In 1977, on the album Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes, Jimmy Buffett sang about the limbo of life in a tourist beach town. “Wastin’ away again in Margaritaville. Searchin’ for my lost shaker of salt. Some people claim that there’s a woman to blame…,” Buffett croons, then realizes by the end of the song, “I know it’s my own damn fault.”
Buffett, then only 31, couldn’t have known that his weirdly melancholy depiction of “Margaritaville” — a place where his most pressing problem is a blown flip-flop — would grow into a conglomerate worth billions of dollars, the platonic ideal of the celebrity-meets-hospitality business model. The brand, gathered under the umbrella of Margaritaville Enterprises, LLC now includes dozens of restaurants across the globe, as well as hotels, casinos, cruises, retail locations, and retirement communities. According to Variety, the company brings in “$1.5 billion and $2 billion annually.” In 2019, Buffett earned $50 million and ranked 57th on the Forbes list of highest-paid celebrities, before dropping off the list in 2020. “Margaritaville” may be Buffett’s only number-one hit, but Margaritaville is a kingdom, and Buffett, its laid-back king.
While Buffett is maybe the most prolific musician-turned-hospitality baron, he’s hardly the only celebrity to aspire to such broad heights. In the late ’80s, a few years after Buffett opened the first Margaritaville in Key West, Florida, Robert De Niro was pitching Nobu, a restaurant that’s essentially become a celebrity in its own right, to chef Nobu Matsuhisa in New York City. It would take several years for De Niro to convince the chef that a New York restaurant was worth the risk, but the first Nobu finally opened in Tribeca in 1994. The restaurants now have locations all over the world, and there’s also a hotel chain.
Until recently, though, celebrities expanding beyond the industry that made them famous was the exception and not the rule. Such moves were mostly reserved for the best of the best, like De Niro, Dolly Parton, or Michael Jordan. But now it’s 2022, things are different, and everyone needs a side hustle: Seth Rogen is selling bongs! LeBron James tried to trademark the phrase “Taco Tuesday!” Beyoncé not only has the clothing line Ivy Park, but also co-owns trainer Marco Borges’s vegan protein powder and vitamin company! The very least celebrities can do at this point is attach themselves to a restaurant, which as a business venture can require as little from them as a signed check, or the use of their name, or even just some well-publicized appearances.
Walk down Broadway in downtown Nashville today and within two blocks you’ll pass Miranda Lambert’s Casa Rosa (a “Tex-Mex cantina”), FGL House (FGL being the acronym for country group Florida Georgia Line), Luke’s 32 Bridge (the titular Luke being American Idol judge Luke Bryan), and Jason Aldean’s Kitchen + Rooftop Bar. While each restaurant has its own menu and theme, all are operated by TC Restaurant Group, which advertises its business model as partnering with “the biggest stars in country music to develop premier dining and entertainment destinations in Nashville and beyond.” On the same stretch of blocks is Dierks Bentley’s Whiskey Row (with other locations in Scottsdale and Gilbert, Arizona, as well as in Denver, Colorado) and Ole Red, Blake Shelton’s chain (with other locations in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, Tishomingo, OK, and Orlando, Florida).
But what does it actually mean when a celebrity puts their name on a restaurant, the way these country stars have? The answers vary, though we can guess that you won’t see Luke Bryan rolling up his sleeves in his restaurant’s kitchen or Dierks Bentley leading customers to their table at Whiskey Row. However, many of these celebrities at least claim to be steering their establishments: A representative for Lambert tells Eater that Lambert had “been thinking about a concept bar/restaurant for a while, so it was a natural extension of her brand,” adding that — while TC Restaurant Group was the one that initially approached her with the idea — she was heavily involved in the development of Casa Rosa from there, coming up with the name and concept and bringing in her own interior designer from Oklahoma City.
“Miranda works with the chefs, and they created the menu together,” the rep adds. “All the food and drinks were taste-tested before the restaurant opened. Any new menu items are tasted by Miranda personally, and only if she approves will they be added to the menu.”
Upon the opening of FGL House, Florida Georgia Line’s Tyler Hubbard also claimed that the group had been considering opening a restaurant for a while, telling People, “It was something [Brian Kelley] and I always thought would be neat, whether it was a bar or a restaurant — we’ve talked about opening a coffee shop before… We have a knack for food and beverage; taking care of our friends and our people.” (FGL also has a knack for monetization: After singing about Fireball whiskey in their song “Round Here,” the duo decided to stop making other brands rich and launch their own whiskey brand, Old Camp.)
