The Untold Truth Of Rainforest Cafe

It's tough to make it through childhood without a trip to a Rainforest Cafe, whose motto is "A wild place to shop and eat" (via Rainforest Cafe). The chain has locations in 11 states including California, Texas, and Florida (via Rainforest Cafe). Outside of the United States, there are five international locations as well, in Canada, Japan, England, France, and the United Arab Emirates.

The restaurant is lauded (or infamous, depending on how you look at it) for its over-the-top rainforest theme, featuring fish tanks, and enough greenery to fill numerous botanical gardens. About every 17 minutes, a "storm" takes place. The restaurant's lights go on and off to creating a lightning effect, elephants trumpet over the sound system, and an animatronic gorilla that could be an ex-member of the Chuck E. Cheese house band beats its chest. Then, just as soon as it started, everything goes back to normal. 

Whether their impressions of the brand are positive or negative, there's no denying that the restaurant is widely known — whenever someone comes across a photo of a red-eyed tree frog (the restaurant's mascot), their first thought is likely of the Rainforest Cafe (via Atlas Obscura).

Steven Schussler's idea becomes a reality

The restaurant was founded by Steven Schussler, who worked in advertising before his foray into the restaurant industry. Schussler sold all his belongings and turned his house into a pitch for the restaurant. He used 3,700 extension cords to power the electricity he used and installed artificial waterfalls and speakers to pipe in the noise of a thunderstorm.

Schussler also brought in live animals, a theme which would carry over to the restaurants themselves — in the early days of the Rainforest Cafe, in addition to the faux animals that dot the landscapes today, the restaurant featured real parrots, as well. For a time, tropical birds, two 150-pound tortoises, a baboon, and the fish housed in 10 300-gallon fish tanks also called Schussler's house home.

His neighbors thought it may have been a cover for a marijuana grow operation, and the Drug Enforcement Agency came calling to ensure that his $2,000 electricity bill, the highest among all of Minnesota's homes, was for lawful reasons. 

The Rainforest Cafe changes hands

Schussler showed the house to potential investors, and it cook a couple tries as well as a bankruptcy filing (via Mental Floss) before Lyle Berman, a casino founder, invested $1.2 million and became the first Rainforest Cafe CEO. The investment proved wise, as the first location was opened in Minnesota's Mall of America in 1994, and after just a week, a three-hour wait for a table was normal. After the restaurant was a success, Schussler wrote a book about his experiences (via Amazon).

In 1999, the Rainforest Cafe was the nation's top revenue earner per location, with each restaurant bringing in more than $8 million annually. Just a year later, the chain was sold to Landry's, a management company which also owns the Bubba Gump Shrimp Company and McCormick & Schmick's. The new owners removed the parrots, which had previously cost each restaurant $100,000 annually. Schussler and some of his former employees felt the change destroyed the spirit of the restaurant. Today, the only real animals that remain are in the fish tanks.

The Rainforest Cafe menu

Aspects of the restaurant may seem kitschy, like the talking tree which features a face in the trunk, but it has captivated many over the years including Michael Jackson. A former staffer recalls the pop singer watching the tree talk for 10 minutes in the mid 1990s. Perhaps the King of Pop had indulged in a little too much "Rasta Pasta."

For an exotic restaurant, the menu is fairly plain, and surprisingly small for a chain restaurant, as well. Although the menu differs slightly depending on location, at the original Mall of America location an attempt was apparently made to spice up some of the rather bland menu items (via Rainforest Cafe). For example, the New York style cheesecake with creamy whipped topping and raspberry and chocolate sauce is branded as a "Tribal Cheesecake," and the plain-as-can-be turkey wrap is made more exciting when it's called a "Jungle Turkey Wrap."

One of the restaurant's most lauded menu items is its Sparkling Volcano dessert, a $17.99 volcano-shaped brownie concoction. Perhaps the pricing is so high due to the exclusivity of the dish. As the restaurant's website boasts, "Where else can you eat a volcano?" (via Rainforest Cafe). However, in recent years the sparkler, which used to adorn the top of each volcano and gave it its name, has been removed in favor of a plastic alternative.

Disney partnerships and fiber-optic skies

Rainforest Cafe has seized on the opportunity to partner with Disney and boasts three Disney locations. True to form for a Disney-associated brand, each restaurant sells a bevy of merchandise from flip-flops to photos of you enjoying your meal taken by a photographer who goes table to table. The gift shop is sizable and can rival the seating area of the restaurant. 

Quite a bit of expertise had to go into operating the systems. A former employee recalled a sophisticated control room in their location to ensure that everything was running smoothly. And while some cost- or fun-cutting measures have been taken since the beginning of the concept, there was still quite a bit of effort and cost put into getting certain things right. The fiber-optic night sky ceiling at the restaurant was designed to look like a true September night sky. Diners can try to identify some 400 constellations as well as spot shooting stars.