Being American is the only thing I'm good at," booms Bob Payton, ripping a meaty pig bone from therack of ribs on his plate. He is sitting in The Chicago Rib Shack, one of his four favorite restaurants in London. The others are The Chicago Pizza Pie Factory and two joints called Henry J. Bean's But His Friends All Call Him Hank Bar and Grill. He owns them all. He also owns his favorite restaurant in Barcelona, Spain, and his soon-to-be favorite restaurant in Paris -- both Chicago Pizza Pie Factories.
The restaurants are knockout examples of how to export American Culture. The Rib Shack, for example, where the proprietor has chosen to eat today, is a $1.2-million piece of Chicago on Raphael Street in the Knightsbridge section of London. There is a huge curved mahogany bar where Payton enjoys watching the British, refugees of wretchedly cramped pubs, negotiate for drinks without the embarrassment of having to elbow one another aside to get at them. There are stained-glass windows and a flashing light sculpture that reads BONE APPETIT. No other sign is needed: Rib-bones -- smoked and marinated in a secret barbecue sauce before being given a final spin under the broiler -- are the principal entry on the menu.
The Rib Shack opened in 1982, to just the sort of notices an American (if he was good at being one) would hope for. "Carniverous," huffed the [London] critic. "Artless," sniffed The [London] Evening Standard. "A horribly jaunty menu," lisped Tatler magazine. The word-of-mouth reviews were more balanced. "I can see why they call Chicago the Windy City," said one British patron. "The food is quite good, but, how shall I phrase it . . . Let's just say that there are certain gastric consequences after enjoying one of Mr. Payton's meals."
Payton smiles, stabs a fork into a creamy banana cheesecake, and says loudly: "I call this place The Chicago Rib Shack for the same reason I named The Pizza Factory after Chicago. I wanted to give the product a birthplace, a heritage." Europe, you might suppose, has quite enough heritage of its own, and in truth the continent is strewn with the bones of American products that failed to "take" in that alien culture. General Motors Corp. went into Belgium only to discover that its famous "Body by Fisher" slogan translated into Flemish as "Corpse by Fisher." General Mills Inc. bombed in the UK by putting cute freckle-faced, carrot-topped kids on its cereal boxes, failing to foresee that the English would associate them with Irish Republican Army terrorists. Pepsi-Cola flopped in Germany because "Come Alive!" was misunderstood, in German, as a call to rise from the grave.
Bob Payton, however, has foisted his Chicago heritage on Europeans with appalling success. He has taught Barcelona sophisticates how to devour two-inch thick hunks of Chicago pizza while listening to the Ronettes. In London, 14,000 Brits a week shed a century's worth of inbred dining propriety as they tear into Payton's slithery ribs, their dignity guarded by one simple plastic bib. In Paris, thousands of patrons will soon be instructed by Payton himself in the sophomorically American art of chugging a pitcher of beer without causing a brawl.
This is no Harry's Bar phenomenon -- a little corner of America in Europe where, in the 1920s, expatriates like Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald would huddle together out of the Old World cold. Payton's restaurants and gin mills are the avant-garde of a cultural takeover bid. Between the pizza place and the rib joint, he sells 1 1/2 tons of ribs, 230 cases of beer, and a Niagara of pepperoni every week. The Queen herself is rumored to have dined on his tender ribs. (Without the plastic bib, however. A Buckingham Palace source revealed that "H.R.H. used a knife and fork.") Through a trust called Boogie & Pal Ltd., Payton enjoys the benefits of a tax haven in Bermuda. His return on this invasion, which he launched in 1977 with $120,000, is already some $9 million a year.
"I must go back to the States for about a month a year to eat and recharge my batteries," exclaims this 240-pound Yankee at Elizabeth's Court. He finishes his meal now, wiping his greasy fingers with a scented towel. "But I get excited when I land at Heathrow [Airport] and see the long lines of black London cabs . . . . I love the smell of diesel smoke in the morning. It smells like victory!"
