It was the Newsweek article on bankrupt farmers that made me want to meet Larry Spatz.
I was tired of reading about the poor, the sick, and the anguished. I wanted to get with it; I wanted to rub shoulders with hotshots, people who have made it big in the age of Reagan.
Larry Spatz seemed ideal. "Larry Spatz announced that [his] company posted its first million dollar grossing month in March, 1988," read a press release sent to me from one of Spatz's publicists. Spatz owns a series of "concept" restaurants under the umbrella of Heartthrob Enterprises, Inc., which, the press release added, would open "additional units by the end of '88, including two in Chicago, Minneapolis, San Jose, Manhattan, Denver and Baltimore."
"This is a man I have to meet," I pronounced to my wife over breakfast. "You can learn things from guys like him--you can learn how to make millions!"
So I dug my best summer trousers out of the closet, found a clean shirt, put on some shoes and socks, and tromped downtown to the Tijuana Yacht Club, Spatz's new restaurant at the corner of Grand and Clark streets.
There Spatz, one of his publicists, and I gathered at a table covered by a white tablecloth in a spacious room cluttered with artifacts intended, I suppose, to convey the spirit of a Mexican port.
Spatz wasn't eating (if he ate every time he visited one of his restaurants, he said, he'd be huge). I ordered the chicken fajitas salad, and then listened as Spatz recounted his meteoric rise to the top. Four years ago he was a 40-year-old broker on the Mercantile Exchange. Then he launched his first venture, the Heartthrob Cafe and Philadelphia Bandstand (a restaurant-nightclub in the boiler room of a mall in downtown Philadelphia). It had dancing waiters and singing busboys; it had a big jukebox and a glitzy 50s motif; and it just took off. The next thing you know, he had offers to open Heartthrobs in Nashville, Saint Paul, and Kansas City. Now he's on a roll. If all goes well, he'll be grossing $80 million in annual sales by 1990.
I chewed my lunch (the chicken was delicious), and eyed him closely. He had the brown bushy mustache of Alderman Jesus Garcia and the Roman nose of White Sox catcher Carlton Fisk. Not a bad-looking guy, I thought to myself. He wore blue slacks, a white button-down shirt (collar open), and a blue sport jacket.
I drained my glass of ginger ale while Spatz ran down some secrets to success: work hard, know business, understand entertainment. That's how he made it, anyway. And now, in a few weeks or so, he'll launch another Chicago spot, the Baja Beach Cafe at the North Pier Terminal at Illinois and Lake Shore Drive. It'll have a restaurant, a nightclub, and a giant game room for adults featuring a simulated golf game.
I raised my eyebrows.
It's a whole new concept in restaurant entertainment, Spatz explained. The waiters and waitresses will wear roller skates, like they do at the Heartthrob, but Baja will be more 80s. They'll also wear Walkmans. You know, sort of Venice Beach.
Neat, I said.
We're auditioning right now.
Yes. A lot of our help are would-be actors, actresses, and comedians. We expect them to be loose and uninhibited. It's like theater. So we have auditions. We're having one in a few minutes right here in the bar. Want to see?
Well, I guess so. Why not?
He was like a kid proud and eager to show off his new toy. We wandered into the bar, another spacious room, this one with 1960s symbols painted on the walls, and a sand pit circling the bar (it's like a beach, Spatz said, you can take your shoes off and just feel the sand between your toes). Seated on stools scattered around the room were about 25 eager young men and women, some quietly chatting, others reading; most looked a little uptight.
Spatz introduced me to his in-house publicist, a well-tanned woman with jet black hair. (If you need any information, call me anytime, she told me). Then, he introduced me to Gabe Nicolella, the Baja's manager. We shook hands. Let's talk later, Nicolella offered. At the moment, he was busy. With the kids.
He stood on a stool, and called the "kids" to attention. We like to have fun at Baja, he said, so let's get loose. Onto the stereo comes the old rock standard "Shout," and the kids started to boogie. I mean, they really got down: shaking, clapping, laughing, jumping up and down. A stocky Asian-American fellow took charge. "Come on everybody," he yelled, and led the group into a single-file line that snaked around the room.
When I left, Spatz seemed entranced by it all; he was watching the would-be waiters with a small, satisfied grin on his face.
