The wild tale of the man who founded Rainforest Cafe

When Steven Schussler’s themed restaurant failed to attract investors in the early ’90s, he built one in his own house — complete with waterfalls, tropical birds, and robotic gorillas.

Rainforest Cafe

For kids growing up in the 1990s, life was not complete without a pilgrimage to Rainforest Cafe.

At this chain of “eatertainment” restaurants, you were surrounded by aquariums, waterfalls, and animatronic jungle cats. Live parrots screeched from a canopy of greenery, and simulated thunderstorms dusted the dining hall with clouds of mist.

Over the prerecorded grunts and grumbles of gorillas, a waiter in a safari outfit would lean in close and utter a phrase that childhood dreams were made of: “Your adventure is about to begin.”

Rainforest Cafe wasn’t just a kitschy tourist trap; it was a money-minting machine. A single location could gross in excess of $15m a year. And for a brief period of time in the mid-’90s, the publicly traded chain was one of the hottest stocks on Wall Street. Three decades later, there are still 23 locations all over the world.

But the man who created the concept had to navigate a jungle of his own.

The man in the crate

Steven Schussler was scrappy since the day he was born.

Raised in Queens, New York, in a working-class family, he got his first job in 1962, at the age of seven — a gig shoveling snow for his neighbors. By the time he was 16, he’d worked dozens of odd jobs, often lying about his age to land work:

  • Selling hot chocolate at Shea Stadium
  • Laying concrete
  • Working at a beach club as a “cabana boy”
  • Washing dishes and waiting tables at restaurants

Steven Schussler making a face in a school photo

Steven Schussler’s high school yearbook photo (Courtesy of Steven Schussler, via his “It’s a Jungle in There”)

At 18, he moved to Miami, Florida, and took a job as a lineman for Southern Bell Telephone and Telegraph Company. But what he really wanted to do was work in the radio business.

“During my lunch shifts, I would scale the poles, plug into random telephone lines, and call around for jobs,” Schussler told The Hustle. “And after my shifts, I’d clean up, put my suit on, and go to interviews.”

Schussler didn’t have much luck, and decided to take matters into his own hands. He built a giant crate and had a friend seal him inside, with a salami sandwich and a Diet Coke for sustenance. Then, he had himself delivered to the office of WGBS Radio, under the guise that it was an important furniture delivery for one of the executives.

“He opened the crate, and I came flying out like a jack-in-the-box. I could hardly breathe. Pieces of the salami sandwich were flying all over the place and my Afro was sticky from the soda exploding,” recalls Schussler. “He said, ‘Son, you’re the sickest person I’ve ever met.’ And he hired me as a salesman.”

But he soon got the bug to start his own thing.

While working in advertising, he took up a hobby restoring 1950s ephemera. He turned the hobby into a small storefront above a nightclub, where he refurbished and sold jukeboxes, carousel horses, and slot machines.

He struck up a partnership with the nightclub and developed a 1950s-themed eatery, decorated with all of his collectibles. The business eventually branded itself as Jukebox Saturday Night and expanded to seven locations across the country — including one in Minneapolis, where Schussler soon settled and bought a home.

Schussler was dejected when Jukebox Saturday Night went bankrupt in 1991. But he’d gotten a taste of success — and it wasn’t long until he was ready to try his hand again in the restaurant business.

Top: Steven Schussler with a business associate; bottom: a Jukebox Saturday Night restaurant (Courtesy of Steven Schussler, via his “It’s a Jungle in There”)

A jungle in the ’burbs

In the early 1990s, developers were interested in restaurants that achieved the “trinity of synergy” — a combination of dining, retail, and entertainment.

Dubbed “eatertainment,” these restaurants were destinations in their own right. And the hope was that they’d attract more out-of-town customers to malls, which were experiencing a lull after a decade of solid growth.

