Rock & Brews woos the family crowd with pizza, craft beers and classic rock.

As the flamboyant co-founders of Kiss in the 1970s, Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons, notorious for their Kabuki makeup and R-rated stage antics, wanted to rock and roll all night and party every day. As sober-minded family men and entrepreneurs in 2013, they’ve got somewhat higher aspirations: They aim to take their populist restaurant concept, called Rock & Brews (rockandbrews.com), to markets across the United States, rolling out 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, think again. Rock & Brews is no tourist trap with better memorabilia than 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, where a five-course feast may include pan-roasted Jidori chicken or a Smoked Whitefish Napoleon with herbed crème fraiche.

“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

“A Spark in Dave Furano’s Eye”

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 boasts 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.”

“We’re actively involved in all aspects. 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.”
—Gene Simmons, Rock & Brews

“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.”

Pizza: The Family Product

There’s nothing hoity-toity 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.”

“The beer scene is so big right now, and people want something unique, something they can’t ordinarily find. They love it when the brewmaster shows up with five great barrels directly from the brewery, each paired with a different food.”
—Michael Zislis, Rock & Brews

Promoting the Beer Scene

In addition to drawing the family crowd, Rock & Brews was designed as a beer lover’s Nirvana. The bar is stocked with about 100 craft selections, from lagers and pilsners to wheat beers, Belgians and dark, malty and hoppy brews. Zislis uses the beer menu to drive traffic on slow nights. To celebrate L.A. Beer Week, Rock & Brews hosted a Craft Beer Dinner, serving a five-course meal paired with beers from Goose Island Beer Co. Affordably priced at $45 and $55, the packages featured the Strawberry Fields Salad paired with a 312 Urban Wheat or Sofie Paradisi; Asian wings with a Harvest Ale or Matilda; the Bleu Cheese Bacon Burger with India Pale Ale or Pere Jacques; a Pulled Pork Pizza with Honkers Ale; and Purple Rain Drops for dessert.

Pint Night is another popular recurring promo. Advertised heavily on Facebook and Twitter, every Pint Night event features beers from companies like Ballast Point Brewing and Monkish Brewery. “People love it,” Zislis says. “The beer scene is so big right now, and people want something unique, something they can’t ordinarily find. They love it when the brewmaster shows up with five great barrels directly from the brewery, each paired with a different food. The brewer goes table to table, talking to the guests about the beers and how they’re made. Beer lovers want to connect with that brewery, and they want to know who’s brewing these local beers. We had about 60 people show up at our Pint Night event last night. That’s about half of the restaurant.”

Best of all, although only a limited number of tickets are sold for each Pint Night, it’s affordable for working people. “This is a $40 event,” Zislis says. “It’s not a $200 wine dinner. To go out and have a great meal and a good time and only spend $40, people absolutely love that.”

Tap Takeovers are also popular beer-driven promos at Rock & Brews. “We’ll have a local brewery bring six products for a whole week and take over the taps,” Zislis says. The restaurant’s annual Local Craft Beer Festivals, meanwhile, spotlight homegrown breweries and offer carnival-style games, dunking tanks and cotton candy.

A Middle-America Concept

Even dog lovers feel welcome at Rock & Brews—there’s a special menu just for their pets. “We have a couple of different [nonalcoholic] dog beers, a light and a dark,” Zislis says. “We have a hot dog for dogs, a burger for dogs. It’s all made by dog food companies. Dog owners are so passionate about their dogs, so the idea of pouring a beer in a bowl for their dog sitting next to them at their table—it’s something they can’t wait for.”

Everything about Rock & Brews seems calculated to appeal to the broadest possible demographic without insulting the more discriminating diner’s palate. So it’s only natural that the partners want to spread the Rock & Brews gospel to markets around the United States.

A location in Paia, Hawaii, will open soon, but less exotic locales are just as desirable to Zislis’ group. “We like to call it a Middle-America concept,” Zislis says. “It works in every city. But it’s not a formulaic concept. We wrote a whole new menu for Hawaii, including things that were representative of the island. If we ever come to Tennessee, I can guarantee you I’ll go through the menus at the great restaurants there and make sure that region is represented on our menu.”

Zislis wants to find 10 partners around the country to form joint ventures with his group. Two partnerships—in Texas and Florida—are already under way. But this is not a franchise deal, he notes. “I don’t see anything good coming from franchising one store to one person at a time. We’re looking for experienced people who have already opened up 10 or 12 restaurants to partner with us. We want to surround ourselves with great people.”

Zislis says he has no doubt the concept can fly in the sleepy American heartland as well as in big, bustling cities. “I knew it when I opened the first one. I’ve opened four now, and they’re all busy. Whenever you can pay off a project in 24 months, that’s a good project. And that’s been our track record so far.”

Rick Hynum is PMQ’s editor-in-chief.