At age 40, Bob Payton has led the sort of life that lends itself to successful fantasy marketing. In the early 1960s, he was just another kid from Miami Beach trying to be Troy Donohue, when he went off to the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. There he became a drummer with Little David & The Wanderers, and, by his own account, learned "the dance steps from every musical Hollywood ever made." At Northwestern University, where he went next to earn a graduate degree in advertising, he learned Chicago -- and fell madly in love with the city.
The advertising degree got him into J. Walter Thompson Co.'s Chicago office. "Back in those days, Bob was very ambitious and very personable," recalls Burt Sloan, who at that time was an account executive at a Chicago soul-music radio station where Payton placed Hamm's beer ads. "I'll tell you, though, when the guy wasn't working, he was out eating pizza." Thompson also liked Bob Payton. More fatefully, the firm liked his prodigious Americanness -- and sent him to London, where it might be better appreciated than in the heartland of his country.
It was not Payton's first tour abroad. In the summer between his sophomore and junior years at Chapel Hill, Payton had landed a job, through an incredibly twisted series of events, as Xavier Cougat's assistant for the production of a television show filmed in Portugal. "It was Lisbon, it was 1964," Payton recalls, "and nobody is going to believe this, but I was hired to drive around Portugal with Cugie and Charo, and to hold Cugie's idiot cards for him while he stood in front of the camera." Cougat, he says, still calls him Senor Bob.
Six years later, in Thompson's London office earning $20,000 a year, Payton took off after bigger things -- flogging razor blades to the European masses. "Payton showed great creative leadership from the day he started," recalls Thompson executive Walter O'Brien. "He always had a high energy level." The firm cast him as its rock 'n' roll messiah, defying clients to get into the blue-jean culture of Europe's roiling youth market. "I would dress up in my best ad-agency suit and go tell our conservative clients that it was time for them 'to get down and boogie' if they wanted to capture the new money," Payton says. "The clients could not believe that a guy in a suit would stand up in front of them and do dance routines."
They believed in the message, though. Payton did very well being an American for Thompson in London. But after four years of research meetings, alternately falling asleep and passionately declaiming the merits of Chicago Bears football helmets as the perfect headgear for British motorcyclists, Bob Payton decided to quit. The giant agency had offered him $75,000 a year and an office in New York City. In vain: Payton had found his mission in life. He would spread the gospel of American gusto where it was needed most. He would open a pizza place for the English.
Bob Payton's path to glory, however, was pitted with more craters than Omaha Beach. "I knew that London needed a good pizza restaurant and that I was the one to do it," boasts Payton of the ordeal he went through in 1977 to get the first Chicago Pizza Pie Factory open. "The only problem was that I didn't know the first thing about the restaurant business, or how to make fabulous pizza for hundreds of people." So he went to school. More accurately, he paid $5,000 to Laurie Soll, owner of Chicago Pizza Works in Los Angeles, to teach him the art of cooking deep-dish pizza by the hundreds. Before he left for L.A., however, Payton concluded what looked like a solid deal with EMI Records to back him in his London venture. He also had a place lined up, in Jermyn Street, and had arranged for $3,000 worth of pizza ovens to be airlifted to Britain.
Then, just back from pizza school, he found out that the Jermyn Street location had fallen through. (He subsequently found another location, this one in Crown Passage, an alleyway around the corner from St. James's Palace, the home of the Queen Mother.) He also received a terse little note from EMI, saying it was out of the deal. It looked as though the once and future "Lord of the Pies" would be denied his crown.
"It was time to drop back 10 and punt," the Lord recalls today. He is in his office cross from Harrod's department store, reclining in the comfort of a candy-striped lounge chair. "I went to my girlfriend."
She was English, and was well-enough connected to introduce the man in her care to a principal of Norton Warburg Investments, one of England's first venture capital outfits. With their help, and Payton's pizza ovens, they formed My Kinda Town Ltd. The initial investment was $120,000, with Norton Warburg controlling 60% and Payton's offshore Boogie & Pal controlling the rest.
