There’s a house in the western suburbs of Minneapolis that was once home to one of the wildest business ventures of all time. You wouldn’t guess it at first look — it’s a modest house painted an earthy brown, standing behind sullied snowbanks on a neat cul-de-sac. But back in the early ’90s, this address was a different scene entirely. A life-size baby elephant replica guarded the front door, knee-deep in an unseasonal fog. An artificial river snaked through the yard, flowing pink with antifreeze, and from somewhere deep in the house, tropical bird calls emanated. This standard split-level residence was the prototype for what would become the multimillion-dollar Rainforest Cafe restaurant chain and home to its eccentric founder, Steven Schussler, who shared his bathroom with a flock of parrots.
Schussler opened the first Rainforest Cafe at the nascent Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota, in 1994, where it was a runaway hit. He dreamed up the restaurant’s concept in the late ’80s, fusing his love of animals and passion for the rainforest conservation cause — which had reached a fever pitch at the time — with his entrepreneurial zeal. (A Minneapolis businessman and nightclub owner, Schussler was known for his stunts: He once sealed himself in a barrel and had himself delivered to a prospective boss.) Discovering that the cafe concept was a hard sell to investors, he spent three years and nearly $400,000 renovating his home into a suburban model rainforest Eden.
Schussler recalls the details in his 2010 memoir, It’s a Jungle in There: He knocked out walls to build a greenhouse, where he shepherded swarms of butterflies, and tucked his bed under the canopy of an artificial tree. He installed a 35-foot waterfall and artificial boulders, and rigged thousands of extension cords to power a menagerie of animatronic alligators and monkeys. Live animals, too, roamed freely about the house: parrots, an iguana, two 150-pound tortoises, and a baboon named Charlie. Mist machines rotted the wallpaper. After many pitches to investors and untold quantities of fish food, casino magnate Lyle Berman finally bit, and the rest is history.
Since the Rainforest Cafe made its debut at the Mall of America, it’s been Minnesota’s zaniest tropical escape for nearly three decades and a crowning jewel in what may be America’s most iconic theme restaurant chain. But things have been changing. At its peak, the Rainforest Cafe chain included 45 restaurants worldwide; of that, 23 remain open today. Some new international locations have opened in recent years, in Malta and the United Arab Emirates (one Dubai mall even has a Rainforest Cafe-themed shisha lounge). But in general, the past two decades have seen a steady stream of closures. Some of these were iconic locations: Downtown Disney, the Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco, and downtown Chicago, where the restaurant’s mascot, Cha! Cha! the tree frog, had perched among the high-rises since 1997. Many others shut down at suburban malls, from Burlington, Massachusetts, to Costa Mesa, California. For what it’s worth, the original Mall of America’s Rainforest Cafe is still kicking, but even there, things are looking a little different.
In 2016, following a massive Mall of America revamp, the original Rainforest Cafe relocated to the mall’s third floor, leaving its initial location after nearly 22 years. In the move, it lost all of its water elements: the mist machines, the waterfall, the wishing pond, and the massive, mesmerizing aquariums. The animatronic animals and forest canopy remain, but much of the magic has been stripped away. At the same time, though, nostalgia for the chain is actually having somewhat of a resurgence. You don’t have to travel far across the internet today to find commemorative Reddit threads, YouTubers on cross-country Rainforest Cafe journeys, and TikTokers reliving their childhood memories at the restaurant.
So why dilute the original Rainforest Cafe’s wackiest, most beloved elements? The restaurant chain itself may be in decline, but on a cultural level, it hasn’t gone anywhere. We are, writ large, still obsessed with the Rainforest Cafe. A veritable jungle of animatronic animals, sage talking trees, and volcanoes erupting from between hefty slabs of brownie, it’s come to represent Y2K nostalgia itself — not unlike the decaying suburban malls where the chain made its home, themselves an endangered species. These days, malls are turning to experiential attractions to bring shoppers in, but maybe they’re already working with more than they think. Maybe nostalgia itself is the ultimate experience.
I first encountered the Rainforest Cafe as a kid in the early aughts. Back then, few things were more thrilling to me than a trip to the Mall of America. The mall was full of glittering Claire’s stores and Panda Expresses and airbrushed T-shirt shops, plus some enthralling taboos: the Hooters I eyed from the third-story escalator and an incandescent Hot Topic that I gave a wide berth. I loved the Paul Bunyan-themed log chute ride and Bubba Gump Shrimp Co., where I earnestly believed Tom Hanks was a chef.
