forrest Gump's shrimp boat, and the restaurant's decor will make full use of Paramount's back lot wealth of Gumpernalia. "It will look like the restaurant that Bubba and Forrest would have opened if they'd opened one," Barnett said.

But experts say that props alone won't do the trick.

"If the food isn't of the quality that can draw people back a second and a third time, then the shelf life of any of them is going to be limited," said Philadelphia-based restaurant industry consultant Michael S. Rubin.

Restaurant operators who've successfully incorporated whimsical designs and entertaining architecture into their eateries caution that eater-tainment has decided limits.

"We're adamant that food be the anchor at our restaurants," said Puck Food's Joffe. "We always say that if we can't win with what's on our plate, then we've failed. Food is definitely what drives it."

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Rusty Pelican at a Glance

* Founded: 1972

* Headquarters: San Clemente

* President/CEO: Scott Barnett

* Restaurants: 14, including Rusty Duck, Boat House, the Dock and Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. Restaurant and Market

* Employees: 1,000

* Concept: Fresh seafood

* 1995 sales: $40 million

* 1995 average sales per restaurant: $2.7 million

* 1995 average guest check (dinner): $20

Source: Rusty Pelican Restaurants Inc.

Researched by JANICE L. JONES / Los Angeles Times

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The Selling of 'Forrest Gump'

Here's a partial list of products spun off the movie "Forrest Gump":

Books

"Gumpisms"--Simon & Schuster

"Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. Cookbook"--Oxmoor House

"Forrest Gump: My Favorite Chocolate Recipes"--Oxmoor House

"Gump & Co.," sequel novel by Winston Groom--Simon & Schuster

Apparel

Watches, T-shirts, hats and sweatshirts with Gump sayings or design elements

Gifts

Mugs and greeting cards

Food

Forrest Gump Chocolates--Falcon Candy Co.

Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. packaged shrimp--Meridian Products

Media

"Forrest Gump" soundtrack album--Epic Records Inc.

"Forrest Gump: Music, Artists and Times" interactive CD-ROM--GTE Interactive Media

Source: Viacom Inc.

Researched by JANICE L. JONES / Los Angeles Times

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