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Robert Earl, CEO, Planet Hollywood
The business proposition behind the glitzy, star-studded theme-restaurant empire of Robert Earl is simple and unadorned. "For 15 bucks a head we take people out of reality," he says. That's a deal diners find compelling. Why else would they wait in line for a seat at Planet Hollywood or the Official All Star Cafe? After all, the closest most ordinary folk are going to get to celebrityland is to have a beer with the replica of Arnold Schwarzenegger as the Terminator or share a burger with one of Andre Agassi's tennis racquets, neither of which adds much to the conversation.
But that is close enough, as Earl, 45, has discovered to his considerable gain. Planet Hollywood is part of a new way of dining, called eatertainment, that he developed into an industry. Earl was already an experienced dinner-theater operator when he bought into one of the two Hard Rock Cafe companies in 1988. In expanding the chain from seven to 22 units, he began to understand the huge attraction that a restaurant with "all the whistles and bells" not to mention a souvenir stand to sell T shirts, jackets, sunglasses and golf balls could become. Other theme eateries that took a menu page from Planet Hollywood include Motown Cafe, Harley Davidson Cafe, Rain Forest Cafe, and Dive! No wonder: last year Planet Hollywood sold shares on the stock market that made Earl's roughly 25% ownership worth about $400 million. The company had sales of $373 million and profits of $48 million.
Planet Hollywood expanded the theme idea to jocks with the Official All Star Cafe, and it will soon make a foray into a music restaurant. Also planned: Chefs of the World and an eatery based on Marvel comic-book heroes. Says Earl: "I've always felt that movies and sport and music transcend every barrier. We take them to the people." This year Earl will take his restaurants to such locations as Cairo, Prague, Dublin and Rio. He's also expanding the brands to casinos and hotels.
Earl never travels to an opening without a retinue of movie stars or star athletes, who own just under 20% of the company. Bruce Willis and Demi Moore were early investors. (Hollywood producer Keith Barish brought Earl the idea for the restaurant.) Earl figured, correctly, that if the stars had a piece of the action, they'd be motivated to make appearances. Official All Star Cafe's newest athlete-partner is fellow TIME 25er Tiger Woods, a neighbor of Earl's in Orlando, Florida, not to mention a potential golf partner.
Once, Earl thought he had the second best job in the world, behind Disney boss Michael Eisner. Now, says Earl, "I'm not jealous of anyone else."