The key with any novelty or theme restaurant is to offer a unique dining experience. Incorporating the theme into the décor, music, staff outfits and food is essential. But it's equally essential to keep sight of what people ultimately go to restaurants for: eating. The most successful theme restaurants will provide a unique dining experience through both entertainment and quality food.
Why So Many Theme Restaurants Fail
A theme is just a business concept until it has a quality menu and tightly run operations to go with it. A unique theme may attract a few tourists if it garners enough press, but for most restaurants, a theme alone will never attract loyal customers unless the food and service are up to par. Sure, if you have enough money to build an amazing design and offer flashy entertainment, you can serve bad food and still be successful. But you should not try to open a theme restaurant without first developing a tasty menu and carefully planning every aspect of your operation. Because of the element of entertainment you are offering, you can price the food higher. But if the food is inedible and the service is mediocre, it will completely undermine your flashy façade.
Case in point, The Fashion Cafe. This fashion-themed restaurant seemed to have everything going for it: supermodel spokeswomen like Naomi Campbell and Elle McPherson, a lavish décor including a full runway, and a ton of press to bolster its opening. However, the owners failed to plan the most essential aspects: the day-to-day operations and the quality of the food. After news of the poor service and food spread, several of the restaurant’s locations were closed, and within a year of opening, the restaurant’s London outlet was already considering filing for bankruptcy.
Choosing a Theme and a Location
When choosing your theme and the location for your restaurant, you should keep in mind the following:
- Carefully consider the location. Make sure that there is a market that will be receptive to your concept. For example, a cowboy-themed restaurant might flop in Boston, but flourish in Dallas, where tourists expect it. However, marketability is not always as obvious as it seems. A poker-themed restaurant might do just as well in the Midwest as it would in Las Vegas, because the Midwest locals would consider it a novelty. In general, the best location will offer an ideal market for attracting both tourists and locals, so be sure to analyze both local tastes and behaviors as well as tourist trends in any given area.
- Make it unique. A one-of-a-kind theme will bring tourists to your restaurant. Planet Hollywood and Hard Rock Café, two well-known theme restaurant chains, are slowly waning in popularity, partly because their themes are no longer unique enough to attract business. Consider creating a theme that is sure to attract a cult following. For example, a Star Trek themed restaurant in Las Vegas and a haunted Jekyll and Hyde themed restaurant and bar in New York City have both done very will at attracting their respective target markets.
- Try to get press. In order for tourists to learn about your theme restaurant, you will need to get some press. The best way to do this is to create a controversial theme that goes against the grain. For example, a great quantity of press has gone into covering Marton, a toilet-themed restaurant in Taipei, where customers sit on toilet seats and all food is served in dishes meant to resemble mini toilet bowls and urinals. As another example, the Heart Attack Grill in Tempe, Arizona, offers fattening, heart-unhealthy food served by naughty “nurses.” The theme outraged local health workers, but the press created by the controversy actually attracted more business.
Once you know what your theme is and what city you will operate in, you should plan to put your theme restaurant in a high-traffic area. Chances are, your rare concept will attract tourists as well as locals. Make sure you put it in a tourist hub to capitalize on that segment of the market. >>More on Attracting Tourists to a Restaurant
Executing Your Theme
Try incorporating your theme into the following elements:
- Menu Items. While many successful theme restaurants offer standard cuisine, if you can, choose menu items that reflect your theme instead. For example, the Heart Attack Grill serves food that could cause a heart attack. The most popular dish at Marton, the toilet-themed restaurant in Taiwan, is the chocolate ice cream served in their toilet-shaped dishes. While the obvious resemblance may seem unappetizing, the ice cream is not, and it has gained a loyal following from the locals and created a buzz that has incited interest from tourists from around the world.
- Restaurant design. Make sure your interior and exterior restaurant design – including colors, graphics, decorations and architecture – matches your overall theme. For example, tiki bars, some of the most popular theme restaurants to spread across the world, are generally decorated with palm trees, painted masks and grass skirts. Medieval Times, a middle-ages-themed restaurant in North America, designs its restaurants to resemble 11th Century Spanish castles.
- Music and sounds. Chances are, you can incorporate music and sound into your theme. Rainforest Café soothes its diners with a constant background of rainforest sounds, such as raindrops falling and chirping birds. A horror-themed café could play spooky theremin music with screams and groans for sound effects. A futuristic-themed restaurant could play sci fi and electronica music for a full futuristic effect.
- Lighting. Tying in your lighting with your theme will create a mood to improve the overall thematic consistency of your restaurant. For example, if you run a vampire-themed restaurant, you could use low, red lighting to create a vampiric atmosphere. Some restaurants, such as the Whale Inside Dark Restaurant in Beijing, offer pitch black lighting as their central theme. Servers are either blind and capable of moving in the dark, or they wear night-vision goggles. The lack of visual sensation is supposed to strengthen and alter the diners’ perception of taste.
- Restaurant staff. Make sure your employees’ uniforms and demeanor reflect your theme, too. For example, Ninja New York, a Japanese theme restaurant, dresses its servers in black and trains them to move like ninjas. If you run a cowboy themed restaurant, you could train your servers to square dance and talk in a southern accent. Whatever theme you have, your waitstaff should be one of the main sources of entertainment for your guests, so be sure to hire servers who are also good performers. You can even write a script for them.
- Culinary style. While they are not a necessity, themed culinary techniques can improve the consistency of your theme restaurant’s concept. For example, if you run a pilgrim-themed restaurant near Plymouth Rock, you could churn your own butter and use a mortar and pestle to prep your food instead of a food processor. Or, if you run a pyrotechnics-themed restaurant, use as much flame as possible in your cooking, and design an exhibition kitchen.
Examples of Successful Theme Restaurants
Offering a completely unique experience, Medieval Times showcases a dinner and tournament in the style of the middle ages. It has nine locations in Spain and North America. Everything reflects the fantastical 11th century theme, from the employees’ costumes, to the jousting tournaments, to the savory and simple food that is served, to the storybook castle exterior. While the original theme restaurant was in Spain, the chain has had the most success with its North American branches, all of which have earned a good bit of regional or national press for the uniqueness of the concept.
The food and service are not sacrificed for the showy entertainment. The owners pride themselves on the accuracy of the weapons and costumes featured in the show. The show’s storyline changes every few years to encourage customers to keep coming back for a totally new experience. The entertainment is so contagious that many customers even choose to take part in the role-playing.
Encounter Restaurant and Bar (LAX)
The Encounter Restaurant is a futuristic theme restaurant located in the Los Angeles International Airport. The fine-dining establishment, “imagineered” by Walt Disney, is operated in an easily recognizable landmark building with futuristic UFO-style architecture. The interior design mimics the atmosphere found in a space ship or an episode of The Jetsons. Futuristic colored laser lights and avante-guarde furnishings create a space-age atmosphere.
While the airport location is attractive to tourists, the restaurant also manages to attract locals by remaining outside airport security and offering valet parking. Furthermore, the restaurant operators have never lost their focus on food. The menu features a fresh California cuisine, and while they may not be “futuristic,” the dishes are decent enough to keep loyal customers coming back.
But the Encounter’s bar is the real attraction. By offering a full bar with “floating” bar stools, lava lights, guns that emit laser rays, and specialty cocktails poured to futuristic sound effects, the airport’s theme restaurant has gained a reputation as the perfect place to meet traveling friends for a drink.
 John Willcock, “Fashion Café fails to survive on a low-capital diet and goes bust,” The Independent (Oct 21, 1998) < http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_qn4158/is_19981021/ai_n14200212> (accessed February 2, 2009).