Several of my neighbors weren’t exactly thrilled to be living near a jungle habitat. They started a watch group. They even bought walkie-talkies and would update one another on what was happening. When, one day, I heard the front entry chime, I opened the door to what looked like a full-scale crime scene. There were cop cars and officers all over the place. One guy put me up against the door and said he was with the Drug Enforcement Administration and they were going to search the premises for drugs. Because of my huge residential electric bill, they assumed I was growing marijuana in the house. They were astonished when they discovered the tropical rainforest.
Let me tell you: it’s not easy to live in a house filled with jungle creatures and surrounded by angry neighbors, all on the off chance that it might help get funding to realize an entrepreneurial dream. What got me through was passion, pure and simple. I knew no venture capitalists were going to invest their money in my far-out concept without actually seeing it, so I transformed my house into my vision of what a rainforest restaurant would look like in order to make them believe in my dream.
My plan succeeded. It turned out that a fellow Minnesotan, gaming executive and venture capitalist Lyle Berman, bought into the concept and raised the funds necessary to get Rainforest Cafe up and running.
I remember the first time Lyle visited my home. It was early morning and he stopped by on his way to work. I came out to greet him wearing jeans and a khaki shirt, like a safari guide, with a parrot on my shoulder. I led him inside, where he was greeted by forty tropical birds in cages and a baby baboon named Charlie wearing a dress. Jungle foliage, including all kinds of plants and vines, was hanging everywhere. There was a thirty-five-foot waterfall, too, which emptied into a river that snaked through the house and out into the yard. It was filled with pink antifreeze so it wouldn’t stop flowing in the winter. To top it off, I created a mock-up of a retail store with various kinds of rainforest merchandise that looked like a Florida souvenir shop on steroids.
After giving Lyle a tour of the house, I asked him what he thought of it. He told me I needed a psychiatric examination and there was no way he’d invest in my idea. He then asked me if he could bring his kids by to see the house, to which I of course agreed. On his next visit, after I gave his kids the grand tour, I again asked Lyle what he thought of my idea.
“Well, your dedication and passion are off the chart,” he admitted, “but I’m not buying into this,” he claimed. Then he asked if he could bring his parents over.
By the time Lyle’s parents had completed the tour, Lyle and I had developed a little ritual. Once the visit was over, I’d ask him what he thought. Then I’d anxiously await his answer. This time I reminded Lyle how committed I was to the project, and his response was: “I think you should be committed!”
As time passed, Lyle found additional reasons to visit my house. I guess my tenacity and passion for the Rainforest Cafe idea kept growing on him. He kept visiting my house, bringing over other investors for their reactions. Finally, after about two years, Lyle decided to back my idea, and the rest is history: the Rainforest Cafe chain became one of the most successful themed restaurant concepts ever created, and continues that way today under Landry’s Restaurants and Tilman Fertitta’s leadership.