Cause celeb: Carlos Santana's Maria Maria

Cause celeb: Carlos Santana's Maria Maria

By Gina Ragone

STYLIN': Carlos Santana's Maria Maria will join Dudum concepts paying homage to Bing Crosby (middle) and Joe DiMaggio (bottom).

C.E.O: Jeff Dudum wants involved partners.

EVOKING AN ERA: Dramatic, highly conceptualized spaces characterize Bing Crosby's Restaurant and Piano Lounge.

DUAL DESIGN : DiMaggio's captures the mood of two cities.

FOOD FIRST: High-quality menu offerings drive the company.

When Carlos santana opens his first restaurant near San Francisco this month, it will join a portfolio of celebrity establishments that, unlike a host of "eater-tainment" punchlines (Just try to say "Fashion Cafe" with a straight face), actually has great odds for long-term success.

If and when Santana's Maria Maria chain succeeds, much of the credit will belong to the operators who will run the three-unit chain. Picking good partners is something Santana's done before. For his line of women's shoes (yes, women's shoes), Santana and his wife, Deborah, paired up with the Brown Shoe Company, one of the largest footwear manufacturers in the U.S. Since 2001, Brown has helped Santana get his shoes into big venues such Macy's stores throughout the Western U.S. and Burdine's department stores in Miami. The Santanas have enjoyed other successful products and business ventures, as well, including a fragrance, sparkling wine, instruments and a hotel.

Santana, who has sold more than 90 million albums in a 30-year recording career, has probably made the right choice in a partner for this latest creative outlet: Walnut Creek, CA-based Dudum Sports Entertainment, whose stock in trade is the celebrity restaurant business. DSE was founded by c.e.o. Jeff Dudum, along with his brother, Rick, c.f.o., and Mark Wooldridge, c.o.o.

Jeff Dudum says the Santanas' creativity and passion for food dovetailed with DSE's, making the pairing a perfect one. "I couldn't be more excited about having the opportunity to work with them on restaurants that honor and celebrate Latin American culture, food and music."

Capturing the essence of the prolific musician might not be easy. His salsa-rock-blues-jazz-inspired music symbolizes the diverse character that is Santana, who conceived the idea of "world" music long before it came into vogue. The restaurant will be a bit more focused, representing several regions of Mexico, the country in which Santana was born. Carlos and Deborah told DSE they wanted to create a "serious" Mexican restaurant. DSE says this will translate into authentic dishes and drinks that reflect Mexico's music and culture, "from the coastal waters of Veracruz and Acapulco to the high planes of Oaxaca and the semi-desert in Guanajuato." There will be an emphasis on authentic preparation with first-quality ingredients.

The celebrity-operator relationship, if executed properly, is a win-win. The celebrity puts up some of the capital—not to mention instant name recognition—while the operator lends his expertise. Just don't call them "theme" restaurants. Dudum is quick to point out the difference between his food-focused establishments, which he calls "concept restaurants," and the shtick of the average eater-tainery.

"Some restaurants rely on a celebrity name or concept they're working around to get people to come in," he says. Concept restaurants, however, "concentrate on food and service, and on getting the guests to return and make it their favorite restaurant. We don't want people to buy a t-shirt and leave. That's not important to me. I want them to return."

Though DSE stays out of the souvenir business, the concepts still have a thematic aspect, Dudum concedes. And that's okay. "One of biggest compliments we can receive is seeing people of all ages equally enjoying the restaurant at some level. That's what we try to do at our family sports concepts. It's fun to see a child and a father walk around, pointing at DiMaggio's jersey, Bonds' jersey," Dudum, himself a father of two small boys, says. "It engages conversation."

There's certainly plenty to talk about, especially at the company's sports meccas. Dudum Sports Entertainment's first restaurant was McCovey's, a Walnut Creek tribute to baseball and Hall-of-Famer Willie McCovey, DSE's partner in the venture, and, not coincidentally, Jeff Dudum's godfather (see box). Baseball memorabilia abounds, but Dudum points out that because McCovey is a partner, the pieces aren't mass-produced or garage-sale junk, but personal, important pieces of McCovey's history—and the history of the game as well. The exterior is a near-replica of SBC Park, now home of the San Francisco Giants.

There's also no mistaking the theme at Center Court with Chris Webber, a restaurant DSE and the former Sacramento King (now a Detroit Piston) opened in Sacramento last fall. Total basketball immersion, as well as heaping portions of guy- and family-centric food, are the order of the day. Guests actually sit "center court," atop real basketball hardwood floors and below a JumboTron, as cheering fans, depicted in a 360-degree wall mural, watch them chow down on the menu specialties, burgers and ribs.

Does Dudum worry about the ghost of Planet Hollywood haunting these restaurants? "I never have," he says, crediting the "depth and attention to detail" of his establishments. This is especially true of the Bing Crosby's Restaurant and Piano Lounge and (Joe) DiMaggio's Italian Chophouse concepts, whose dining rooms are not so much museums but re-creations of an era. The restaurants are designed to transport us normal folk to the glamorous worlds of the celebrities to which they pay homage—to offer a taste of how they lived.