The original Chicago Pizza Pie Factory opened on Thanksgiving Day, 1977, the first American restaurant in London since Isaac Tygrett started selling hamburgers at Hard Rock Cafe in 1971. Chicago was on hand in the form of rock 'n' roll tapes provided by one of the city's FM radio stations. It was an immediate success. Certain Ladies in Waiting to the Queen Mother, from around the corner, were among the patrons. But the Crown Passage place was too small, and within two years Payton had moved The Pizza Factory to a larger location on Hanover Square. His sales volume at the new stand: $4 million a year. A sign on the door proclaimed, " Purveyors of Chicago Pizza to London and the World."
By 1981, Payton's annual sales were more than $4 million. He was indisputably the most notorious, the most influential, and the richest American restaurateur in London. He then fell prey to a series of disasters, only one of which, strangely enough, stemmed from pride.
The city of Bath is an ancient and elegant resort, about 100 miles west of London. Its leading citizens cherish the architecture and ambience of their town with the sort of desperate protectiveness that mothers devote to an invalid child. Bath, in short, was My Kinda Town, the perfect site for cultural invasion. As Payton put it at the time, "I'm creating a Disneyland of food and other attractions in Bath." He spent $610,000 on his Pizza Factory there, figuring that in the first six months he could feed about 100,000 mouths at $10 each. He figured wrong. The 100,000 did not materialize. Never mind that the figure was considerably more than the city's population; the trouble was more a matter of taste. The residents simply did not want pizza on their jewel of a Georgian city.
So the Bath venture bombed. Then, in the fall of 1981, it turned. Payton rebuilt it. Then he unloaded it, quickly, for $375,000.
Meanwhile, as The Pizza Factory burned, the parent company of Norton Warburg Investments, Norton Warburg Ltd., went belly-up. The managing director, Andrew Warburg, had bolted to the beaches of southern Spain, allegedly taking with him most of the investors' money. What was left of the venture capital outfit, including 60% of My Kinda Town, went into receivership.
Payton took this disaster as an opportunity. He would buy back the 60% at fire-sale rates. "I went to the banks," he recalls, "American banks -- First National Bank of Chicago, Continental Illinois [National Bank & Trust Co. of Chicago], and Harris [Bankcorp]. They turned me down. I was in the process of opening The Rib Shack and these American bankers just didn't believe that the British would wear plastic bibs." Undaunted, Payton did something that no American with a trust called Boogie & Pal would have dreamed of doing. He went to Coutts & Co.
Like the Royal Household, whose bankers it is, Coutts & Co. is something of an anachronism. But it is an anachronism cunningly devised, beautifully preserved, and skillfully marketed. It was founded in 1692 by a fierce Scottish goldsmith, and the bank still requires its male employees to be clean-shaven and to wear long frock coats. The atmosphere is that of a marble-and-glass tomb, which a lock of the Duke of Wellington's hair, prominently displayed in a glass case, does nothing to dispel. If there is anything left of the Empire, Coutts seems to say to its approximately 40,000 customers, it is the privilege of banking at 440, Strand.
Payton entered Coutts & Co. with the reverence of a Cubs fan racing for a good seat in the bleachers of Wrigley Field. The first words out of his mouth (directed at banker David Jones) were: "You guys always wear those silly coats?" But when he left, it was with a $600,000 overdraft, and the respectful wonder of the bank's senior management.
"We have very clear ideas about the market we serve," explains A. Julian Robarts, deputy managing director, in very clear tones. "We serve the top end of the market. But it is clear that we must also serve the smaller businessman like Bob Payton. The banking business is changing, and it is quite stimulating, I must say, to be associated with the success of the My Kinda Town group of restaurants."
With Coutts & Co. behind him, Payton acquired 75% of My Kinda Town, with the remaining 25% purchased by Alan Patricoff Associates, the U.S. venture capital firm. The Purveyor of Pizza was back in business, an event he toasted with a bottle of wine labeled Chateau Chicago.
Payton's third ordeal on the road to triumph was a lawsuit -- very possibly the most ludicrous lawsuit in the long history of English jurisprudence. The case was pizza. The background was this: Laurie Pizza Pie factory; and the trial, which was long and vicious, turned on the question of what constituted a deep-dish Chicago pizza. The background was this: Laurie Soll, Payton's old teacher in the art of pizza making, opened in Covent Garden what Payton perceived to be a Chicago Pizza Pie clone, called L. S. Grunts Chicago Pizza Co. Payton sued, arguing that Grunts's pizzas were an infringement of his proprietary rights in true Chicago pizzas. He lost. After the trial, the bewigged High Court judge was quoted as saying: "I have never before heard such evidence of confusion."