The Rainforest Cafe, though, was different. It had a magnetic pull, like it was the mall’s center of gravity. I remember it so clearly: an untamed mass of foliage bursting from between the Bloomingdale’s and an orthopedic shoe store, white tendrils of mist drifting out onto the mall’s linoleum walkway. Inside, a chorus of frogs and birds sang over Ritchie Valens’ “La Bamba.” An entire family of animatronic gorillas nested in the lush canopy overhead, one swinging deftly from a vine. Luminous flowers and vines covered the ceiling and walls. My little brother and I would perch beside the wishing pond, feeling the waterfall’s cool spray on our faces. We’d chase each other around the aquarium — a 3,000-gallon tank shaped roughly like the Arc de Triomphe — and watch clownfish flit in and out of their coral chambers. When the thunder came, it was as sonorous and terrifying as the storms that crashed over our roof in the summer.
As enchanting as it was when I was a kid, the Rainforest Cafe was even more so in its earliest years. Theme restaurant giant Landry’s Inc. — the company behind the not-Tom-Hanks-helmed Bubba Gump Shrimp Co., as well as McCormick and & Schmick’s, Claim Jumper, and Joe’s Crab Shack — acquired the chain in 2000. But from the Rainforest Cafe’s 1994 opening to its acquisition, Schussler ran the restaurants independently and with a whimsical hand. He brought live parrots, cockatoos, and toucans into the restaurants, hiring a team of trainers to care for them. The birds spent their off-hours in a luxe aviary and toured local schools to promote rainforest conservation. The Mall of America’s Rainforest Cafe was meticulously designed, too. Retail Store Image magazine’s 1995 feature paints a vivid picture: The floor, stained with acid, mimicked the rainforest’s earthy terrain, and an HVAC system pumped out the scent of fresh flowers. Painted banyan trees bloomed with thousands of artificial leaves — above them, a fiber-optic night sky glittered, its constellations mapped to match those above the equator.
The early Rainforest Cafe’s food also seems to have been a step above today’s standard chain restaurant fare, an assortment of broadly American dishes with a little ham-fisted tropical flair. These days, the Rasta Pasta seems rather soggy and bland — but back then, a pile of bowtie pasta drowned in a rich garlic cream sauce, it was noted as one of the restaurant’s best dishes. Some early Star Tribune reviews were unfavorable, noting the mediocre ribs and an especially “crummy” spinach salad. But even then, the menu had a certain level of finesse that’s absent today: It served Cajun-spiced swordfish, salmon with mashed potatoes, coconut bread pudding, and fruit salad in a delicate chocolate bowl. The bar, nestled under a luminous, 38-foot mushroom cap, offered organic pastries and fresh-squeezed juices. Tables were frequently booked hours out.
The success of that first Rainforest Cafe was a boon to the Mall of America, too, which opened two years before the restaurant, on August 11, 1992. The MOA was and still is the largest mall in the country and one of its biggest tourist destinations, drawing 40 million people every year. (That’s nearly as many as for Central Park.) When it opened, though, many thought it was doomed to fail. As the New York Times reported at the time, hours spent shopping at the mall had dropped more than 60 percent between 1980 and 1990. TV and catalog sales, strip malls, and discount chains were already taking a bite out of the retail landscape. Betting on a megamall seemed risky. But the mall strategized: It placed Camp Snoopy, a 7-acre amusement park, at its center, and added 14 movie screens and 40 restaurants. It billed itself as a destination for adventure and entertainment. The Rainforest Cafe, with its chattering birds and muggy, perfumed air, fit right in.
But it doesn’t quite do the Rainforest Cafe justice to call it purely entertainment. What I remember most about the original Rainforest Cafe — more than the thunderstorms, the crackling volcano brownies, the gorillas — was my sheer disbelief that such a fantastical restaurant could be real and my ecstasy in confirming that, in fact, it was. We think of childhood as a time of great imagination, but it’s also a series of crushing revelations: Santa’s a myth, parents divorce, etc. Part of growing up is realizing that your outer world can’t match the magic of your inner one — but the Rainforest Cafe did.
It had been nearly a decade since I’d eaten at the original Rainforest Cafe when I returned there last fall with my boyfriend, who also loved the restaurant growing up. We found the new location on the third floor, next to the Buffalo Wild Wings. The mist machines, waterfall, and aquariums had been replaced with a brood of tigers and what local newspapers described as a “Mayan motif” — a large clay face that gazes out at the restaurant with marked skepticism. (It’s not the Rainforest Cafe’s only cringey reference to Indigenous communities who call the rainforest home. The Tribal Cheesecake is a fixture of the dessert menu.)
