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Zane Tankel's Rocky Road in Retrospect

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Zane Tankel is the CEO of the ultra-successful 38-venue New York Applebee's restaurant chain with an annual gross of $180 million. Zane is a meticulous, hands-on manager, intensely involved in day-to-day operations. "Everything served is made fresh every day from fresh ingredients that arrive every morning. Everything including liquor is accounted for to the 10th of 1 percent." He hires staff that lives in the neighborhood, 80% of AppleMetro's 300 managers have risen through the ranks and he can greet pretty much every one of the company's 3850 employees by name.

So what could have led such a fastidious administrator to risk a bundle on the chanciest investment on the planet? A Broadway show, specifically Rocky, the Musical, which closed two weeks ago without recouping its $16,500,000 capital investment.

"None of us is just all one thing or has total control all the time," Zane admitted. "Rocky appealed to my meshuganah risk cowboy side." He's an avid cyclist, martial artist, third degree black belt holder, swimmer and weight trainer who climbed mountain peaks in Peru, Ecuador, Chile and North America and even attempted Mt. Everest once!

Zane sees similarities between show and the restaurant businesses. "They're both trendy and risky and neither offer any second chances. Our restaurants are stages where the curtain goes up at 11 am each morning and if somebody has a bad meal or an unpleasant experience, they not only never come back they tell everyone they know to stay away. That's not much different from ticket buyers' reaction to a Broadway show. Rocky played into my emotions. I'm a fight fan. I've managed boxers and I thought the Rocky story had legs. The desire to excel by an underdog third-rate heavyweight, who simply wants to still be maybe bloody but upright when the final bell rings on an unexpected champion match, appeals to everyone." Variety, the show Business Bible, felt that Rocky had the potential for cross-demographic success because the love story element of the plot would attract women (who buy the majority of Broadway tickets) and the boxing aspects would appeal to the more testosterone-crazed biff-bam-boom sex.

If you came to me now with the same script, with Andy Karl and Margot Seibert singing the Sephen Flaherty and Lynn Aherns score, the brilliant visual set designs and the Shuberts as my co-producers, I'm sure I'd say, 'Hey, Let me in!' again. I saw Andy Karl as a theatrical Rocky -- a talented actor/singer who finally got a starring role on Broadway at age 39. What went wrong? Why didn't it get traction? My own views were in actual opposition to the views of the show's lead producers and marketing people. We battled it out and frankly I lost each time. Rocky was a life lesson for me. It gave me a PhD in theater. Now that Rocky is closing the same people who disagreed with me are saying, 'Maybe he was right.' I paid a lot of money to hear 'Maybe he was right." Their TV ads only showed the fight sequences and never promoted the love story and the wonderful songs, like Happiness, that I felt would have appealed and generated ticket sales from a broader audience.

Would he do it again?

Yes, but differently. I would demand control over marketing. I would either have to pick the marketing people or oversee the marketing of any future show I'd invest in. I understand how important visuals are. Applebee TV ads show tempting, delicious, fresh foods that make people hungry, grab new customers and encourage regulars to come back again soon. That's why we're successful and keep growing, even though we don't have any Michelin stars. The reason the Broadway mortality rate is so huge is the producers always believe they've got a Tony Award Winner, and when they're wrong, they never think about how to attract the audience that will enjoy that specific non-Tony Award winner, even if a New York Times critic savaged the show.

I personally know that the New York Times reviews stop fearful theatrical lemmings from seeing a show. After many years of writing about food, I'm also aware that reviewers are often unconscious of their subconscious prejudices or, in the case of theater, could be just plain jealous of a lowbrow like Sylvester Stallone's success, celebrity, wealth or sexual appeal.

For the nonce, Zane's returned to more controllable ventures, He's busy rolling out a new create your own masterpiece Pizza Studio, with a Chipotle-like production approach that allows pizza lovers choose between five thin-crust pizza dough (traditional, whole grain and flax seed, rosemary herb, "firecracker" or gluten-free), four sauces (tomato blend, basil pesto, tangy BBQ and extra virgin olive oil), four cheeses (grated mozzarella, crumbled feta, shaved parmesan and crumbled goat) and unlimited toppings for $7.99 for an 11-inch pie that bakes in 2 minutes! There'll also be visual TV ads that'll make you salivate! How's that for instant, glorious gratification for everyone with no downside?