Ahhh, Rainforest Cafe. Where else can you eat microwaved chicken tenders, listen to the screams of wild monkeys in 95% humidity, all while being sprayed by an unrecognizable mist that makes you feel like you’re lettuce in a grocery store produce aisle? If you’re like me, between the ages of 7 and 11, Rainforest Cafe’s were EVERYWHERE. I honestly can’t remember a year when I didn’t go to one. It’s zoo animals and mac n’ cheese, what’s there for a kid NOT to love?
Originally founded in 1994 out of Steven Schussler’s Minnesota garage (the man decked out his garage with 100s of live animals and 3,700 extension cords worth of custom animatronics, just to prove to investors his concept would be a hit, but that’s a story for another blog), Rainforest Cafe became the restaurant of a generation, evoking intense memories of 90s nostalgia and riding the waves of a themed restaurant boom.
At its height, Rainforest Cafe operated 61 locations around the WORLD. Dubai, London and, for some reason, your local mall. Despite the aggressively themed nature (was that a live bird that just flew over my plate of chicken alfredo?), it was a wonderful jungle dining oasis where, for a low price of $25.99 per entree, you could dance with a gorilla, talk to a tree, and eat a fajita platter next to a cascading 30 foot indoor waterfall.
It was an place of magic and novelty until the year 2000… when Rainforest Cafe was ultimately sold to Landry’s Restaurants Inc. for $75 Million in cash (nice job, Steve), and unfortunately, the new ownership decided to cut costs, hard (it was $100k a year per location, just to have live birds fly around). Along with the sale, many of Schussler’s original ideas like the themed menu items, animatronic gorillas, talking trees, were removed. And thus, the novel mystique and original energy of Rainforest Cafe was gone.
Basically, Rainforest Cafe is a story of “big corporate” taking control and sucking the fun out of life. The public realized Rainforest Cafe wasn’t what it used to be, stopped going, and now, Rainforest Cafe has since been reduced to only 24 locations around the world. Lucky for you, if you still have a hankering, you can still visit a “new age” rainforest Cafe in Ontario, CA (but please don’t. It’s not the same as it once was, and there are PLENTY of better options for places to eat from here to Ontario).