Several chains had already made millions with this model:

  • Hard Rock Cafe (founded in 1971, in London) lured diners in with rock ’n’ roll memorabilia
  • Dave & Busters (1982, Dallas) offered arcade games and full entertainment centers with dinner
  • Planet Hollywood (1991, NYC) replicated the Hard Rock Cafe playbook with celebrity memorabilia

Schussler had an idea of his own.

“I’d always loved animals and tropical birds. And I wondered, ‘What if I could create a rainforest-themed restaurant where I could share all of these amazing creatures with the public while they were eating?’”

Steven Schussler holding a chimpanzee

Steven Schussler with his pet chimpanzee, Charlie (Courtesy of Steven Schussler, via his “It’s a Jungle in There”)

Schussler pitched the idea to his business contacts, but nobody budged. 

So, he turned to plan B.

The entrepreneur sold nearly everything he owned and began to build a man-made rainforest inside of his 3k-square-foot home in a quiet suburb outside of Minneapolis. This entailed, among other things:

  • Boulders and rocks constructed out of concrete
  • A giant waterfall cascading into a river that snaked through the house and emptied out into the backyard
  • Black-painted walls covered in vines and tropical plants
  • 3.7k extension cords, used to power gas generators, electric heaters, water pumps, and 20 different sound systems
  • Two 600-gallon fish tanks filled with tropical fish
  • Fog and mist machines
  • A 12-foot neon sign that read “Paradise”
  • A greenhouse full of butterflies
  • More than a dozen life-size animatronic creatures, including alligators, gorillas, and an elephant
  • 40 tropical birds, two 150-pound tortoises, iguanas, and a baboon that roamed freely around the house
  • A fully stocked replica of a retail store with T-shirts, stuffed animals, and other merchandise for sale

Schussler says his electric bill was so high — $2k per month — that Drug Enforcement Administration officers showed up at his door, suspecting a weed-growing operation. The humidity destroyed his wallpaper, the gas company shut off his service, and neighbors constantly complained. The project pushed him to the brink of his sanity and financial means.

Building the project took three years and cost Schussler $400k — his entire life savings from his previous ventures.

“I put everything into building the rainforest,” he says. “My balls were way over the line.”

Scenes from Steven Schussler’s house in the early ’90s (Courtesy of Steven Schussler, via his “It’s a Jungle in There”)

Schussler invited investors to his home each week for tours. His creation blew them away, but didn’t attract any bites.

“I was overwhelmed,” one potential investor later told the Star Tribune. “You just knew that anybody this crazily committed had to be successful.”

Eventually, Schussler courted the casino magnate and venture capitalist Lyle Berman.

“I greeted him in a safari shirt with a parrot on my shoulder,” says Schussler. “He thought I was a lunatic.”

Berman declined to invest, but continued to visit Schussler’s home, often bringing along his colleagues and family members to marvel at the sights and sounds of the suburban jungle.

“He told me, ‘There’s no way you’re getting my money — but do you mind if I bring my kids over? I want them to see what it’s like to never give up, to be so invested that you live in your concept,’” recalls Schussler.

After several years of toggling back and forth on the idea, Berman finally decided to give Schussler a shot. The gambling tycoon organized a fundraising round and put up $1.2m.

The birth of Rainforest Cafe

The first Rainforest Cafe opened its doors in October 1994 in Bloomington, Minnesota, at the Mall of America — the largest shopping mall in the US.

Getting it off the ground was no easy feat:

  • It took 1.5 years to build
  • It cost $1k per square foot (~5x the cost of a normal restaurant build) and went a million dollars over budget

Rainforest Cafe restaurant scenes

Scenes from Rainforest Cafe (All Ears)

No expense was spared for the robotic creatures. The restaurant ordered dozens — gorillas, monkeys, snakes, elephants, and giant butterflies — from a custom animatronics firm in Apopka, Florida. A single mechanical elephant cost upward of $20k.

The live parrots that roamed around the restaurant were a bigger hassle. Schussler had to consult with federal and state health officials and install a special filtration system to get clearance for them. They cost the restaurant upward of $100k/year to feed and care for.

