Cal Expo is expecting a visit from rock stars Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley next summer. No, Kiss won’t be performing at the State Fair. The band’s co-founders plan to be in Sacramento to publicize the latest site to open in their Rock & Brews restaurant chain.
The Rock & Brews concept appealed to Stanley, he told me, because it addressed a need that he had as a father of four children ages 5 to 22.
“As my family expanded and as I got more diverse in my activities, based on having kids, I started to realize that to have quality time with my children – going out to lunch, for example – I was going to have cardboard macaroni and cheese served by somebody dressed like a giant rat,” said Stanley, 64.
So in 2012, he founded the chain with Simmons and others. “At the core of it, most of us are very similar,” Stanley said. “It’s a sense of commonality that usually drives me. It’s about what would make me happy. What kind of band did I want to see? Well, we created that band. What kind of restaurant would we like? What kind of merchandise would we like? It’s a philosophy that I think envelops all areas of business, whether you’re designing a building or baking a cake.”
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Rock & Brews, a franchise operation, offers locally sourced ingredients and craft beer in a family-friendly atmosphere. At Cal Expo, it will take over a space last occupied 12 years ago by Paradise Island family fun center. The franchisee, a group led by Modesto’s Joe Johal, has proposed bringing go-karts and other attractions back to the site on Ethan Way at Exposition Boulevard.
The Rock & Brews menu includes tri-tip taco lettuce wraps, Baja beer-battered fish tacos, craft burgers and pizzas. Johal, a Wendy’s franchisee for 18 years, said in a statement: “Rock & Brews will honor Cal Expo’s farm-to-fork outreach programs, and highlight the importance of California’s agriculture industry by maintaining a substantial vegetable and herb garden and only buying fresh produce from local farmers.”
Stanley said: “I don’t think that you have to plunder a neighborhood just because you’re part of what some might see as a chain. I think you can be a good neighbor and a good member of the community.”
Rock & Brews opened its first location in El Segundo, and there are now more than a dozen locations from suburban Orlando, Fla., to Maui. Stanley and Simmons signed onto the project after a backstage brainstorming session with the Furano brothers – successful concert tour promoter Dave Furano and former Live Nation merchandising executive Dell Furano. The Furanos then coaxed successful restaurateur and hotelier Michael Zislis to join the team.
You have to do your due diligence, Stanley said, before entering a partnership, but you also have to rely on your instincts. His partnership with Simmons, he said, launched 47 years ago when the two of them were still living in their parents’ homes in New York City.
“There’s a certain amount of pragmatism in a partnership, and that means ultimately doing what’s right for whatever your project is as opposed to having to have it your way,” he said. “The priority is the success of the entity as opposed to having your way. ... If somebody asked us to create a cake, Gene would want to make sure that it was really big and colorful, and I would say, ‘Yeah, but what about the cake underneath it?’ And, you need both things.”
Cal Expo officials approved a 20-year lease late last week for Rock & Brews, and pending state approval, the restaurant could open as early as June. It is part of ongoing efforts to revitalize and renew a property that locals generally describe as either the fairgrounds or the harness racing track. In the past few years, the Cal Expo board of directors have added a soccer field for the Sacramento Republic FC, large-scale festivals such as Global Winter Wonderland and a three-week run of thoroughbred horse racing.
Stanley said the restaurant will feature rock memorabilia, but it’s not just another tribute to the past: “This isn’t about creating a mausoleum to rockers and having their shoes in frames on the wall. This is about living life in an environment that really uses rock and classic rock as the soundtrack behind it. But with or without the rock aspect, the restaurant would thrive because of the atmosphere and the service attitude and the food first and foremost.”