"Being controversial is Bob Payton's style," says Alan Lorrimer, Soll's British partner in Bates, another Covent Garden restaurant. "An Englishman could never get away with what Bob has done in the restaurant business here. No Englishman wants to work for him. He's what you Americans call an asshole."
Payton, with a gaping grin, agrees: "There is absolutely no doubt that I can be the biggest asshole in the world. I am absolutely single-minded about my restaurants, and that single-mindedness just sets me up to be shot down."
Also admired. "Don't let Bob's bravado fool you," warns Steven Gee, formerly a managing director at Norton Warburg before joining My Kinda Town as chief financial director. "At the end of the day, he has the street smarts that others in this city wish they had." Even Lorrimer has been heard to call him other names besides ass-hole: "Any good restaurant owner is a bit mad, and Payton is the maddest restaurant owner in London. What he has done is absolutely impossible. That makes him an absolutely brilliant man."
Payton's brilliance plays on the wildly ambivalent attitude of Europeans, especially Britishers, toward all things American. "America is what's happening to these people," Payton cries, belting down a Diet Coke in his Knightsbridge office, and they have a love-hate relationship with us. They watch American TV, listen to American music. America is their fantasy, and they come to my restaurants to live it out."
To keep them coming (56,000 of them a month, at an average of $8 a head at The Pizza Pie Factory and $12 a head at The Rib Shack), Payton spares nothing -- neither money, nor time, nor passion, nor the feelings of his employees -- to get every detail of his places exactly right.
For example, here is Payton on the opening night of Henry J. Bean's, on Kings Road. Payton is enraged. "The door is squeaking!" he bellows in the direction of a terrified-looking British bartender. "I old them to make sure that the door didn't squeak. Look! The lights that are supposed to light the front of the liar haven't been turned on. Who the hell was supposed to fix the timer!" Grabbing a small dictaphone from his jacket pocket, Payton makes a note on the people who were responsible.
But even with the squeaking door, the Kings Road bar is a textbook example of how to transform an old pub into a fantasy American bar and grill. There are two old pinball machines in the corner and a vintage 1947 Wurlitzer spinning tunes from the '50s and '60s The walls are covered with signs advertising fine old American products like Frostie Root Beer and '57 Plymouths. A stuffed American bald eagle stares down at the drinkers from behind the enormous bar. At The Rib Shack and The Pizza Factories, Payton's waiters and waitresses take and serve the orders. But at Henry J. Bean's (a mythical fellow whom Payton describes as "the kinda guy David Niven always wanted to be"), the customers place all their orders for burgers, chili, and potato skins with the bartenders. The patron then receives a receipt with a number, and watches for it to appear on one of three video screens located inside as well as out in the garden. The system is the same at Hank's on Abingdon Road, except that the ready orders there are broadcast over a loudspeaker.
In the near future, Payton plans to train all staff at his own restaurant management school, above the Kings Road Hank's. Until then, staffers receive two weeks of instruction at the restaurants where they work, and are given an oral and written exam so rigorous it would be easier to get a first at King's College, Cambridge. The final exam is to serve Payton a meal. "He put me through living hell," says one graduate. "He does everything possible to make you want to shove one of his bloody pizzas in his face."
Native-born employees tend to interpret Payton's "American" management style as abrasive, uncouth, egocentric, and repulsive. No more than 47% of his people have ever been British; 20% are American students, the remainder from other European countries. He has seven Americans as key staffers. It grieves Payton that he has been able to do so little for the U.K.'s 3 million unemployed, but he can't find enough of them who want to work the way he wants them to. The service ethic seems to have vanished from the Isles.
"My staff is trained to make people happy," says Payton."They are not waiters and waitresses. They are concessioneers. If they work hard they can make [$120] a night." Perhaps that is the problem, some observers feel. Not that Payton is rude and vulgar, but that he has introduced an uncomfortable new element into the British restaurant trade: the profit motive, pay-for-performance.