Rainforest Cafe also ran on a complex computer system, which controlled the lights, the water, and the multiple sound systems. Staffing needs included a “director of operations” to run the technical back end, and animal handlers.

“Everything we did cost more money than it did somewhere else,” says Schussler.


Top: Actress Kate Beckinsale with a $20k animatronic elephant at a Rainforest Cafe in London's Shaftesbury Avenue in 1997 (David Cheskin - PA Images/PA Images via Getty Images); bottom: A robotic tree at a Rainforest Cafe in Orlando, Florida (Don Richards CC BY 2.0)

The efforts paid off: The restaurant grossed $15m in its first year — 5-7x what chains like TGI Fridays and Olive Garden were doing at the time.

Similar to Hard Rock Cafe and Planet Hollywood, around 25% of Rainforest Cafe’s revenue came from its retail stores, which you had to walk through to access the restaurant. Kids bought stuffed animals, T-shirts, and puppets by the truckload, says Schussler.

Riding on this success, Rainforest Cafe filed for an IPO and went public on the stock market in 1995, at around $3.50 per share.

Schussler and his investors used the raised capital to aggressively expand the concept to other cities, targeting tourist centers and shopping malls with heavy foot traffic.

In 1996, the chain opened a flagship location at Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Florida. It cost $12m to build and drew 25k people during the first four days it was open.

The ‘fire sale’

Within five years of opening, Rainforest Cafe had more than 30 locations all over the world. Each location was reportedly grossing $8m a year, making it the most lucrative restaurant in the nation on a per-store basis.

The chain’s stock price rose commensurately.

From 1995 to 1998, sales rose nearly 100% year over year, and the stock skyrocketed from $3 to over $30 per share. At the time, Schussler’s reported 780k shares were worth ~$26.5m.

But by the turn of the millennium, the numbers were faltering.

Rainforest Cafe stock price over time

The Hustle

The problems started in early 1998, when revenues for themed restaurants started to fall short of expectations.

Planet Hollywood filed for bankruptcy after its stock tumbled from a 1996 high of $32 to less than $1 per share. Investors feared a similar fate for Rainforest Cafe, which had high operating costs and was experiencing declining revenues.

“There seems to have been an ‘I’ve been there, done that, I bought a T-shirt, no reason to go back syndrome,’” one retail analyst said of Rainforest Cafe at the time.

In July 2000, Rainforest Cafe posted net losses of $101.6m on a net income of $3.9m.

That September, Rainforest Cafe was sold to the hospitality and entertainment conglomerate Landry’s Inc. for $74m in an all-cash deal, at $3.25 per share.

“It was a fire sale,” says Schussler. “But then, it was on to the next thing.”

The second act

After the sale, Schussler went on to found Schussler Creative, a firm that develops theme restaurants.

Much like he once did in his own house, he builds out full prototypes of his ideas in a warehouse in Minnesota, inviting investors from all over the world to scope out his ideas.

abandoned animatronic gorilla

An abandoned animatronic gorilla from a Rainforest Cafe in Asia (SCMP / Sam Tsang)

His post-Rainforest Cafe launches include three popular themed restaurants at Walt Disney World in Florida:

“I didn’t want to be a one-pony show,” he says. “I wanted to create multiple concepts and be a world-class themed restaurant designer.”

Steven Schussler smiling in a headshot

Steven Schussler (The Hustle / original photo via Business Journals)

Today, Rainforest Cafe is still in operation, with 23 locations internationally. Though, the restaurants look a little different than they used to.

In 2016, the original location at the Mall of America was moved from the first floor to the third floor. Live parrots no longer fly freely in the green canopy. The fish tanks, waterfalls, and misting machines have quietly been phased out.

But for Schussler, who chronicled his Rainforest Cafe adventures in his 2010 book It’s a Jungle in There, the adventure was worth it.

“There’s a fine line between crazy and passionate,” he says. “But sometimes, you just have to build a rainforest in your house.”

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Topics: Restaurants

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