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This week’s 5 head-spinning moments: Celebs in aprons

The line between restaurants and entertainment—be it sports, music or any other fame-building endeavor—has always been a smudged one. The boundary was obscured a little more this week by the crossovers of three billionaires and a head of lettuce.  The developments once again raised the question of whether a restaurant venture’s chances of success are increased or undercut by having a thick-walleted celebrity involved.

1. Who knew Richard Branson was a cross-dresser?

Patrons of the music and travel mogul’s latest venture soon will. The knighted founder of Virgin Records and Virgin Megastores opened a restaurant this week in his Chicago Virgin Hotel. It’s called Miss Ricky’s, “a cheeky nod to the many times that Virgin's founder has jokingly dressed as a woman,” the company explained. The “Ricky’s” comes from what the goateed Brit was called by his mum.

The name certainly is a minor factor in the place’s success, but it smacks of the egotistical indulgences that have sapped many other celebrity-backed restaurants. There are signs of other quirks as well. For instance, Virgin Hotels says Miss Ricky’s will eventually be open 23 hours a day.  It hasn’t yet decided what that down hour will be, CEO Raul Leal told Forbes this week.

The company describes the restaurant as “a fresh interpretation of a classic American diner concept,” featuring everything “from flapjacks to fish and chips.” Leal said that every dish on the extensive menu went through about 20 iterations before it was refined to what’s available now.

If it should fail, Branson likely won’t feel much impact. He’s been ranked the seventh richest citizen of the United Kingdom. Then again, he didn’t get there by failing at the 400-plus businesses he’s started.

2. Sports mogul tries his hand at Romano’s Macaroni Grill

The primary owner of the Colorado Rockies baseball team is betting he and some business partners can give Mac Grill the rebirth that evaded Brinker International and Ignite Restaurant Group, both of which peddled the chain at a fire-sale price. (Brinker told it to Ignite two years ago for $55 million, the equivalent of $262,000 per restaurant. Ignite is selling it for $8 million.)

Dick Monfort teamed up with John Gilbert, Mac’s president, and Dean Riesen, a former chairman of Famous Dave’s and an alumnus of T.G.I. Friday’s parent company, to see what they can do with the brainchild of restaurant-concept creator Phil Romano.

Monfort, whose family made its money in cattle and meatpacking, isn’t a restaurant virgin. He has also invested in Hilltop Steakhouse, the mega-volume restaurant in the suburbs of Boston, and served on Famous Dave’s board with Riesen and Gilbert, who was CEO of the barbecue chain.

It’s unclear how much day-to-day involvement Monfort might have in Romano’s, but he is serving as a director.

3. Tiger Woods tees up

Many celebrities, and sports figures in particular, lend their names to a restaurant venture but keep out of day-to-day operations, an arrangement that suits the operating partners just fine. But Tiger Woods is taking exactly the opposite approach in his first restaurant.

Local reports say the pro golfer is handling such mundane details for his first restaurant venture as spec’ing the kitchen-counter surfaces and setting menu prices. But endorsement deals prevent him from putting his brand name on the place. It will be called The Woods Jupiter: Sports and Dining Club, a reference to its location, The Woods, rather than any family affiliation.

Yet to be determined is Woods’ involvement in ongoing operations. Or how much of his outstanding business acumen will be applied to this latest endeavor by Tiger Woods Incorporated. The restaurant is located in Jupiter, Fla., near the golfer’s home, so it’s just a quick hop to get there.  And he told the Palm Beach Post, “I look forward to enjoying my restaurant as much as I hope the public will.”  A celebrity operator’s use of a restaurant to entertain or indulge can put a divot in profits. 

4. Reality TV, Wendy’s style

The restaurant-entertainment crossovers of the past week have not gone one way. While celebrities were buying into the business, one of its stalwarts, the Wendy’s burger chain, was trying its hand at the art form of the documentary.

A new video from the chain traces the last chapter in the life of a head of romaine lettuce. It’s called “Wendy’s Romaine Lettuce Journey,” and it’s taped in point-of-view style, creating the same effect as capturing a white-water raft run by strapping a mobile camera to one of the boaters’ helmet.  At times, that means you get the first-person perspective of the lettuce.

The star has no lines, but what do you expect from a video that lasts less than a minute and a half?

The slice-of-life video is part of a new effort by the chain to stress the freshness and farm-to-face sensibilities of the chain, according to a report this week in Advertising Age.

5. Dashboard convergence of restaurants and entertainment

Apple generated its usual new-product hoopla with the launch this week of the Apple Watch. Drowned out by the circus was Apple’s mention of an innovation that will bring restaurants and entertainment together in harmony, albeit at 60 mph.

The tech company noted in passing that 40 more brands of automobiles will be equipped for the next model year with Apple CarPlay, in essence a dashboard version of the iPad or iPod screen, replete with apps, a music library and other digital features. After keying in a Wendy’s video, a passenger could use a restaurant chain’s app to find the nearest unit, place a takeout order, and maybe even pay for it.

Of all the past week’s convergences of entertainment and restaurants, it might prove the most financially significant.

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