A week or so later, I wander over to the headquarters of the Heartthrob empire, a sprawling office on the sixth floor of the North Pier Terminal. An old brick warehouse being converted into a mall, the building is huge, more like an airplane hangar than an office. The walls are exposed brick, the floors dusty concrete. Receptionists, typists, and draftsmen bustle about looking busy, looking like they're doing important things. Right in the middle of it all, behind a mahogany desk atop a piece of carpet, sits Spatz. He's on the phone. I wave; he waves back. I sit on the chair facing his desk.
"I've been to Tampa," he's saying, "I've talked to the local developer. They were interested in the concept."
At the desk to his right sits Nicolella. I wave, but he doesn't recognize me. He's talking to a young blond woman, an applicant. She's telling him about her bar-tending experience.
To Spatz's left sits the other Larry--Larry Siegel. He's one of Spatz's top executives. He's talking on the phone. I can see the in-house publicist, wearing a lime green jumpsuit. She's on the phone. And there's Sonya, Spatz's secretary; she's on the phone, too. Almost everyone in the office is on the phone.
Nicolella escorts the applicant out the door, and returns with another one, another blond woman.
Spatz hangs up and smiles, almost self-consciously. On his desk are piles of pink phone-message slips.
"You like this office?" he says. "I like it. There's no formality. We have our own construction company, and we keep meaning to build a real office. But then we get started on a new restaurant. I'd rather put our resources into the businesses, don't you think? Excuse me."
His phone is ringing; he picks it up. "Hello. [pause] Yeah, put it through. [pause] Hey, Bernie, how ya' doing? [pause] Oh, the cost will be astronomical. Do you know what it costs to build in New York?"
Nicolella and the applicant are laughing. It's been a fast interview. She rises; they shake hands. Her heels click across the floor. Nicolella picks up his phone.
"I'm not saying don't pursue it," says Spatz. "Pursue it." He leans back in his chair. He's wearing a solid gold wristwatch. His voice is easygoing. He looks relaxed.
"I don't know Tribeca particularly well. But I do know there's an office across the street. That's what I can relate to. An office. Did you, uh, get that girl in San Francisco? [pause] Good. You in San Jose now? [pause] It's nice there, huh? [pause] Big Sur, yeah, it's beautiful. Very good. OK, enjoy yourself."
He hangs up and calls over the in-house publicist. "Listen, the governor was in Tijuana last night. He was there with his wife and their daughter. It was his daughter's birthday. She danced with the waiters. It was wonderful. How about getting it in the papers."
"It's a natural for Kup," I say, offering my opinion based on my deep understanding of Chicago's media.
The in-house publicist is nice. "No, I think it would be better for 'Inc.'"
I can't hide my disappointment. "But Kup, I love Kup."
"Oh, I love Kup, too," she says. "Don't get me wrong. It's just that 'Inc.' is read by a more aggressive, younger crowd."
I start to say that yuppies don't give a damn about the governor's kid (or anyone else's, for that matter), but I reconsider. Who am I to tell her about public relations?
"Sure," she says to Spatz. "I'll get it in 'Inc.'"
"You can do that?" asks Spatz.
"Sure, I'll call Kathy O'Malley now."
She walks off; Spatz smiles. So where were we?
"Your life," I say. "You were going to tell me about how a kid from Chicago made it big in restaurants."
He leans back in his chair. "Well, it's funny. If you had told me ten years ago that I'd be here, I wouldn't believe it. I mean, as a kid I wasn't anything like the people who audition for me. I wouldn't get up on a table and sing. I was too shy and inhibited. I still wouldn't do that.
"No, with me it's been more of an evolution. I was a very average student. I grew up in Glencoe, went to New Trier East, then the University of Denver. I didn't have a lot of skills. I--"
The phone rings. "Excuse me." He picks it up. "Yes. [pause] Put him on."
Nicolella, meanwhile, is escorting another applicant (a blond) to his desk. Another employee is sitting there, talking on the phone, so Nicolella tells the woman to sit for a while; he wanders off to another desk and picks up the phone.
"Yeah?" Spatz is saying. "Hi. [pause] Yeah, what? [pause] Tell him to come. He'll love the site. Tell him to bring De Niro. [pause] Great, that's great. [pause] That's terrific. OK."
He hangs up, delighted. "We're looking at another site in the Tribeca section of New York City. The person who owns it is into theater. He's associated with De Niro."
"Robert De Niro?"
