Rolling Stone is about to take a leap into the entertainment industry, starting with a large-scale restaurant and nightclub in Hollywood.
Owners of the venerable magazine hope to leverage its status as a preeminent chronicler of the rock music world and pop culture into a new business built on food and drinks. The first Rolling Stone outpost is set to open next summer at Hollywood & Highland Center.
"We've been looking for the ideal opportunity to expand the Rolling Stone brand," co-founder and Editor Jann S. Wenner said.
Running a high-profile entertainment-themed restaurant chain has proved perilous for others, however. Competitors such as Planet Hollywood and Hard Rock Cafe have taken embarrassing financial thrashings in the past, though both continue to operate.
Hard Rock, in fact, plans to open a large restaurant and bar of its own at Hollywood & Highland in May. Rolling Stone's joint will be smaller but fancier and, well, hipper, its creators insist.
"The food will be higher-end than Hard Rock," said Niall Donnelly, a partner of the magazine. "The venue itself will be for higher-end audiences."
Rolling Stone tapped Donnelly and his partner Joe Altounian, a real estate developer, to do the heavy lifting involved in building an establishment intended to appeal to both tourists and the chic celebrity set of young Hollywood.
Donnelly, an amiable Irishman who happens to have a skull tattooed on his forearm and prefers whiskey (Jameson, not Bushmills) to beer, has built a track record as an operator of upscale trendy clubs in Britain and Ireland.
The Rolling Stone venue in Hollywood will operate on two tiers, Donnelly said. On the top level, which opens into the mall, will be a restaurant and bar intended to appeal to the estimated 15 million tourists a year who come to the Hollywood intersection near Grauman's Chinese Theatre. He also hopes to pull in local residents who may come to watch sports or have a drink.
At street level, on Highland Avenue, will be a more up-market lounge "which will be harder to get into," Donnelly said. Like other late-night Hollywood lounges, it will include "bottle service," where patrons buy their spirits such as vodka by the bottle -- usually at hefty prices. The lounge may also be rented for corporate events.
Despite the magazine's long marriage with the music industry, Hollywood's Rolling Stone will not be in the concert business.
"We will have live music from time to time for record launches or parties," Donnelly said. "Otherwise we'll have a live deejay."
Rolling Stone also won't compete with Hard Rock and Planet Hollywood in the memorabilia-heavy decor department, opting instead for what Donnelly hopes will be a timeless interior of exposed black brick, tufted leather and an antique iron staircase.
"We don't want it to be a museum," he said. "We won't have Elvis costumes on the walls."
The menu will be a mix of traditional American fare and California cuisine, he said, "and we'll have some Mexican-inspired stuff."
The migration of Rolling Stone's name onto a restaurant represents a significant and perhaps unsettling cultural shift, at least to baby boomers who remember its early years in the late 1960s and '70s when the magazine offered a thumb in the eye of mainstream society with its earthy language and pioneering of take-no-prisoners "gonzo" journalism as practiced by reporter Hunter S. Thompson.
The magazine still has its bite. In July, writer Matt Taibbi served up a line that was instantly repeated in other media when he referred to Wall Street bank Goldman Sachs as "a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money."
But Publisher William Schenck says Rolling Stone's brand is strong enough to capitalize on enterprises beyond the magazine. The company already has branched into books and released its first video game earlier this year.
"It seemed logical and organic to break into a restaurant," he said. "It really made sense to us."
Schenck denied that the punishing financial atmosphere for print publications pushed Rolling Stone into the restaurant business. "In any economic climate we are going to try to find every avenue to increase revenue," he said.
After 42 years, Rolling Stone is still an authority on popular culture, Schenck said, and half its readers are under 30. The Hollywood venue is intended to capture the irreverence of its covers, such as recent fronts with singer Lady Gaga apparently dressed only in bubbles and teen actor Taylor Lautner in a wet T-shirt.
"We aren't going to have political debates," Schenck said.
But breaking into the crowded food-service business is no picnic, said stock analyst Conrad Lyon of Global Hunter Securities in Newport Beach.
"The restaurant industry in the higher end is really taking it on the chin," he said, as families cut back on recreational spending and corporations limit expense-account dining and banquet meetings. Sales at high-end steak house chain Ruth's Chris, for example, were off 24% in the third quarter compared with the year-earlier period.
One hot, hip establishment in Hollywood might succeed, he said, "but I would be very skeptical of a chain working in this environment. Outside of New York, L.A. and Las Vegas, trendy concepts are a challenge."
Proof will come, Lyon said, after the honeymoon period of about 18 months is over.
Schenck agreed there were "cautionary tales out there" such as Planet Hollywood's Chapter 11 bankruptcy and Playboy magazine's shuttering of clubs across the country in the 1980s. But sports broadcaster ESPN apparently has been successful in its venture into food and beverage sales in its ESPN Zone sports-themed restaurants, and Schenck thinks his business can make restaurant profits too.
He doesn't want to predict where the next Rolling Stone venue might be, though.
"Let's just see how this works out."