The appeal of having a restaurant with your name or personalized branding is self-explanatory for celebrities wanting exposure and to give their fans conditional access to their personalities through the dining experience. A different type of celebrity restaurateur is the somewhat silent investor, in it solely for the love of food or a certain chef or, most sincere of all, the expansion of their business portfolios with new revenue streams. That kind of love, though, comes with limits. In 2007, Justin Timberlake opened Southern Hospitality barbecue restaurant in New York City with friends Eytan Sugarman and Trace Ayala; less than two years later — after promoting himself as an investor and co-owner — he backed out of the project and went so far as to deny having ever been involved, at least on a serious business level.
A rep for Timberlake told People at the time that “Justin and his close friends…discussed the idea of bringing Memphis-style BBQ and ribs to the New York City marketplace…The three friends spent a year creating the Southern Hospitality concept and were actively involved in all elements of design, menu offerings, and musical format.” However, “[Timberlake and Ayala] are not investors, owners or partners, nor do they have any knowledge of or involvement in the operations of the restaurant.” The restaurant eventually closed in 2019, with Timberlake’s role remaining wishy-washy over the years.
As Timberlake demonstrated, the level to which celebrities involve themselves — or claim to involve themselves — in their restaurants can change on a whim, all seemingly dependent on what most benefits the celebrity, and more rarely the restaurant, at the time. Trying to get even the most casual sense of how involved Channing Tatum is in his New Orleans’ bar Saints and Sinners, for example, was fruitless. Emails to the actor’s rep and the bar went unreturned. (Inside, his involvement is largely suggested in the decor: A painting of Tatum, protected by plexiglass, hangs by the front door, and a life-size cardboard cutout stands in the back.) Actor Ryan Gosling is often name-dropped as a co-owner of Tagine Beverly Hills, a Moroccan restaurant in Los Angeles. Under the “Chef Ben” section of the restaurant’s website, the partnership is even described:
A catering opportunity in Hollywood put [Abdessamad Benameur]’s dishes in the company of many well-known celebrities, including a then-rising star, Ryan Gosling. A few empty plates later, Ryan inquired about the caterer insisting it was “food he would eat everyday for the rest of his life.” The two became instant friends and after some time talking, they agreed there was something missing in L.A-the kind of place that made you feel warm and satisfied; a place where the food is made with love.
Unable to find it, they created Tagine.
When asked what Gosling’s co-ownership entailed, a rep for Gosling succinctly told Eater, “Ryan is no longer an owner of Tagine.” They didn’t answer follow-up questions about when and why he exited the restaurant.
Evasiveness proved to be the norm when reporting this story: Mom’s Spaghetti, an 8 Mile-themed restaurant in Detroit, was opened first as a pop-up and then a permanent brick-and-mortar, reportedly by musician Eminem (the star of the film) and his longtime manager Paul Rosenberg (former CEO of Def Jam), in partnership with Curt Catallo of the restaurant group Union Joints. However, when I reached out to Union Joints for clarification on Eminem’s role in the business, writing that I was doing a story on celebrity-owned restaurants, Catallo responded that “Mom’s [Spaghetti] doesn’t fall into that celebrity owned concept category!” When asked what that meant for Eminem and Rosenberg, he responded that Mom’s Spaghetti is “a restaurant concept stemming from Eminem’s lyrics that he’s a partner in with Paul and us. It came together organically and legitimately over the years.”
The difference between partnership and ownership could come down to semantics, and a desire to differentiate Mom’s Spaghetti from something like Planet Hollywood or Margaritaville. But we at least know that Rosenberg and Eminem have demonstrated some ownership over Mom’s Spaghetti, with Rosenberg once stating, “We’ve had a lot of fun putting this project together with the folks at Union Joints, and the response from fans has been overwhelmingly positive.” The rapper, meanwhile, appeared at the grand opening, promoted it with a TV spot, and had a Mom’s Spaghetti pop-up at his Coachella concert. The restaurant’s interior features an actual trailer (a reference to his character’s home in 8 Mile) that sells exclusive merch and Eminem ephemera (epheminemera?).
Obscuring such business dealings is probably by design, as it benefits both the restaurant groups and the celebrities’ entities: The famous person gets to expand their brand, and the restaurant benefits from the publicity that celebrity naturally draws in. If the restaurant is a success, the celebrity can take some credit. If it fails, they can — if they so choose — deny any involvement in the restaurant’s operations and move on.
