The co-founders of Kiss in the 1970s, Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons, notorious for their crazy makeup and R-rated stage stunts, who wanted to party all night and day. Now as sober-minded family men and entrepreneurs in 2013, they’ve got higher aspirations: They aim to take their populist restaurant concept, called Rock & Brews (rockandbrews.com), to markets all across the United States, debuting a new pizza-and-beer brand aimed squarely at Middle America.
“This is a family-friendly restaurant that provides great food and a broad selection of craft beers in a fun environment,” says Stanley, one of five partners in the Rock & Brews enterprise, which has three locations in southern California and one in Los Cabos, Mexico. “We immerse guests in an entertainment experience with concert lighting, rock-themed artwork and flat screens projecting some of the greatest rock music of all time.”
If that sounds a little too similar to Hard Rock Café, you would be mistaken. Rock & Brews is not a tourist trap with better memorabilia than its food. Its first location opened not in glitzy L.A. but in El Segundo, a blue-collar town of about 16,000. Yet it’s backed by one of the South Bay’s most prominent restaurateurs, Michael Zislis, the brains behind Rock’N Fish, a Manhattan Beach eatery specializing in steaks and seafood, and the posh Strand House.
“I have a restaurant that cost $15 million to open,” Zislis says. “This is not one of those restaurants. This is a local family-friendly beer garden, and the family component is what hits home the most. We’ve got a playground for kids age 5 and under. We let people bring in their dogs. We’ve got between 12 and 16 video screens in every restaurant playing all of the coolest music video content I can get my hands on. And who doesn’t like rock-and-roll? I can’t think of a single person who says, ‘Oh, turn that Tom Petty off.’”
Michael Zislis, Rock & Brews
Stanley and Simmons are no strangers to commercial enterprise. Kiss was one of the first bands to grasp the benefits of licensing its name for merchandise ranging from comic books and condoms to pinball machines and Pez dispensers. Simmons, the band’s fire-spitting, tongue-wagging wild man, is unabashedly entrepreneurial and makes it known to interviewers that Kiss has 3,000 licensed products under its brand.
But the idea for Rock & Brews came from another source: founding partner Dave Furano, a veteran music promoter who managed tours for acts such as The Rolling Stones and the Grateful Dead. “It started out as a spark in Dave Furano’s eye,” Zislis says. “He thought that L.A., being the hub of the rock-and-roll business, needed an authentic rock-and-roll restaurant. But what he didn’t want was another crappy, pump-out-the-food kind of restaurant. He wanted something that was truly great, something he could be proud of. That’s where I came into play.”
Zislis joined with Furano and his brother, Dell, to launch Rock & Brews in early 2010. “We converted this little teeny restaurant in El Segundo, leased the space next door and made a rock-and-roll-style beer garden with pop-up walls, artwork and graphics. We put together a menu that I felt had the best of what my restaurants offered. It was quite a successful opening—jeez, it was packed.”
Furano then brought Stanley and Simmons into the mix. “We needed an entrée into the rock-and-roll world,” Zislis says. “And the master licensees of all time are Kiss.” The partners soon tore down the original Rock & Brews space, bought more property around it and built a new 6,000-square-foot restaurant, packed wall-to-wall with flat-screen TVs and original rock album artwork. For the grand reopening, Stanley and Simmons took center stage, but the rockers had no intention of being mere face men for the restaurant. “We’re both actively involved in all aspects of it,” Simmons notes. “We recommend and approve menu items. We play a significant role in branding and marketing and cautiously consider all expansion plans for the company. We attend regular owner meetings and visit the restaurants for tastings and to engage with customers.”
“They are tireless workers,” Zislis says. “They beat me to the CNN interviews at five in the morning for the East Coast. And Paul really cares about the food. He has been making pizzas in his backyard for years with a really nice wood-fired oven. That was his passion before this even came to be—making those pizzas.”
There’s nothing very fancy about Rock & Brews, but that doesn’t keep each restaurant from raking in annual sales of about $5 million, Zislis says. The menu features all-American fare, from burgers and hot dogs to chili and baby back ribs. But the pizza is the star of the culinary show, Zislis says. “It’s probably the most important thing. For us, it’s pizza, then burgers and wings. We brought in a famous chef named Timothy Hollingsworth, who spent the last 14 years at The French Laundry, and he came up with some of our pizza recipes, the kale salad, a couple of our burgers. Everything we do is made per order. We bake our breads and make our dough fresh every day. We grind our own meats. We do everything you’d expect from a fine restaurant, but the atmosphere is more open and friendly.”
Sold in 10” and 16” sizes, pies include the Surfin’ Safari Shrimp Pesto (housemade pesto sauce, shrimp, mozzarella and goat cheeses, mushrooms and sun-dried tomatoes) and the Maui-Wowie Style (housemade tomato sauce, spicy pepperoni, pineapple, jalapeños and mozzarella). Zislis’ personal favorite is the Bill Graham BBQ Chicken (named for the legendary rock promoter), made with fire-grilled chicken breast, barbecue sauce, red onions, cilantro and mozzarella and Gouda cheeses. “They’re all boutique pizzas,” Zislis says.
“I’d say that 30% of our total food sales come from pizza. It’s the family product. Most families come in and order a large pizza, a pitcher of beer and a pitcher of soda, and they’re really happy. If you want families, you’ve got to sell pizza.”