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Hard Rock Cafe reinvents brand with remodel and live music focus

Unveiling of redesign at Hard Rock Baltimore planned for Tuesday

By Lorraine Mirabella The Baltimore Sun

6:18 PM EDT, September 30, 2013

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Guitars still line the red walls at the Hard Rock Cafe in Baltimore, sharing space with rock stars' jackets, autographed records, suede boots worn by Prince and Madonna's purple sequined shorts.

But 16 years after the themed restaurant's Inner Harbor opening, the trademark 1960 Cadillac with whitewalls and fins that always hovered over the wooden bar is gone. It's been replaced by a massive lighting sculpture above a bar topped in marble, offering a clearer sightline to a reconfigured stage.

The changes, part of a redesign being unveiled Tuesday, are signs of a new direction for the iconic brand that has parlayed a theme of burgers, beer and rock-and-roll into restaurants, hotels, casinos and concert halls worldwide. At age 40, the concept is striving to remain vital in today's competitive restaurant landscape, partly by offering more live music to go with the wall-art guitars, said Fred Thimm, chief operating officer and vice president of company cafe operations for Orlando, Fla.-based Hard Rock International.

"Hard Rock is one of the most recognized and loved brands around the world," Thimm said in an interview. "There are things Hard Rock has remained true to, but you have to reinvent yourself."

Hard Rock spent millions of dollars — it won't say exactly how much — to upgrade the Baltimore cafe, which is among the chain's top 25 percent for sales in North America. The work was completed this year and designed in part to add live music to the dining and drinking experience, Thimm said.

So far, just 13 of its 139 cafes have been remodeled, the company said. Plans call for upgrades to all company-owned cafes, with projects in the works for locations in Washington and San Francisco.

"Hard Rock really means music to a lot of people," Thimm said. "There has definitely been … a strategic move to proactively add more live music to the Hard Rock universe worldwide."

Besides giving Baltimore's restaurant, bar and retail shop a brighter appearance, changes include upgrades to the sound system and a new stage backdrop featuring the Hard Rock Baltimore logo.

The restaurant also sports all new memorabilia adorning walls and floor-to-ceiling columns. Visitors will find a pair of red pants worn by Billy Idol, records autographed by Elton John and Eric Clapton, a 1966 Rolling Stones concert program, Bo Diddley's custom-designed wooden box-shaped guitar — and guitars played by Tom Petty, Waylon Jennings and KISS' Paul Stanley.

The chain's collection has grown to 74,000 pieces since 1979 when Eric Clapton, a regular at the original Hard Rock in London, asked the owners to hang his guitar over his favorite bar stool, according to the company's website. The owners, two Americans living in London, had opened the Hard Rock in 1971 in a former Rolls Royce dealership, modeling it after an American-style diner. In 2007, the brand was acquired by the Seminole Tribe of Florida, Hard Rock's parent company.

As a casual dining concept, Hard Rock faces the same challenges confronting competitors as the industry emerges from the recession, said Fred Scarpace, owner of Memphis-based Pace Restaurant Consulting, which focuses on mergers, acquisitions and consulting.

"Most chains are currently under pressure for market share," Scarpace said. "Consumers are still being careful, and they're trying to be a little more prudent in the way they spend their money."

As a result, eateries from fast food to casual dining are ramping up promotions and special deals to attract customers, he said.

In addition, the fast-growing fast-casual segment — including Five Guys, Panera Bread and Qdoba — has crowded in on the casual dining segment, he said.

"There is a certain enjoyment to going out and sitting down and receiving table service, and when the economy is normal people reward themselves with a nice sit-down dinner," Scarpace said. "But in today's world, a lot of people are in a hurry, especially at lunchtime. They don't want to go to lunch and wait to be seated and served. The overall restaurant business is on the upswing, but it will take more time to get things back to what I'd call normal."

On a recent Thursday night at Baltimore's Hard Rock, two couples chatted over drinks at the bar, while music videos played on flat-screen TVs. A family with children ate dinner in a booth. But most of the activity was outside, where diners ate at recently added patio tables just outside the front entrance or on the floating pier just across the promenade, where a band played. Hard Rock typically features live music on the pier Thursdays through Sundays during the summer.

But starting Tuesday, live music will move indoors and continue year-round. Plans call for unplugged live music sessions from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. every Thursday and local cover bands starting at 9 p.m every Friday.

Tuesday night's kickoff will feature an invitation-only party for 300 guests — the indoor seating capacity — with a concert by alternative rock band Imagine Dragons. A pre-event public gathering is slated for the pier outside the Hard Rock at 6 p.m., where fans have a chance to win tickets.

Thimm said the Inner Harbor location has offered the mix of local diners and out of town visitors that the chain looks for in its locations.

"We want to remain fresh and relevant to the future," he said. "Baltimore is a microcosm. We've been there 16 years and we want to be there 20 more."

lorraine.mirabella@baltsun.com