Thursday, July 10, 2003

Franchise bars find too little action here



By James McNair
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[IMAGE] Benny Harnish plays the tuba near the bar area of the Hofbrauhaus restaurant on a Friday evening in May.
(Enquirer file photo)
| ZOOM |
Hard Rock Cafe has 42 outlets in the United States and is coming to Louisville. Howl at the Moon has 11 U.S. locations and is eyeing Indianapolis. House of Blues has eight U.S. clubs and expects to open its ninth next year in Cleveland.

However repugnant the notion of franchised entertainment might be, Cincinnati doesn't have it. Whatever it takes to get it, the nation's 23rd most populated metropolitan area can't seem to find it.

"I remain optimistic about Cincinnati's future, but we still have a ways to go," said Jimmy Bernstein, owner of the piano-bar chain Howl at the Moon.

Across the Midwest and mid-South, cities are revitalizing themselves through urban renewal and the oxygen-giving development of entertainment districts. Indianapolis, Pittsburgh and Nashville, Tenn., have had great success in drawing people downtown well into the early morning hours. Louisville hopes to get there through a $70 million, publicly supported conversion of an ossified downtown mall into a complex dubbed 4th Street Live!

Much of what is happening in Cincinnati is actually happening in Newport. The riverfront Newport on the Levee center boasts a second take of the Columbus-based Shadowbox Cabaret buffet-nightclub and two local-only venues, the Empire Nightclub and Jeff Ruby's Tropicana. By November, the multilevel complex expects to add a franchise of The Improv, the New York-based comedy club that has 16 U.S. locations, including Cleveland and Pittsburgh.

A block away in Newport sits a Tristate anomaly, the nation's lone franchise of Germany's Hofbrauhaus. The offspring of the Hofbrau Brewery in Munich opened in April, and its fast start attests to the region's interest in German culture - or its good beer.

"The word of mouth so far has been incredible," said the Hofbrauhaus' marketing director, Laura Krauser. "We're getting people and e-mail from California, from Wisconsin and from across the United States, not just locally. We've far exceeded our expectations."

But Greater Cincinnati has struggled to lure American establishments. Howl at the Moon has its headquarters in Covington, yet not a club in sight.

Two years ago, it did. After an 11-year run in Covington and Newport, Howl at the Moon moved into what was - and still is - thought to be the leading candidate to become the Queen City's nightclub district, Over-the-Rhine. Bernstein's timing, one week before the street violence of April 2001, was fatal. It never reopened.

Meantime, Bernstein operates Howl at the Moon bars in Columbus and Cleveland, as well as in Hollywood; New Orleans; Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; and six other cities. He said he is "pursuing opportunities" in Indianapolis and Seattle.

And Cincinnati, where Bernstein lives?

"I often evaluate that," he mused. "I just haven't drawn any real conclusions. People call and say I ought to bring it back. I just never focused on it."

Bernstein did cite the "extra-competitive" nightclub and restaurant scene in Greater Cincinnati as one possible deterrent.

Then again, with all the people flocking to Newport on the Levee and the Hofbrauhaus, he said it might be an opportune time to reincarnate the hometown Howl at the Moon.

Cincinnati is a black hole in the Hard Rock Cafe universe, too. A subsidiary of The Rank Group in London, Hard Rock Cafe has opened 108 restaurant/clubs in 41 countries since its 1971 debut in London. Granted, many of its chosen cities are on the touristy side. In recent years, though, its desire for greater accessibility has brought it to the likes of Cleveland, St. Louis, Indianapolis, Pittsburgh, Minneapolis and, perhaps next May, Louisville.

Hard Rock Cafe, it turns out, wants Cincinnati, but Cincinnati doesn't seem to want Hard Rock.

"We've been looking at Cincinnati for the past five years," said Chris Tomasso, the company's vice president of worldwide marketing. "But to be honest with you, there's no large-scale development downtown. There are no developers putting together attractive deals for us to participate in. A lot of the deals have been happening in the suburbs.

"In Louisville, we'll be the centerpiece of a prime development movement happening downtown," Tomasso said. "That's what we've done in Minneapolis, Pittsburgh, Indianapolis and Baltimore. It's been where we see a commitment by the city and a developer on board making the package attractive for us. We're often the first to sign up."

Tomasso said the Cincinnati market meets the company's location criteria. It just isn't interested in a stand-alone proposition.

"The demographics are fine. It's a larger media market than some of the places we're in," he said.

"We would love to see Hard Rock Cafe-Cincinnati shirts all over the place."

Stan Eichelbaum, president of Marketing Developments Inc., a retail consulting firm in downtown Cincinnati, bemoans the city's lack of preparedness in attracting more upscale retailers, restaurants and nightclubs of national repute.

"You need to prove the market validity and demand - and put a plan together to make it seem cohesive for the nightclubs and retailers," Eichelbaum, a resident of 25 years, said. "They must see a program and a research plan for a conceived area. Cincinnati hasn't done that."

Eichelbaum does, however, see the potential for more robust nightlife in town.

"Cincinnati has extreme potential, but hasn't taken advantage of it," he said.

E-mail jmcnair@enquirer.com.



Franchise bars find too little action here
Little Microsoft is all grown up now
Stocks still valuable for employees
Tobacco merger floated
New camera phones calling up mischief
J.T.M builds giant freezer in Harrison
Tristate summary
Business digest
What's the Buzz?