Save us from the Rainforest

Even with decent food, Rainforest Cafe makes appetites endangered species

What I love most about Rainforest Cafe, that strenuously earth-conscious restaurant that looks like a foliage riot designed by Phillips Petroleum Co., is its seeming blindness to the juicy irony it serves up like a dribbling half-pound beef patty. This garish theme feedery and ecologically fortified gift shop was launched three years ago in Minneapolis' Mall of America by Steven Schussler, developer of the Juke Box Saturday Night nightclub chain that spread across the Midwest several years ago. The original Rainforest Cafe has since sprouted 13 siblings in places such as Phoenix, Chicago, Fort Lauderdale, London, Cancun, New Jersey, Mexico City, and, this October, Grapevine.

Projected openings in 1998 include Denver, Las Vegas, and Detroit, with future locations planned for Hong Kong, Singapore, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Burma--the last three locales perhaps more in need of restaurants devoted to the plights of humans rather than to the troubles of smelly, fetid jungles.

Nevertheless, Rainforest Cafe is a sight to behold. Housed in Grapevine Mills, the new 170-store, 1.5 million-square-foot outlet mall, this precious jungle replica is enveloped in endless blankets of plastic foliage. The dining-room floor is dotted with fake trees, prefab rock formations, and dozens of giant mechanical butterflies moving their wings in elegant slow motion.

At the rear of the restaurant, a noisy waterfall splashes around a golden abs-of-steel, block-headed Atlas figure. He's holding up a globe with "rescue the rain forest" blazoned in neon across its equator--as if Arnold Schwarzenegger and a couple of rocket launchers were all that is needed to preserve the world's humid eco-tourist destinations. Animated gorillas intermittently howl, beat their chests, and shake trees. Elephant heads, embedded along one wall like the trophies of big-game hunters, periodically flap their ears and trumpet. Storms rumble across the ceiling with cracks of thunder and flashes of strobe lightning, traumatizing small children. Steam rises from various knots of fake plant life, and a tinkling of rain, isolated in beds of greenery, lends credibility to the moniker.

Amazingly, the creators of this polystyrene wildlife refuge thought it necessary to inject background music into the mix, presumably to harmonize the perpetual flood of high-decibel grunts, hoots, screams and cracks.

A spokeswoman for the Rainforest Cafe says that all of this simulated lushness is designed to "raise awareness" among the public to the plight of the rain forest and inspire them to take action to protect it. Before we even get to the menu, we run smack into the wagging finger of high-minded environmentalism urging us to do our fair share. This undercurrent of sanctimony is a prime source of Rainforest indigestion. We see these same undercurrents in the hordes of limousine-riding Hollywood celebrities engaged in waking us poor saps up to the environmental swellness of recycling, going meatless, and dramatically scaling back gasoline consumption.

And we see this undercurrent in morally unbreachable folks like Sting, who launched rain forest relief concerts and a foundation that raised millions of dollars before facing accusations that a piddly 5 percent of the proceeds were spent on actually saving rain forests. (Rainforest Cafe has close ties and funnels money to the Rainforest Foundation, a group Sting helped organize.)

This hypocrisy is the source of Rainforest Cafe's most deliciously explicit ironies. It has a menu larded with beef even though the Al Gores of the world tell us that cow farts are among the most potent greenhouse gases and clear-cutting for cattle ranching is one of the most serious threats to the Amazon rain forest. (The Rainforest spokeswoman tells me this is irrelevant because Rainforest Cafe does not acquire beef from any country that has a great deal of deforestation, as if the laws of supply and demand over an entire market have no impact on local producers). And of course, Rainforest Cafe is loaded with foliage and cheesy gifts borne of a great tsunami of petrochemicals.

The thing that's robustly evident about Rainforest Cafe is that it's designed to generate an Amazon River-full of cash, a goal it is realizing at a blistering pace: Their installation near Disney World is among the top-grossing restaurants in the country. Not that there's anything wrong with honest buck-generation. It's just that they're embracing the trappings of a movement that traditionally spits buckets of vitriol on free markets, industrialization, and the profit motive.

Their shrewd attempts to siphon dollars from your wallet is evident in the laborious rituals they thrust upon you before you can even get a seat in the place to buy food. Just as you must do before you enter a real exotic rain forest, this venue requires a passport, which is obtained at the "your adventure begins here" stand. These booklets contain your safari name and the time you are to proceed to the "elephant" booth to get your passport stamped. It also has menu descriptions and the "five E's of Rainforest Cafe," which include entertainment, environment ("We...attempt to raise environmental awareness of all those around us."), education ("We are committed to educating the community regarding environmental and wildlife issues."), employees, and, of course, earnings.

Passports are issued near a pond containing a huge rubber crocodile that without warning opens its mouth, roars, and lunges at prospective diners--leaving me to hope Grapevine Mills has the staff to handle cardiac emergencies. People respond by chucking coins at the thing, assured by the management that their offerings will be collected and used for the welfare of real rain forest lizards.

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