“What’s better than rock and brews?”
That question, posed by rock ’n’ roll concert tour promoter Dave Furano backstage after a KISS concert seven years ago, prompted five friends to team up for a beer-centric, rock-music-themed eatery.
Rock & Brews is the brainchild of Dave Furano and his brother Dell (former CEO of Live Nation Merchandising); KISS frontmen Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley; and Los Angeles restaurateur/hotelier Michael Zislis.
The Manhattan Beach, CA-based brand officially launched in 2010 when the partners took over a small family restaurant in El Segundo, CA. Rock & Brews is now up to 20 restaurants, with several located in airports and stadiums.
While eight locations are in California, the concept has expanded into Texas, Florida, Kansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Hawaii. The first international location opened in March 2013 in San José del Cabo, Mexico.
The first employee Rock & Brews hired, Anthony Games, now oversees the beverage program. Games was actually in college and working at the El Segundo restaurant part-time when Rock & Brews took it over.
He started with the chain as a server, working his way up to bartender, bar manager and his current role as director of bar operations. Games is responsible for creating the beverage program, choosing the beer, liquor and wine lists, training the staff and coming up with the cocktails. Ironically, the initial El Segundo location is the only restaurant without a full bar, but that’s scheduled to change an upcoming remodel.
A brand with the word “brews” in the title requires a strong beer lineup. Rock & Brews celebrates craft and local beer: Of the roughly 52 taps, Zislis says, half are for beers located about 25 miles away from the restaurant’s location.
“We start with local beers—we try to embody the location’s culture,” Games says. Each state has its own beer brands, and different regions have unique brew preferences, he notes. For instance, the West Coast is seeing a renaissance of hoppy beer, whereas wheat beers are big in the Midwest, Games says. Local favorites include Boulevard wheat beer in Kansas and Cigar City’s Jai Alai IPA in Florida.
Draught brews are organized on the menus by Lagers & Pilsners, Wheat, Malty & Dark, Hoppy, Belgian/Belgian Inspired, Gluten Free and Rotating Handles. Local selections are flagged with with an “L” with a guitar-pick icon The concept also offers a few ciders.
Seasonality is important with craft beer, so more citrusy wheat beer might be on tap for summer and roasty stouts available during winter months, Games says. “We also do weekly pint nights introducing a new beer.”
When it comes to beer, Rock & Brews seeks out the unique and exclusive, Games says. “It’s constant exploration.” What’s more, “we take a lot of pride that our staff is extremely knowledgeable about beer.” The chain holds monthly “beer schools” to keep staffers up to date on the different brew styles and new selections.
Serious beer geeks are a small percentage of Rock & Brews customers, Zislis notes. So the brand needs to help some guests navigate its substantial selection.
Rock & Brews offers an in-house “beer 101” document in the restaurants that covers the different styles of beer and what food on the menu pairs well with that beer. Rock & Brews also offers beer flights of four 4-oz. samples served on a black acrylic guitar-shaped paddle.
Priced at $10, the flight also comes with four guitar picks that the guest can keep. The flights can be ordered in set themes such as “Local,” “Style,” “Hoppy” and “Belgian,” or customers can build their own, Games says.
The company aims to create cocktails made with premium spirits, fresh ingredients and big beautiful garnishes, Games says. Local and seasonal offerings play a role as well.
In California, Games notes, “there’s great citrus and fresh produce, which is frequently incorporated into the beverage program.” The chain shies away from artificially colored and sweetened products, he says. For instance, the Metal Mule, Rock & Brews’ take on a Moscow Mule, uses house-made ginger syrup and New Amsterdam vodka. The Rockin’ House Margarita is made with Tres Agaves Silver tequila, triple sec, fresh citrus and agave nectar.
Several of the cocktail names are inspired by rock ’n’ roll songs or artists. For example, there’s the Good Vibrations (Sugar Island spiced rum, dark rum, orange curacao, pineapple juice, lime juice and orgeat) and the Ginny Hendrix (New Amsterdam gin, St. Germaine, elderflower liqueur, lemon juice, blueberry, thyme, simple syrup and soda).
Twists on classics include the Sunday Bloody Sunday (vodka, Backyard Mary mix, bacon, creole salt, olive, celery, okra) and Golden Years (bourbon, lemon juice, and house-made honey syrup). Most cocktails are priced at around $10, depending on the location.
Games pays attention to beverage trends and tries to change the menu quarterly. While Rock & Brews has a core list of cocktails, there are some local drink specialties.
For instance, its location in The Colony, TX, offers the Texas Flood Margarita, a 24-oz. drink made with Tres Agaves tequila, Grand Marnier, fresh orange juice, fresh lemon juice, fresh lime juice and priced at $12.95. A local specialty in St. Louis is St. Louis Water, with New Amsterdam Vodka, New Amsterdam Gin, lime juice and Sprite ($7.)
To develop new specialty cocktails, Rock & Brews holds a contest with all of its bartenders every season. “The team competes like crazy,” Zislis says. “You have to win local competition to win the national.”
