TORONTO — So far little more than a discreet sales office with a hidden-away entrance lit by a galaxy of tiny bulbs, a luxury hotel will debut this year whose part owner is the actor Robert De Niro.
A few blocks away, past lively restaurants with roof decks and al fresco seating, another nondescript door with a speakeasy-style window leads to a bar in which Academy Award winner Susan Sarandon is a principal investor.
And around the corner is an upscale restaurant packed with hipsters and run by a frequent business partner and longtime friend of the rapper Drake, who gave this place its name: Fring’s, which he says means “a happy time.”
You might think you were in L.A. if it weren’t for the bright red trolleys rumbling down the middle of King Street and the occasional floatplane overhead, which give it away as Toronto.
Here, as in cities around North America, it is in fact a happy time for public personalities including actors, singers, football players and race-car drivers to open their own hotels, restaurants, bars, stores and other businesses that, in a celebrity-centric era, draw travelers like moths to flames.
Celebrity solo projects represent the next wave behind the Hard Rock Cafes and Planet Hollywoods (cofounded in the early 1990s by Sylvester Stallone, Bruce Willis, Demi Moore and Arnold Schwarzenegger), which fawn over the famous with memorabilia hung on their walls. It’s also an echo of a boom of restaurants and bars previously opened by and named for professional athletes and coaches.
“This kind of thing is gaining popularity because it’s been tested by those entrepreneurs and by the public, and the public seems to like it,” said Frederic Dimanche, director of the Ted Rogers School of Hospitality and Tourism Management at Toronto’s Ryerson University. “Even Lady Gaga is getting into this” — she co-owns, with her parents, two restaurants in New York City — “because there’s a business model there.”
In Charlotte, the Jonas Brothers have opened a southern-style restaurant called Nellie’s Southern Kitchen. NASCAR drivers Jimmie Johnson (SouthBound) and Dale Earnhardt Jr. (Whisky River) and Carolina Panthers defensive end Charles Johnson (CJ’s 4th Ward Fire House) all have also leapt onto that city’s culinary stage. Justin Timberlake is co-creator of two restaurants (Southern Hospitality) in Denver, where John Elway has one also (Elway’s) and Toby Keith is partner in a bar (I Love This Bar & Grill) with branches now extending nationwide, including to Foxborough.
Ryan Gosling co-owns a Moroccan restaurant (Tagine) in Beverly Hills, Walking Dead actor Norman Reedus and director Greg Nicotero a steakhouse (Nic & Norman’s) in Senoia, Ga., Zach Braff an oyster bar (Mermaid) in New York, Modern Family star Ty Burrell a beer bar (Beer Bar) in Salt Lake City and a diner (the Eating Establishment) in Park City, Utah, and Jay Z a chain of sports bars and lounges (40/40).
Channing Tatum is a partner in a club (Saints and Sinners) in New Orleans, where both Solange Noles (Exodus Goods) and Mad Men actor Brian Batt (Hazelnut) have boutiques and Drew Brees (Walk-Ons) and Archie Manning (Manning’s) co-own restaurants. Bill Murray is co-owner of the St. Paul Saints minor-league baseball team, which plays downtown. Also in Toronto, a just-opened floor of the Bisha Hotel was designed by Lenny Kravitz. And it seems as if every city is getting a Wahlburgers.
Sometimes the personalities have little or no connection to the cities where they’ve opened, as with De Niro and Sarandon in Toronto; while they’ve both appeared at the city’s famous international film festival, De Niro’s Nobu Hotel (Miami Beach, Las Vegas, Malibu, Chicago) and Sarandon’s Spin Ping-Pong club (New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Austin, Philadelphia) are parts of chains with locations in other cities also.
“Do customers expect to see Robert De Niro or Susan Sarandon there? I don’t think so, but the fact that the name is attached is cool,” Dimanche said. “It’s a marker that differentiates these places from other places. It’s not just the hotel; it’s De Niro’s hotel. There’s a buzz.”
In other cases — as with the restaurant opened in Charlotte by Joe and Kevin Jonas of the Jonas Brothers, actor brother Frankie, and their father, Kevin Sr. — they’re part of the atmosphere. Named for the brothers’ late grandmother, Nellie’s serves up local-style food in a city where celebrity businesses seem to be popping up all over.
“It’s definitely a trend that we’re seeing,” said Laura White, spokeswoman for the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority. These personalities “have instant name recognition, instant credibility. Visitors read about them in People magazine or see them on TMZ. And they want to have the same experience that the Jonas Brothers have when they come to Charlotte.”
There are other reasons behind the spate of celebrity spinoffs. Jimmie Johnson, for example, simply missed the food he knew growing up in southern California, so he teamed up with friends from a Charlotte restaurant group to open SouthBound, according to Samantha Chapman, spokeswoman for the group. It doesn’t use his name or likeness to promote the place.
“We see the appeal of visiting a restaurant that has a celebrity component,” Chapman said, but “we don’t look at SouthBound as a celebrity-owned restaurant.”
That doesn’t mean the name recognition isn’t a big part of why most of these celebrities’ partners bring them on board.
“Let’s face it: These are people who are newsmakers and have a platform to talk about their businesses,” said Andrew Weir, executive vice president of Tourism Toronto. “There’s a stamp of validation that’s true of when a celebrity even visits a restaurant. You simply hear about these places more. And I suppose you always wonder if you’ll see someone famous.”
By definition, of course, these artists also are creative types for whom retail and hospitality enterprises can provide an outlet, said Tom Cianfichi, life and business partner of Mad Men actor (he played actor Salvatore Romano) Brian Batt in their New Orleans gift and home-décor shop.
“He’s almost childlike in his enthusiasm for it,” Cianfichi said. The store “allows him the opportunity to go out and find the things he sees in his mind’s eye as being fashion forward and also design products. Instead of trying to design a piece or product and having to place it, we just skip the middleman.”
Batt’s enduring celebrity also differentiates the business, for travelers, from the many other shops along stylish Magazine Street.
“It gives them a little bit of familiarity in an unfamiliar place, maybe — a connection in this new place that they’re in,” said Cianfichi. “People come in looking for Brian. When he’s here, I put him to work, and people love that. He works the desk and talks to people and they take pictures with him.”Jon Marcus can be reached at email@example.com.