Too Hot to Handle
The sign in the window of the Fire + Ice "improvisational grill" (2801 Kirby Drive, 713-522-4500) was one of the strangest to appear on a newly shuttered restaurant. Addressed to "Houston," the message read: "Your city was just to [sic] darn 'hot' for us, so we're going back to Bean Town. Thank you for making it an exciting stay in your wonderful city!!" No one still working for the chain in Houston or Boston admits any knowledge of the letter or its author.
Fire + Ice's retreat to its spiritual home seems as precipitous as the Taliban's retreat from Kandahar. The December issue of Inside Houston has a full-color advertisement for the enterprise. The company's Web site still announces that the Houston location is hiring. And the telephone has not been disconnected. Fire + Ice didn't open until weeks after its scheduled launch date of March 1, 2001, and it was gone just after Thanksgiving, not even trying to last (like several soon-to-close Houston restaurants) through the best business month on the calendar. This costly disaster may be the result of a common recipe for failure: a mixture of arrogance and ignorance.
The Fire + Ice restaurants -- one in Cambridge, Massachusetts, one in Boston proper and one in nearby Providence, Rhode Island -- are successful in their East Coast market. They're not fine dining establishments, nor are they fast food franchises. Their concept fell into the category of "eatertainment" pioneered by Japanese wrestler Rocky Aoki in his Benihana chain (pretty good food), copied by the Hard Rock Cafe (just passable food) and expanded to include such (culinarily terminal) operations as medieval banquet halls. It's a concept that needs conventioneers, tourists and a high volume of walk-by, says Houston restaurant consultant Christopher Tripoli, who did not work for the Fire + Ice chain.
But this venture makes for an excellent case study in how not to open a restaurant in Houston. Local Fire + Ice manager Scott Demick told the Houston Press last year (see "Culture Shock," by George Alexander, February 1) that "Houston is the best city for test-marketing a restaurant in the USA." But ours is a large city, with plenty of room for mistakes. A consultant who worked on the early stages of the Fire + Ice Houston project (and speaks on condition of anonymity) recalls that the restaurant's site was selected by James Miller, one of the founders and principals of the chain. The consultant suggested a high-traffic, Galleria-area location, but Miller wanted the former Hard Rock Cafe building because it was close to River Oaks.
"They kept forcing this River Oaks thing on me," the consultant recalls. Miller "really and truly thought he was smarter than everybody Totally arrogant -- but charming too." Miller did not return numerous phone calls from the Press.
"That site was just plain wrong," says Tripoli. "They could have gone to other cities with larger tourist volume You need to pattern off people's spending habits. If you follow the demographics, everything that has gone to that neighborhood has gone slightly 'up.'"
Reached by telephone at the Fire + Ice corporate office, where nine executives oversee three restaurants, CEO Paul Cuilla declared the demise of the Houston branch "not worth commenting on." He did allow as to how the company "lost a lot of money."
How much money is not being disclosed, but the huge Hard Rock structure, owned by Houston real estate investor Tommy Dickey, was completely renovated for the Fire + Ice concept. Such renovation normally runs $100 per square foot, meaning Fire + Ice could have spent $1 million on remodeling alone. Furthermore, a lease on a property that size can easily run to $250,000 per year. In order to pay that kind of rent, Tripoli says, a restaurant needs to be "pulling in $4 million a year."
But Tripoli doesn't believe that Fire + Ice was doomed from the start in Houston. Additional research and budget planning before the restaurant opened might have resulted in success, he says. Some attempt to get involved with the city would have helped as well.
"Restaurants have personalities, like people," Tripoli says. "The Outback chain is the best example of understanding that idea. Outback managers have to spend a lot of time in the community, volunteer for charities, be visible...[Fire + Ice] didn't do anything...That goes counter to everything they teach about managing restaurants."
The consultant who worked with the company sums it up more viscerally: "The music was too loud. The food was no good. The service was bad."
And Houston, as the anonymous letter writer put it, is just too darn hot for that.
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