Take Bing Crosby's, for instance. Sure, there's memorabilia—including an Oscar—but these are not the focal points in the restaurant's dramatic, highly conceptualized spaces. Seated in the piano bar, one could imagine the Crooner himself next to the fireplace, coolly gracing one of the plush chairs, a crystal tumbler of scotch on the mahogany table beside him. Or, at DiMaggio's Italian Chophouse, one could envision the dapper man entertaining gorgeous friends at tufted leather booths beneath crystal chandeliers. These are places these men would frequent—although they might find a couple dozen photos of themselves around the dining room a bit jarring.

Another reason these restaurants are several notches above the typical theme restaurant are the subjects themselves. The Dudums are smart when it comes to their partners, choosing icons around which to build restaurants, not just pop culture phenomena. Willie McCovey, Bing Crosby and Joe DiMaggio are celebrity names, to be sure, but those names also stir up reverence and symbolize a larger place and time. The names bring status and shelf life to the DSE operations. Think of it this way: Would you rather hang your fortune on the Bing Crosby or the Britney Spears brand?

Dudum is a guarded subject. He plays it close to the vest and politely declines to discuss any of the financial details of his privately held company. But when asked about the subjects of his restaurants, he's effusive, speaking with awe and encyclopedic authority about the celebs his restaurants pay tribute to.

"DiMaggio and Crosby were the biggest names of their era. They took everyone's mind off the war. DiMaggio has one of the greatest records in the history of sports, his hitting streak. And Crosby—he had more number one hits than Elvis and the Beatles combined. He owned the Pittsburgh Pirates, he opened a race track in San Diego. He was the first white performer to sing on stage with a black man, Louie Armstrong, in Chicago. Bing loved horses. Joe was a baseball player, but he loved to go out, to dress up and look great. We have lots of those pictures. We tell the story. We take the icon and build the restaurant around him."

That said, Dudum is quick to point out that DSE keeps a laser-sharp focus on the fact that its establishments are first and foremost restaurants. Credit the c.e.o.'s obsessive personality (an Orwellian system of video cameras allows him to monitor all of the goings-on in all of his restaurants simultaneously from his PC. Such idiosyncrasies and his shiny pate have earned him the nickname "Dr. Evil" among his friends) and the direction he received from his elders, including godfather McCovey. When a teen-aged Jeff Dudum, his eyes already on the restaurant biz, told McCovey, "I want to open a restaurant with you," McCovey told him to go to college, learn the business and come back then. Dudum did, and, diploma in hand, opened six restaurants and bars in the Bay area before coming back to McCovey in 2001.

One of the things the more seasoned, 30-something Dudum knew was that while he could dream up fantastic places, the food needed the attention of a serious professional. Culinary director Frank Palmer already had a stellar reputation in the region when Dudum practically hired him straight out of the kitchen at his previous gig, running the kitchen at the Lafayette Hotel's Duck Club restaurant. DSE hired him as executive chef at Bing Crosby's and culinary director of the entire company.

The food has been well-received by local guests and critics, both for its quality and execution, but also for its success in capturing the essence of the celebrity and his era. Tricked-out versions of stadium and arena fare (nachos with two cheeses, chicken and black beans, sour cream and pico de gallo) are found on the menus at McCovey's and Center Court. At Crosby's, "One could imagine," writes Melissa Swansn in Diablo magazine, the crooner slicing into a filet—even if "the black truffle-laced demi-glace may have challenged his ‘40s-era expectations." The transportation through time extends to service, as well, which, at DiMaggio's Italian Chophouse means servers are "trained to rekindle the courteous, chivalric code that permeated DiMaggio's time," says DSE.

"We have never approached a celebrity ourselves," says c.e.o. Jeff Dudum, who prides himself on showing restraint in the face of seductive offers. While he won't name names, he says DSE has been approached by more than 100 Hollywood/sports hero/ rock-star types wanting DSE to help them create restaurants in their honor.

"I was always taught by my father (a successful entrepreneur himself) and by Willie that if you're good enough, they'll come to you," says Dudum.

Pairing up with the likes of Carlos Santana has brought about more interest than DSE was prepared for. In fact, Dudum says, the media attention has been so intense that the company has stopped returning reporters' phone calls. "We get calls from all the sports magazines, entertainment magazines. It's been overwhelming," Dudum confesses.

Guarding his celebrity partners and their business dealings, Dudum is even mum about how the deals are made. As for the Santana project, Dudum will only say that some members of Santana's family (he and his wife Deborah live in Marin County) were eating at Bing Crosby's one evening and had the idea that Carlos should have a restaurant.

