Seafood/theme concept makes pingpong pay off
At a time when some theme restaurants dependent on flashy memorabilia gathered from the rich and famous are struggling to stay afloat, establishing a casual seafood concept tied to characters from a popular movie may seem risky.
But that hasn’t stopped San Clemente, CA-based Rusty Pelican from steaming full speed ahead with the expansion of Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. And tying the concept tightly to the characters from the movie Forrest Gump while providing quality seafood has given rise to what is arguably their most innovative merchandising ploy; a beverage menu in the form of a real pingpong paddle.
One of the major claims to fame of film protagonist Forrest Gump was his uncanny pingpong playing ability, after all. Weaving this and other themes derived from the movie through the concept has helped give Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. legs; to date, Rusty Pelican has opened seven units since first launching in Monterey, CA, in March, 1996, with
new locations in Honolulu and Long Beach, CA, being readied to join Chicago, New Orleans, Miami, San Francisco, Breckenridge, CO, and two in Maui.
Bubba Gump got its start as a licensing partnership between the Paramount Pictures division of Viacom and the Rusty Pelican, but it was Paramount executives who approached chain president and ceo Scott Barnett to launch the concept for them. With a decor patterned after Gump’s mythical Bayou LaBatre, AL, home, and incorporating a bit of his mother’s boarding house and Bubba’s shrimpboat, The Jenny, the whimsical, down-home feel of Bubba Gump’s seems to have struck a chord. And, anticipating the problems other theme restaurants have faced, food and beverages have been treated with, well, paramount importance.
In developing their beverage menu, Pelican beverage operations consultant Leslie Miller attached laminated photos of the beverages to the authentic pingpong paddle with binder rings, making it a flip-card like merchandiser. Drinks are described on the back of each card, as are suggestive-selling options and merchandise promotions. For instance, Jenny’s Favorite, a $3.95 non-alcohol smoothie made from non-fat raspberry yogurt, fresh strawberries and cranberry juice, is also offered with Skyy vodka for $2 more;. The price of the Medal of Honor Margarita goes from $6.95 to $9.95 if customers decide they want to take the glass home.
Priced from $3.95 to $9.95, the drinks are all named for the film’s characters. Mama, Lt. Dan, Jenny, and of course, Forrest and his many achievements are cited, including the Mama’s Favorite, Lt. Dan’s Fresh Start, the Marathon Margarita and Run, Forrest, Run, which, with the addition of a $2 shot of Myers’s Rum, becomes Rum, Forrest, Rum. It might seem dangerous on the face of it to name beverages after an alcoholic (Dan) or a drug addict (Jenny), but, somehow, the good will of the movie forestalls that; Gump execs have somehow tapped the popular magic of the movie.
“I knew from my years in the restaurant business that photos help to sell drinks, and that great presentation is key,” says Miller. “What’s in the drink is very important, of course, but so much is dependent on being able to make the right impression.”
Miller wanted to develop a fun and comfortable menu that played off the movie, in line with the rest of the concept, but struggled before coming up with the paddle. First, she played with the idea of a box of chocolates that, when opened, would reveal flip cards with pictures of the drinks inside. But it seemed too unwieldy. Then she went back to the movies, watching “Forrest Gump,” over and over. It’s a good thing, she says, the movie was so good. Finally, after a half dozen viewings, the paddle seemed the obvious answer.
They proved to be a fairly expensive undertaking for such an untested idea, yet the results, Miller says, have been dramatic.
“They drive our beverage sales, definitely. But I can’t overemphasize the importance of things like the appearance of the beverage, its general height and the garnishes. It’s really very important to pay attention to these things. The menus can only do so much.”
The paddle itself works as a passive suggestion so well, says Miller, that the company has been forced to secure the menus to each restaurant table with a cable, as so many customers were walking out with them. Perhaps Bubba Gump should now sells paddles in their adjoining market retail units, along with the T-shirts, mugs, key chains, caps, jackets, shot glasses, and, of course, boxes of chocolates already being sold.