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Hard Rock Cafe Hits Some Sour Notes But Keeps Rolling

The recession has put a damper on the rock 'n' roll party at several Hard Rock Cafes, most recently at its location in Sacramento's Westfield Downtown Plaza, which closes after 13 years when its lease is up later this month. Ill-considered locations for some of its restaurants may be part of the problem -- Hard Rock has closed 45 eateries in its history, a pretty hefty number for a chain with 134 units worldwide.

Sacramento isn't the only sour note in the brand's portfolio. Its Dubai restaurant shut a year ago with promises to reopen that seem to have sunk with the economic collapse in the United Arab Emirates. The Montreal Hard Rock closed last fall, while Guadalajara, Tijuana, Salt Lake City and Kona, Hawaii units shut down in 2008. Other units, including Hong Kong, Dallas and Nashville, have recently been out of commission while being remodeled or relocated.

Privately held Hard Rock -- owned by the Seminole Tribe since 2007 -- certainly isn't the only big-format restaurant that's been hit by the recession. But downturn aside, the chain has another problem: A reputation for mediocre food in an increasingly foodie world. With the brand coming up on 40 years old next year, it's time to freshen up the menu and improve food quality.

Negative comments about the menu and slow service are legion online. "Friends don't let friends eat at Hard Rock!" opined on reviewer after a visit to the Baltimore restaurant. In Japan, where the chain has eight restaurants, one diner recently blogged, "The food and drinks aren't so good and they're over-priced, in my opinion."

The drive to open more Hard Rock hotels and casinos appears to have taken some of the focus away from restaurant execution. The hotel expansion continues to roll along with a new hotel opened in Singapore this month. Meanwhile, the chain seems bent on blanketing the globe whether or not its rock concept makes sense in particular markets. Recently opened or soon-to-open locations include Prague, Czech Republic; Pune, India; Phuket, Thailand; Krakow, Poland; and perhaps most improbably of all, Medellin, Colombia.

It's not all blues at the chain, though. Hard Rock continues to score some great locations for new restaurants that play to its key audience -- tourists. A perfectly sited Los Angeles restaurant next to Grauman's Chinese Theater on Hollywood Boulevard -- likely one of the busiest tourist spots in America -- opens shortly, and a second Las Vegas eatery was added last fall. In Seattle -- a town notorious for ignoring national restaurant chains until they go away -- Hard Rock opened in a prime spot near Pike Place Market earlier this month to critical approval of the eatery's very Seattle-centric rock memorabilia collection and awesome rooftop-view deck. Sassy online regional startup magazine Crosscut raved, "Finally a Hard Rock Cafe for Cobain, Vedder, Hendrix and more."

There could well be a few more Hard Rock closures before the curtain rings down on the recession. A slight tuneup in the kitchen and a sharper focus on good site selection would help keep the chain rocking into the next decade.

Photo source: Flickr user powerbooktrance

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