"Yes. He might be an investor," says Spatz, very matter-of-factly.
"Wow," I say, "fancy company."
"I don't get carried away by celebrities. Just because they're famous doesn't cut it with me. You know, I've been interviewed on ABC, NBC, and CBS affiliates all over the country. And MTV and CNN. It's not that big of a deal."
"Uh, Larry." It's the in-house publicist; she looks a trifle embarrassed. "We have a little problem here."
"Well, I got Kathy O'Malley on the phone. And I told her about the governor. Kathy says, she knows all about Tijuana, she loves it. But she wants to know, was the governor's daughter dancing with waiters in the bar?"
Spatz says nothing.
"I mean, we could embarrass the governor, if we said his ten-year-old daughter was in a bar."
I lean forward in my chair. Spatz nods.
"I told her that I wasn't at the restaurant that night, but that I'd ask you. She's holding."
"Well, uh, she wasn't in the bar", says Spatz. "I mean, that's not how you say it. She was in the restaurant. See, the bar is part of the restaurant. It's all one thing. See, it's one unit. Tell her that the governor's daughter was in the restaurant. That's all." He turns to me. "It's not a lie; we never lie."
I feel vindicated. If she had called Kup, none of this would have happened.
"OK, I'm sorry; so where were we?" says Spatz.
"Your life--you were telling me how you got into the restaurant business."
"Oh yes. Well, it was my 40th birthday party; we were having it at Jukebox Saturday Night. And I decided this was something I wanted to do. I thought Jukebox was such a fun concept. It was so theatrical and entertaining. I wanted to do something like it on a national scene. My first restaurant was a Heartthrob in Philadelphia. That was something. No one thought we could do it. They told me the location was bad--we were in a basement--and that Philly was a bad town.
"OK, so what happens? Within a month I'm on the NBC affiliate. We're written up in interior-design magazines. We got long lines for happy hour and dinner. The article about our interior design starts drawing developers. They want me to work something for them.
"It worked because we took some chances. You have to be willing to take some chances. I'm not the kind of guy who sees a fern bar that's succeeding and says, 'Wow, I want to do that.' I have to create my own concepts. We don't open three Heartthrobs in a city. We open a Heartthrob, a Tijuana, and a Baia Beach in one city. We want to do that in Minneapolis, New York, and LA. We don't want to develop 10 to 15 concepts. We have three concepts. Well, maybe we'll come up with one or two more. A developer comes to us, and says, 'Your Heartthrob doesn't work with our site; do you have a new concept?' And so we develop one. That's how Tijuana got developed."
"Uh, Larry, excuse me, but, um, it's not like you were a big shot when you went to Philadelphia, right?"
He looks perplexed.
"I mean, it's not like you were a big macher in the restaurant business. You were a commodities broker, right?"
"I mean, well, did you spend your own money on that first restaurant in Philly?"
"OK, so you had investors. But, as far as they knew, you're some schmuck from Chicago. I mean, no offense, but if I went to Philly and told some investors I wanted to start a restaurant, they'd throw me out the door. You're a success, but what the guy on the street wants to know is how you got started."
"Well, I told you, I was a broker, and . . ."
"No, I mean, how did you convince those investors to back you?"
"Well, they were not exactly strangers."
"You mean, you knew them?"
"Well, I met them at a family reunion."
"You mean, you're related?"
"Well, distant relatives."
So that's it! That's the secret to success. I sit back stunned, and a little disappointed. Most people in my family do things like teach school and deliver mail.
"You got your relatives to back you?"
"Well, listen, my concept was strong. I had a philosophy. Heartthrob was the 50s brought up to the 80s. It was new. It was different. I was designing it before Melman did Ed Debevic's. It was entertainment. You could go there for happy hour, dinner, or nightclub dancing. It wasn't just family connections. I had a concept. We opened Heartthrob in August 1985, and within three months we were on NBC, CBS, ABC, and CNN. Each story has a different angle. I'll show you. We have them all on tape. It took a lot of work--"
"But it was also a little luck, wasn't it, Larry? I mean, you are pretty lucky."
"I feel lucky, sure. But you create luck with work. And I worked hard. I was living out of a hotel. I was flying back and forth. I was spending five to six days in Philly; I missed my kids."
"Why didn't you just move there?"