A recent winner was the Morning Mule cocktail from a bartender at the Oklahoma City location. It’s made with ginger syrup, New Amsterdam vodka, Perfect Puree passion fruit and LaMarca prosecco.
Rock & Brews has a core list of spirits for each location, but Games is constantly searching and self educating on what’s new and exciting. “I look for cool, local products, such as Prairie Wolf Spirits [from Guthrie, OK], fun stuff that we feel would fit the brand,” he says.
Speaking of prosecco, Rock & Brews takes its wine seriously. It doesn’t hurt that the chain’s roots are in California, Games says, “but we bring in rotating wines, such as a rosé from Washington state or a great malbec from Argentina.”
For whites, chardonnay is still king at Rock & Brews. Laguna (Russian River) and Franciscan (Napa) are popular brands of the varietal.
Other whites on offer include SeaGlass pinot grigio from Santa Barbara and Starborough sauvignon blanc from New Zealand’s Marlborough region, plus Ruffino prosecco. There is some variation by region, but in general “there will be a lot of consistency in wine offering among locations,” Games says.
All wines are offered by the glass and the bottle. The house wine at Rock & Brews is a great value at $5, according to Games, while a full-bodied cabernet is priced at about $14 a glass. Wine prices are generally $6 to $9 dollars a glass; bottles range from $18 to $50 depending on location.
Rock & Brews aims to appeal to a wide audience, from rock fans to soccer moms to the more pretentious beer snobs, Games notes. Locations boast a “Great Wall of Rock” tribute to rock icons, oversized canvases depicting album and rock art, concert lighting, multiple flat screens and speakers broadcasting legendary rock concerts.
Most locations have outdoor spaces and are dog friendly. They are also equipped with a feature that you might not expect to see at a place called Rock & Brews: a playground.
That’s right: Despite the brand’s beer- and rock-music theme, Rock & Brews primarily goes after parents and families. The locations with playgrounds even employ attendants to supervise the kids so that the parents can enjoy their night out, Zislis says.
A section of the menu for “Lil’ Rockers” offers fare such as Pancakes + Eggs, Kid’s Mac ’N Cheese and Chicken Tenders.
Food for Thought
The partners added the word “restaurant” to the title in 2012 to reflect that Rock & Brews is not just a bar with music. “And it’s great food—not pub food,” says Zislis, whose restaurants include the Strand House and Rockin’ Fish, as well as the Shade luxury boutique hotels. For instance, Zislis says, the Giant Soft Authentic Bavarian Pretzels ($9.95) are flown in from Germany. The beer cheese that goes with them was developed by the chef of the Napa restaurant French Laundry.
The Rock & Brews menu in general emphasizes fresh, locally sourced ingredients. “In every market, we find a local butcher and bakery,” Zislis notes.
Other menu items include “Opening Acts,” which are appetizers such as Sgt. Pepper’s Jalapeño Poppers; “VIP” salads, including the Strawberry Fields (baby greens, strawberries, avocado, cucumbers, red onions, candied walnuts, feta cheese, lemon pepper vinaigrette); “Headliner” sandwiches, like the Demon Chicken Fried Chicken Breast; “Front Row” pizzas, plus craft burgers and ribs.
The “Rockin’ Fit” options have less than 600 calories and include Lemon Pepper Turkey on Rye with Fresh Fruit. Then there’s the “Encores,” desserts such as the fan-favorite Purple Rain Drops: six chocolate-filled French donuts, drizzled with raspberry sauce and topped with whipped cream.
Shout it Out Loud
The partners bring their collective concert, branding and restaurant experience to the table, combined with the star power and fan base of KISS. The KISS rocker partners are “extremely involved” in the chain, Games says. “They live and breathe Rock & Brews.”
Simmons and Stanley are part of every new food and beverage item; they also attend all the restaurant openings.
“Gene and Paul do a great job just speaking about the business,” Games says. They engage with customers as well: “If we get a good Yelp review, they respond.”
Rock & Brews is big on charity and giving back to the local community. For instance, Games says, at a recent opening they gave away a signed menu and held a raffle and donated the proceeds to animal shelters. And the Wounded Warrior Project receives a portion from new openings.
The chain also does a September promotion called “Hot for Teacher,” Zislis says, in which teachers get a discount on meals. Locations play the venerable Van Halen video every three hours during the month, he adds.
Grow Your Own Way
What started as a post-concert chat among friends has become a fast-growing restaurant brand. Rock & Brews, which unveiled a new location in Orlando, FL, in April, and has an opening in Downey, CA, this summer, is on track to double its units in the next few years.
To help it get there, the company hired restaurant industry veteran Michael Sullivan as president/CEO in January. Sullivan spent more than a decade at Buffalo Wild Wings, where he helped grow the chain significantly.
Zislis recalls the backstage concert meeting that spawned the restaurant concept seven years ago. The Furano brothers were proudly pointing out the concert-goers who were lined up to buy KISS merchandise.
Yeah, Zislis said at the time, “but the line for beer is longer.”
Melissa Dowling is editor of Cheers magazine. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org