Feeding a Frenzy


There’s no stopping the start-up of theme restaurants in Southern California.

Enticed by the large number of tourists who visit the region each year and the success of other theme restaurants, investors and established companies alike continue to try their luck with eateries that mix food and entertainment.

One of the latest outfits to enter the business is Cartoonsville, a child-oriented restaurant that recently opened in Brentwood. Founded by former concert promoter Steve Scarduzio, the restaurant features a fun house for kids and a “no-screaming area” for adults--actually a bar with TVs.

Another entrant is Marvelmania, which will open in January near Universal Studios. Marvel Entertainment Group, the comic book publisher and co-owner of the restaurant venture, plans to amuse guests with videos of such superheroes as the Fantastic Four, the X-Men, Iron Man, Captain America, Thor and the Silver Surfer.


The new restaurants enter a marketplace that already seems to sport a theme for every occasion. Besides such well-known chains as Hardrock Cafe and Planet Hollywood, there’s the Rainforest Cafe and the 75-year-old Scottish-themed Tam O’Shanter in Atwater Village. Coming soon: Quark’s Bar & Restaurant, an eatery at “Star Trek: The Experience,” a theme attraction at the Las Vegas Hilton developed by North Hollywood-based Landmark Entertainment Group.

More and more theme restaurants are being launched because they tend to be more profitable than non-theme dining establishments. Industry analysts say the average restaurant generates annual revenue of $500,000 to $750,000, with some of the top Southland restaurants generating $1 million to $2 million. Sales at theme restaurants range from $4 million to $14 million annually, analysts say.

But not every theme restaurant is a success. The restaurant industry has a high failure rate. Among the deceased are most of the theme restaurants of the 1950s and ‘60s that evoked a geographical or cultural theme such as Polynesian, Irish or Mediterranean.

“I would be surprised if some of these newer themed restaurants survived over a long period,” said Richard N. Frank, chairman of Lawry’s Restaurants Inc., which operates Tam O’Shanter and Lawry’s the Prime Rib.

Dive, the submarine-themed restaurant at Century City Shopping Center that is partly owned by entertainment moguls Steven Spielberg and Jeffrey Katzenberg, opened with great fanfare in 1994. However, business declined because the menu was too limited, with submarine sandwiches making up half the fare. Today they account for just 20% of the menu, with pizza, pasta and seafood among the more popular offerings.

“Most theme restaurants concentrate on ambience and less on food quality. We’re putting more emphasis on the food to attract and retain local business,” said Ron Bryman, general manager of Dive, who hopes the new menu will attract repeat customers.


“If a restaurant is not in a tourist area, it must generate substantial repeat business to succeed,” said Hugh Kelly, a consultant with Landauer Associates. “Otherwise it becomes a restaurant concept that came in with a big splash and failed.”

Marvel decided to launch its venture partly because the restaurant will further promote those characters, said Barry Richards, vice president of business development for Marvel. For kids, menu items include Uncanny X-Pasta, Mighty Mutant Macaroni & Cheese and the Superhero Sandwich, a dish of grilled cinnamon-swirl bread layered with peanut butter, banana slices and a Nestle Crunch bar.


Like most theme restaurants, Marvelmania will sell memorabilia and theme merchandise such as T-shirts, toys, collectibles and books. The restaurant will also offer CD-ROMs and images from animation features on Marvel characters. The retail section of Cartoonsville is smaller than the merchandise alcove at Marvelmania, but the restaurant sells a wide range of toys and Barbie collectibles and original art, such as a 1938 pencil drawing of Bugs Bunny for $8,700.

The retail side of theme restaurants can be crucial.

“About 60% of the sales at many theme restaurants is nonfood-related business,” said Kelly. “These restaurants must have visual excitement, but they also need merchandise.”


George White can be reached via e-mail at