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    Fame and Fast Casuals: How Celebrities Fit Into the Restaurant World

  • What impact do celebrity endorsements and ownership have in restaurant success?

    Chingon Kitchen / JP Cordero / Shutter Styles Photography
    Many of Chingon Kitchen’s signature dishes are rooted in family recipes from actor and comedian George Lopez (left).

    A celebrity tie-in may seem like a surefire way for any restaurant to build a reputation, but turning a star alliance into a blockbuster success isn’t as straightforward as a cameo. Rather, such an endeavor requires a good deal of research and detailed strategy beforehand.

    Eric Schiffer, CEO of Patriarch Equity and chairman of Reputation Management Consultants, says a famous face can tap into inherent qualities that appeal to the public and reinforce a brand’s winning qualities. “It’s both an attention tool and a credibility-building tool, all going to improve conversion and being able to also get brand extension,” Schiffer says. “People will feel a greater level of credibility with the promotion if the celebrity owns it. It gives it a more localized feel.”

    Numerous celebs have their hands in the quick-serve world. Ty Burell of “Modern Family” fame co-owns Beer Bar in Salt Lake City. Hugh Jackman founded Laughing Man Foundation, which is both a café concept/coffee retailer and a nonprofit. And thanks to widespread exposure from its A&E reality series, Wahlburgers—co-owned by brothers Mark, Donnie, and chef Paul Wahlberg—has expanded beyond its original location in Hingham, Massachusetts, to nearly two-dozen locations across the U.S., plus another pair in Toronto.

    On the franchise side, LeBron James was an original investor and now a franchisee in fast-growing Blaze Pizza. Shaquille O’Neal owns 155 Five Guys Burgers locations and 17 Auntie Anne’s Pretzels franchises.

    The stories of how public figures come to be involved in foodservice are as varied as the restaurants themselves.

    Former NFL running back and Heisman Trophy winner Billy Sims first met Jeff Jackson at an autograph-signing event in 1999. At the time, Jackson owned a sports memorabilia store, but he knew almost immediately he wanted to go into business with Sims, who had “this very exciting, fun personality and really was great with people,” Jackson says. “I was from Kansas City, where barbecue is big, and I moved to Tulsa, [Oklahoma], and wasn’t impressed with the barbecue.”

    At first Sims thought Jackson was crazy to propose a restaurant, but Jackson won him over. They opened a 1,000-square-foot location in the Farm Shopping Center in Tulsa in 2004.

    Once Billy Sims BBQ had grown to seven locations, it began franchising. Since then, unit count has blossomed to 53, with two more in Kansas on the way. Sims’ name among sports circles often ensures extra local press when the brand enters new markets. For those unacquainted with the NFL star, displays within the restaurant tell his story. But even Sims’ fame didn’t translate to an overnight success.

    “Like most men, we all think we can barbecue,” Sims says. “And for the first few years it wasn’t doing that good. We kind of regrouped and got great people on board who knew more than we did, and it took off from there.”

    The company doubled down on its promise of fresh meat, prominently displaying its barbecue smokers in each location so guests would see the team smoking the meats on site.

    As far as daily involvement, Sims says Jackson is the one who runs the company from an operational standpoint. That being said, Sims stays up-to-date on all major concerns and issues. “I’m sort of old-fashioned and say, if ain’t broke, don’t fix it; go with it,” Sims says. “I like to be like the Colonel. He just does chicken.”

    Not unlike Sims joining forces with Jackson, comedian George Lopez teamed with Michael Zislis of boutique hotel and restaurant company Zislis Group Inc. to create a Mexican quick serve. The 150-seat, 6,000-square-foot Chingon Kitchen opened within the San Manuel Casino in Highland, California, last September.

    Lopez was immersed in the business from the start, renting a home in Manhattan Beach right next to the Zislis Group offices as the Chingon Kitchen concept was developed.

    “The great thing about [Zislis] and his company is that they do everything in-house, so when I went to the meeting, I had everybody in the same room,” Lopez told QSR in January. “I didn’t have to have five other meetings with people, all the designers and all the creators.”

    Zislis has learned much in his time with Lopez—most notably how much he is beloved among the Latino population. “The first thing that’s dear to them is their family, second might be the pope, but pretty much a close third is George Lopez,” Zislis told QSR in January. “They have all grown up watching his shows. It’s amazing; everywhere we go, the chefs come out and ask if they can make him tacos.”

    Many of the menu items at George Lopez’s Chingon Kitchen are family recipes, including the carnitas, guacamole, and tortilla mix. He wanted to keep things simple but flavorful in the spirit of his grandmother’s approach to cooking.

    Zislis is scouting out three more units in other casinos, followed by three street locations in Los Angeles, which would also serve beer and wine.

    Attaching a celebrity name to a brand can be a double-edged sword: an asset or a potential liability depending on the person in question. That’s why Schiffer says it’s critical that a celebrity be vetted early on. Not only does such a process mitigate the risk of fallout, but it also ensures restaurants don’t go into business with the wrong person.

    “Try to get that all logged down into some kind of an agreement so that nothing comes back and bites you,” Schiffer says.

    After all, the reputation and public actions of celebrities are highly scrutinized—from their social media presence to any potential scandals that may surface. And as prominent figures, many have tie-ins with multiple brands, and some of those may be at odds with the restaurant.

    Schiffer notes there is a certain pride in having the right celebrity associated with the right brand. It can improve morale from an operational level, boost recruiting, and reinforce a customer’s decision to patron those restaurants. Such partnerships can come at a premium, but for some brands it may be worth the cost.

    “Does the fee correspond to what you want?” Schiffer says. “If you have an expensive celebrity fee, you better be sure they have engaged fans, because you want to make sure you get the ROI.”