What is the nature of such partnerships—the "right" level of involvement from a celebrity, given that foodservice is not their business? Input at the planning stages, Dudum says, is essential to translating the celebrity's brand into bricks and mortar. In the case of Crosby and DiMaggio, their families' input was relied upon heavily. Early in the planning stages, DSE presents the celebrity or their survivors an exact plan for the restaurant. "If somebody says, ‘Here's my name, I just want a restaurant,' that's not what we're interested in. We want somebody who's going to get involved right down to the color scheme."

What happens when there's a clash? Diplomatically, Dudum says, "I can honestly say that's never happened," and adds that the complete vision for the restaurant is agreed upon before the deals are signed.

The greatest challenge of working with a celebrity, he says, is the responsibility of protecting the brand associated with the star's name. "Definitely the hardest part is trying to protect your partners at all times from anything that may come their way. You have to do a great job across the board to make sure people leave with a higher expectation than when they came in. We're not going to let someone's name be ruined over steak."

Recently, DSE opened a second Bing Crosby's in Rancho Mirage, CA, a favorite winter spot of the golf-loving Crosby. Going forward, DSE intends to replicate its existing concepts and launch new ones as well. Another family friend, Tom Gonzales, co-founder of e-commerce pioneer Commerce One, has come on board as a DSE partner and contributed some of the capital needed for growth. DSE is planning to open four more restaurants this year: a Bing Crosby's in West Palm Beach, FL, DiMaggio's in Austin, TX, and Boca Raton, FL, and a Center Court in Tempe, AZ. When he spoke to Restaurant Hospitality, Jeff Dudum was fresh off a tour of Las Vegas where he met with the city's major developers. Dudum predicts each of DSE's concepts—as well as new ones, including a boxing concept and a 25,000- to 30,000-square-foot restaurant and jazz club with Carlos Santana, called Santana's—will soon have homes there.

The five-year plan is to add eight units in 2008, and by 2009, expand at the rate of five to 10 per year. There are no national expansion plans in mind though. DSE is concentrating on the Southwest, Florida and New York City.

Baseball Hall of Famer and retired San Francisco Giant Willie McCovey just happens to be a longtime family friend and Jeff Dudum's godfather. Jeff Dudum says that as a teen, he got the idea to open a restaurant with McCovey—and McCovey agreed, but only after his godson finished college and learned the restaurant business. Dudum followed those in instructions and came back to McCovey in 2001 to collect on that promise. The dramatic design brought plenty of attention when the restaurant opened in 2003. The restaurant is a minireplica of SBC Park, now home of the San Francisco Giants. Inside, there's even an "infield" and "outfield," and tables are dedicated to McCovey's favorite players. The collection of baseball memorabilia, boasts Dudum, rivals that of the actual Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY.

The menu blends California casual with guy-friendly items. It includes steaks, meatloaf, ribs and a 44-ounce burger designed to "feed a family of four."

Bing Crosby's Restaurant and Piano Lounge
"California Country Club Cuisine" is how DSE describes the offerings at the elegant, vintage-vibed Bing Crosby's. Opened in 2004, the restaurant captures 1930s swing-era Hollywood glamour. Crosby treasures in residence include the crooner's golf clubs, his pipe collection—even the Oscar he won from "Going My Way." The menu mixes updated versions of steak tartare and oysters Rockefeller, Waldorf salad, surf & turf and lamb chops with contemporary offerings include an ahi tuna trio, cornmeal-dusted sea bass with gnocchi and roasted salmon with risotto.

DiMaggio's Italian Chophouse
The restaurant's spaces are meant to capture the most meaningful geographic locales in DiMaggio's life: San Francisco (where he grew up) and New York (where the baseball legend was born).

The main dining room, a 1930s-inspired North Beach Room, features leather-tufted booths with views of Washington Square Park and the historic Saints Peter and Paul Church, where DiMaggio was first married. To its right, the Manhattan Room is a sexy, metropolitan space appointed in steel blues and dark hardwoods. Smaller spaces that pay tribute to other influences in DiMaggio's life, including Marilyn Monroe and Tony Bennett.

The menu includes several antipasti including an antipasto platter; a fritto misto of calamari, shrimp, vegetables and preserved lemon remoulade; and mussels. Steaks and chops, as the name indicates, are central to the menu. There are also small pizzas, some with sausage made in-house.

Center Court with C-Webb
Center Court with C-Webb is a basketball-tribute collaboration with one-time Sacramento King Chris Webber. Like McCovey's, the restaurant is a tribute to the game, not a single player The restaurant is designed to recreate the magic of attending a basketball game. Launched last November, Center Court's dazzling dining space captures the feeling of actually sitting on the court as wall murals depict screaming fans looking on. Steak and chops hold center court at Center Court, as do other guy favorites like ribs and burgers. "Family comfort food"—meatloaf, fried chicken with mashed potatoes, cole slaw and gravy—abounds as well. Upgraded concession-stand fare is offered, too: The "Double-Double Burger" and "Dunkables,"— house-made tortilla chips and DSE's own artichoke dip.