The new space still had wisps of delight: shades of lavender, orange, and midnight blue melding across the faux night sky, which glittered with a blanket of LED stars. At the table next to us, a toddler shrieked and giggled as lightning flashed through the restaurant. And while I’m sure that some of the muted wonder was the result of looking at it through an adult’s eyes, there was an undeniable new static in the air. The frog and bird calls hummed low now, blanketed by Maroon 5’s “Payphone” playing on the radio. A lone gorilla on the opposite wall stood up jerkily, cocked his head at me, and sat quietly back down. After we ordered, we walked around the rainforest, exploring. In the back, an elephant was under repair. Someone had thrown a coarse green tarp over it. The real heartbreaker for me, though, were the mist machines. If there is one essential feature of eating at the Rainforest Cafe, it’s that you emerge damp — but we walked out of that jungle dry as a bone.
It’s not entirely clear why the original Rainforest Cafe got rid of its water elements. It seems that there’s some inherent water damage risk to installing a 3,000-gallon aquarium on the third floor of a mall. Understandable. According to the Star Tribune, the Mall of America made the decision to relocate the Rainforest Cafe to the third floor, as part of a move to centralize its restaurants. Around the same time, the MOA had launched a $325 million luxury expansion: It brought in new upscale restaurants and retailers, built an adjoining luxury hotel, and upgraded the classic food court. Maybe, with such grand plans in the works, mall reps thought no one would care when the Rainforest Cafe shut off its mist machines.
We do care, though — that’s the thing. You could chalk the wave of Rainforest Cafe nostalgia up to the current cultural fixation on the Y2K era, which is tinged with irony in the way that the internet gristmill tinges everything with irony. But you can only be so ironic in the steamy, tropical environs of a Rainforest Cafe. From the day that Schussler rigged 3,700 extension cords to power his suburban rainforest prototype, the restaurant has been one of the most unironic things to ever exist — which is, of course, what has always made it so great. The truth is that we still love the Rainforest Cafe, unabashedly and unironically. We eat it up. The restaurant’s brand rests on our nearly universal nostalgia for its wacky, patented magic. I’m happy to report that most of the other 17 Rainforest Cafes still open in the U.S. have remained relatively untouched — let’s hope they stay that way.
There’s a small lesson for malls here, too. It’s no secret that malls have been on the decline; gutted by e-commerce and shifting consumer patterns, they’re constantly reinventing themselves to bring in shoppers. The Mall of America’s luxury expansion plan never fully panned out. In recent years, malls around the country have been rebranding themselves as entertainment venues, investing in experiential attractions and converting old Macy’s stores into go-kart tracks. But as malls reinvest in experiences, it’s worth asking if the experience of nostalgia itself, and the older restaurants and shops that inspire it, isn’t actually an asset to malls in the 21st century. When I go to the mall today, it’s not, in fact, to ride a go-kart, eat a $10 oatmeal brulee at the new grillhouse, or even buy a new pair of shoes. It’s to chase the buttery scent of an Auntie Anne’s pretzel or share a throwback meal at the Rainforest Cafe.
My boyfriend and I ate through half our plates of Mojo Bones and Rasta Pasta as a final rainless thunderstorm crashed over our heads. I knew, of course, what we had really come for — the pinnacle of any meal at the Rainforest Cafe. There were few things more thrilling, as a kid, than a server bellowing “VOLCANOOOO” as they bestowed a volcano brownie upon the table, the sparkler crackling maniacally, shooting its tiny daggers of light at our faces. Chocolate would pool in the plate’s divot, forming a lava moat. Our server sidled up to our table and asked if we’d like dessert: the cheesecake, maybe, or the key lime pie. My boyfriend and I glanced at each other, brows furrowed, and asked for a volcano brownie. Sure, she said, hesitating — but they were out of sparklers. Did that matter to us? It did. We ordered one anyway.
Justine Jones is the editor of Eater Twin Cities and a regular arts and culture contributor to Mpls.St.Paul Magazine.
Pablo Espinosa Gutiérrez is a psychedelic illustrator with a lifelong dream of secretly living in a mall.
Fact checked by Kelsey Lannin
Copy edited by Leilah Bernstein