And like all restaurants, plenty of these celebrity concepts do fail: Jessica Biel’s Au Fudge, a child-friendly dining concept in West Hollywood, lasted only a year before closing (Biel said it “wasn’t making any money”). Drake’s luxury sports bar Pick 6ix, in his hometown of Toronto, had a similarly short life span, opening in February 2018 and closing in November 2019 with the landlord claiming the business owed $67,000 in back rent. (Pick 6ix blamed the building’s ongoing flooding.) Kid Rock’s Made in Detroit (located, obviously, in Detroit) announced its closure in 2019 following a graphic rant by the musician about Oprah Winfrey. (Video of the rant was taken at his Nashville restaurant, Kid Rock’s Big Ass Honky Tonk & Rock ’N’ Roll Steakhouse, which remains open — coincidentally, at the same intersection as Ole Red and Luke’s 32 Bridge.) According to the Detroit Free Press, Kid Rock voluntarily withdrew the restaurant’s lease from Detroit’s Little Caesars Arena, writing on Facebook, “I guess the millions of dollars I pumped into that town was not enough.”
Some celebrities enter the restaurant space with seemingly noble, community-minded intentions — though if it garners them good press and money in the process, so be it. In 2020, rappers Killer Mike, of Run the Jewels, and T.I. announced plans to save Atlanta’s Bankhead Seafood, a community institution that was closing after 50 years because owner Helen Harden could no longer run the business on her own. Though plans for the restaurant’s new brick-and-mortar remain in permit limbo, T.I. told Eater Atlanta at the time that Bankhead Seafood “was an important part of my upbringing, as I was always welcomed there and never left hungry. But I also hope this will be a way to bring jobs to the community as we launch the food truck and break ground [this summer] on the actual restaurant.” In this case, the pair were more forthcoming about the ways they’d be involved in the restaurant’s operations. As Eater Atlanta then reported, the new iteration of Bankhead Seafood would be run by “a staff of ‘beyond-talented’ women, like Chaka Dakers, [Killer Mike’s] wife, Shana Render, and Krystal Peterson, the wife of [T.I.]’s manager, Doug Peterson.”
So when it comes down to why a successful actor, musician, or athlete would feel the need to enter an industry as risky as restaurants, the answer for once is really that stars are just like richer, more symmetrical versions of us: As is the case with all restaurateurs, some do it because they love food and dining or to strengthen their communities. Others because they want to make money, and many, for their egos. When it comes to the latter two reasons, the rise of ghost kitchens has made it easier than ever for a celebrity to slap their name on some delivery boxes and reap the rewards. Mariah Carey, Mario Lopez, Tyga, Jersey Shore’s Pauly D, and YouTuber MrBeast all have deals with Virtual Dining Concepts, which operates out of preexisting restaurant kitchens in cities across the United States. (Virtual Dining Concepts also happens to be co-founded by Robert Earl, the brain behind the onetime ultimate celebrity-backed restaurant, Planet Hollywood.) For a ghost kitchen to fail, it just has to stop operating and it ceases to exist — there’s no funeral press tour, no boarded-up facade, or rumored mice problems. For someone on the B-list in particular (Mariah Carey excluded, don’t come for me), a ghost kitchen is no risk, all reward.
The inner workings of business deals will almost always be shrouded in some secrecy, lest we, the proletariat, realize how money is rearranged among the wealthy — or more specifically to our purposes, how much our favorite celebrities get paid for doing little to no work. Or, on the reverse side, how much they lose on bad restaurant gambles. More transparent, though, is why consumers are drawn to celebrity-concept dining experiences. A fan can feel connected to Miranda Lambert when they order the queso fundido and margarita while sitting in a Casa Rosa booth, everything around them supposedly selected or designed by Lambert herself. A Slim Shady stan can flex their bona fides by buying hundreds of dollars of merch at the Mom’s Spaghetti gift shop. In the case of Jimmy Buffet’s parrotheads, it’s the pull of the carefree ethos that leads them to Margaritaville’s seemingly endless shores.
In the end, eating at a celebrity restaurant is the closest most of us will get to experiencing a meal with the celebrity themselves. While restaurants come and go, the allure of the famous is an eternally safe investment.
Marylu E. Herrera is a Chicago-based artist with a focus on print media and collage.
Fact checked by Kelsey Lannin
Copy edited by Leilah Bernstein