His own performance has made him one of the most influential men in British business. The government attends to his views. "I tell [Prime Minister Margaret] Thatcher," he says, "if British people don't want to be employed, please let us hire whoever wants to provide service. After all, our major objective is to feed the people of this country. Let us use anybody who wants to work. I can't have people in my restaurants sulking in a corner." In the meantime, until the British get used to the notion of service for profit, he can do little for unemployment.
Apart from his meticulous attention to detail, Payton's cultural invasion has been a success because he realized early what no Englishman could bear to contemplate: that the pub, Britain's most venerated institution after the monarchy, was dying.
"The majority of London pubs are awful," pronounces Payton. "They smell, they are filthy, they provide terrible service, and women do not like to go alone for fear of being hassled." He is not unique in this view. In the mid-'70s, masses of London Yuppies began deserting the pubs for a variety of restaurants, upscale and down, where they could sit and be served in relative comfort. Most of the pubs in Britain are owned by the great breweries -- Courage, Watney, Charrington -- but the giants were slow to respond to the pub's demise. The trump card was theirs: impossibly intricate licensing laws that dicate when, where, and under what circumstances a Britisher may drink his pint. The laws have not changed much since armaments manufacturers got them passed during the Great War (on the grounds that the British workingman couldn't be relied on to drink, except at certain specified hours, and make bombs in the same day). But it still remains an expensive and chancy proposition for an independent restaurateur to obtain a license to serve liquor without also serving food.
Early in his career, Payton played the twists in the laws by cleverly locating his establishments at 'round-the-corner sites where he might obtain a license to serve people who just wanted to drink. The Chicago Rib Shack is one of only a few restaurants in greater London that can pour liquor without selling food. Payton Plaice, his 250-seat fish restaurant that will feature the Chicago version of fish-and-chips and fried clams, will open this fall with a similar license. And the great breweries are currently courting him with derelict pubs and investment capital, to see if he can bring a little American magic to their Andy Capp premises. "Never underestimate the inability of the British to pick up on a good idea, or use double negatives," says Payton. "It took the brewers seven years to figure it out, but when a restaurant with a bar goes full-tilt boogie, it means an extra [$6,700] a week. You'd think the government would realize that they would benefit from a change in the law."
To help the government realize the error of its ways, Payton has been leading a largely one-man fight to change the laws in the courts. So far he has spent some $20,000 in the effort, an enormous sum by British standards of litigation. But he is furious that what he sees as silly, anachronistic, patronizing laws make it difficult for him to help people be happy. "When people come to one of my places, it's the same as if they were coming to my own home," Payton says. His home, incidentally, is in another great English institution, an English Country House. Suitably modifried, of course -- in his stable is a horse named for a Chicago suburb. "When people arrive at my home they are taken care of in the best possible manner. I demand the same thing at my restaurants. We provide good food, good service, and a good time. Giving good service is my life."
The sizzling question about Payton at the moment is when, or if, the man who is best at being American will take My Kinda Town public. London restaurateurs debate it, brewery executives speculate on it, and bankers massage their hands at the prospect of it. One of Payton's close associates thinks that My Kinda Town will be under public offer by the fall of 1985, but Payton denies it. "Ahhh, shit, if I go public I'll have another million assholes telling me what color my napkins should be," he moaned not long ago, slumping even further into his candy-cane chair. "I could have sold out and retired a rich man years ago. Maybe I'll flip a coin at some point, heads we go global, tails we liquidate."
And if itis heads? Is the Stock Exchange in London ready to deal with a corporate president who goes berserk if a waiter fails to hand him a hollow plastic toothpick? How will women brokers react to a stock whose major investor may be a man who calls his secretary "numbnuts," and whose girlfriend has a business card that reads "Bob Payton's Personal Bodyguard"?
"Screw 'em if they can't take a joke," crackles Payton, in his best disk-jockey voice. "Right now I've got to find a manager for Hank's in Paris, and Payton Plaice is gonna introduce London to the best mussels and frog's legs they've ever tasted."