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Jungle Fever

The Rainforest Cafe

Home is the birthplace of some of America's biggest businesses. Just ask Steven Schussler, who founded Minneapolis-based Rainforest Cafe in 1994. Billing itself as a wild place to shop and eat, Rainforest Cafe's 25 international locations began humbly--albeit remarkably--as a prototype that took over Schussler's suburban Minneapolis home.

How did Schussler, 43, grow a publicly traded, $300 million-plus company in just four years? The business of Schussler's dreams started as just that. He dreamed of a restaurant/retail store concept that included live tropical birds and fish in a rain forest environment. It would be a place that was equal parts education, entertainment--and, of course, good eats.

Even while visions of a tropical eatery with cascading waterfalls and thunder and lightning storms filled his head, Schussler was busy operating a chain of Jukebox Saturday Night restaurants, which he founded. When the Minneapolis Jukebox location failed in 1991 (others are still open), Schussler seized the opportunity to spend more time pursuing his lifelong dream.

"I had no money, no support whatsoever," says Schussler. What he did have was passion. "I begged, borrowed, and sold everything I owned," he says. Schussler drummed up business as a restaurant consultant by day and began to spend his evenings building the prototype for Rainforest Cafe in the only space he had available--his home.

When he moved all his furniture out of his house and painted the walls and ceilings black, his neighbors thought he was crazy. "Every room in my home became a vignette," says Schussler. In addition to 40 tropical birds, two tortoises and a baboon, "I had 20 different sound systems and fog and mist coming out of the [house]," says Schussler. Not to mention 3,000 extension cords. "In 1991, my electric bill was the largest single residential electric bill in the state of Minnesota," he says.

Next, he went in search of financial backing by offering potential investors weekly tours of his prototype restaurant. "Great idea. Call us when you're open," he heard again and again. One of the "disinterested" investors was Lyle Berman, chairman of the board of Grand Casinos. Berman assured Schussler he had no plans to invest but asked if he could come back and bring his wife and children. They visited repeatedly as the project grew over the next two years, and eventually Berman financed the venture.

Today, Berman is Rainforest's chairman of the board. Three months after the first Rainforest Cafe opened in Minneapolis' Mall of America, the company went public. Six months later, Schussler closed his first deal with The Walt Disney Co., opening two locations at Disney World in Orlando, Florida.

With Rainforest Cafes across the United States, and in Canada, Mexico and the United Kingdom--and many more to come--Schussler reflects on his experience: "Nothing great was ever accomplished without enthusiasm and passion. It's only a small beginning if you're thinking small."

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