"What, and leave Chicago? No way. I love Chicago. This is my home. Look, Philadelphia's where I wanted to get started. You know that old saying, 'If you're gonna fail, don't do it at home.' Well, that's how I saw Philadelphia. If I failed, no one would know about it. Of course, all that flying, it was a high price. But everything that brings success has a high price. Nothing comes easy. Nothing just falls into your lap."
His voice is calm, but his cadence has quickened. He's almost passionate. The phone rings.
"Hello. [pause] Put him through. [pause] Yeah. [pause] But we've seen the space. [pause] Tell him his space is not the issue. [pause] Oh, he wants us to come out there early, and he doesn't make the five o'clock appointment we had? [pause] I know, mistakes happen. But you don't make a mistake when a guy comes out from Chicago. [pause] What's to see? We've seen the space. We know what 7,500 square feet looks like. I believe he's stroking us. He says he loves the idea, but he doesn't know the concept until he sees it? OK, then he's got to come out here. We don't have to go there anymore. If he wants to see the concept, the action's here. Right? [pause] Good. [pause] OK."
He hangs up. I think Spatz might be getting tired of having me around. "I'll be leaving soon, but I want to make sure I understand this correctly," I say. "Do developers pay you to stick these restaurants in their malls'"
"Well, they don't exactly pay me."
"But they pay you to build the restaurant?"
"Not really. They help pay construction costs."
"So they build you a restaurant."
"Well, they help build it. I have to put up some of the money."
"But not all of the money."
"No, not all of the money."
"Like here--in North Pier. This was shrewd, Larry, this was some deal. You were smart to come here. This is gonna be hot. All the yuppies are gonna want to eat here. How much did you have to pay to build your restaurant?"
"They helped us, that's all I should say. But why shouldn't they help me? I'm a draw. My restaurant will lure people to their space. It's in their interest to have us here."
"But aren't you afraid of the competition--they're building nightclubs all over the area?"
"Some will fail; I think we will succeed."
"But what about a recession? Won't this all cave in when the economy breaks and we have a recession?"
"What recession? We're recession proof. We're rock solid. Truth is, we're cheap entertainment. What was the best business in the 30s, during the Depression? Entertainment, films. You see? A stuffy restaurant will suffer if the economy tumbles, yes. But not us. Not entertainment."
"I see." There's silence. For a moment, I don't know what to say.
"Listen, about those videos. I'd like to see them."
"No problem." He has Sonya set up a VCR. I watch about ten minutes' worth of news reports from local TV stations in Nashville, Saint Paul, Philadelphia, and Chicago. They feature auditions and restaurant openings. It's funny how the reporters act alike. They crack silly jokes and sing with the music; they all seem like they're having a fabulously wonderful time.
When the video ends, I walk back to Spatz. He's standing with Sonya and a few other employees.
"How about a tour of the building?" I ask him.
"OK, Sonya, can you give him the tour?"
"Yes," she says.
"Do you have the time?" he says.
"I'll make the time."
She smiles at Spatz. Spatz smiles at her. I smile, too, though no one's looking at me.
Sonya leads me through the huge North Pier complex. It's just a bunch of empty space really--covered with sawdust and in the midst of renovation. We take the elevator to the second floor, where the Baja will be housed.
"This building seems to go on forever," I tell her.
"Oh yes, it's all so impressive," says Sonya.
We have to talk loud to be heard above the din of workers sawing, drilling, and hammering. She points out where the bar, dance floor, restaurant, and adult game room will go. Through huge glass windows we can see the Chicago River. To the west, the Chicago skyline rises behind a huge plot of vacant land. One day there will be office buildings, hotels, and condominiums there, Sonya explains. All upscale, swank, and recession proof.
"You know, Sonya, I can't remember. Is this place gonna be called Heartthrob or Baja Beach?"
"Baja Beach," she says. "It was going to be a Heartthrob, but Mr. Spatz came up with a new concept. It'll be more 80s. Sort of like Venice Beach."
"Oh." We're silent. "How long have you been working for Larry?"
"I've been working for Mr. Spatz for six years," she says proudly. "I've learned so much."
By then we're at the exit. "Well, tell Larry I said good-bye and thanks."
She waves; I walk outside. The heat is sweltering. To the north, in the distance, a huge crane wields a wrecking ball that slams into an older building. Probably knocking it down, I figure, to make way for a some new office tower, with a restaurant to follow.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jon Randolph.