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mind your manners (and watch your head!)

Some theme restaurants may be down for the count, but Steve Neumann couldn't be more confident about the future of his brainchild: a theme restaurant where, at the slightest provocation, the visiting celebrities easily could start kneeing each other in the kidneys.

Neumann is senior vice president of WWF New York, the first restaurant ever to be licensed by the World Wrestling Federation. Devotees of Emily Post might be horrified, but Neumann knows that wrestling fans outnumber such people 10 to 1.

"In any given week, five or six of the top 10 television shows are wrestling programs," notes the longtime Cleveland restaurateur. "WWF programming is broadcast in over 100 countries and translated into seven different languages. The total weekly viewership for WWF is estimated at over half a billion people."

Big audience, big site The official grand opening for WWF New York will be this month in an invitation-only event featuring WWF wrestlers, local and national media, celebrities, and other guests. A preliminary "soft" opening for the retail and dining areas was held in November. Even though much of the front of the building remained obscured by construction scaffolding, customers lined up outside and were willing to wait to get in, Neumann says.

The concept's debut location occupies 43,000 sq. ft. in the Paramount Theater building in the heart of Times Square's entertainment district. With "Stone Cold" Steve Austin, "The Rock," "Undertaker" and other superstars making appearances to chat with customers and sign autographs, Neumann believes WWF fans will continue to flock to the $25 million complex.

They'll work up an appetite as they buy T-shirts, videos and action figures in WWF New York's 5,000 sq. ft. retail store, which, with its wall of television monitors, is highly visible from the sidewalk. After that, visitors can enjoy herb chicken pasta, applewood-smoked bacon burgers, barbecue spareribs and other American-style dishes in the 600-seat restaurant. The typical entree is about $13, with an identical menu for lunch and dinner.

Some theme restaurants have been accused of treating their menus as an afterthought, spending most of their time and money on atmosphere. But Neumann says serving quality food will be a top priority. The menu won't include silly entree names full of wrestling puns or references to major WWF stars. "We wanted to demonstrate that we're serious about the food," Neumann says.

Nonetheless, don't expect culinary innovation. "Our focus on the food is not to do anything that's radically unique," Neumann says. "Our demographic here is middle American families and males ages 18 to 34. They don't want fine cuisine. But our philosophy is that if we do hot wings, we're going to do very, very good hot wings."

After the meal, guests will have a variety of things to do, from losing themselves in the coin-operated interactive arcade to taking in a show. "There are two huge gold doors that open into a massive showroom, which is multilevel and has a 60-seat, full-service bar," Neumann says. "It's got a stage with audio, video and lighting that rivals equipment at some of the best concert houses in the country."

Neumann anticipates hosting rock bands or dance parties in the showroom two or three nights each week. Furthermore, WWF New York is wired with about 20 satellite hook-ups. Programming can be shot anywhere in the complex, then inserted into pay-per-view shows. Millions of viewers will be able to watch "Triple H," "Kane" and other wrestlers hurl chairs in the restaurant or threaten each other in the retail store. Occasional on-site matches will be a great way to promote the brand, Neumann predicts.

Learning from Planet Hollywood The business plan for the Times Square location calls for about $30 million in annual sales. "Theme restaurants in the area have reported sales of a little more than half that amount, but they didn't have the star power or appeal of WWF," Neumann says. "Also, I think we have a much stronger retail component."

WWF New York sits on the site of what was to be Planet Hollywood's second Sound Republic venue, which was designed to compete with Hard Rock Cafe's Hard Rock Live. After pouring $15 million into the project, an ailing Planet Hollywood pulled the plug in December 1998. It sold the space to WWF New York for a "substantial discount" and filed for bankruptcy protection in August.

Keeping it fresh The 905 Parkview Group of Cleveland, of which Neumann is a partner, owns exclusive marketing rights to the WWF chain and plans to avoid repeating Planet Hollywood's mistakes.

"We're not looking at diluting the brand by creating 967 stores across the country," Neumann says. "If you do that, it loses its freshness, that aura of exclusivity. We don't want to be victims of our own success."

Instead, the concept will expand slowly in an initial rollout of no more than six to eight locations. The next complex might be built in Orlando, Neumann says. Other cities under consideration include Myrtle Beach, S.C., Las Vegas and Chicago.

The WWF theme would work in malls, particularly entertainment-oriented regional malls such as those developed by The Mills Corp., Neumann says. Future locations "would be similar to what we're doing here in New York but with about 15,000 to 30,000 sq. ft.," he explains. "Also, there is a possibility that down the road we may want to do a downsized version, but, again, nothing that would really dilute the product."

Competing concepts In fact, Neumann isn't the first to bring the blood-and-guts action of professional wrestling to a dining/entertainment venue. In spring 1999, the WWF's arch-rival in the sports entertainment arena, Ted Turner's World Championship Wrestling, opened WCW Nitro Grill in the Excalibur hotel-casino on the Las Vegas Strip.

In January, during a "wall-breaking" ceremony to inaugurate the beginning of construction, wrestling fans heaved sledgehammers through a wall in an event attended by such WCW luminaries as "Big Sexy" Kevin Nash, "Hollywood" Hulk Hogan, "Diamond" Dallas Page, and Randy "Macho Man" Savage.

Meanwhile, sports- and sports entertainment-themed restaurants are opening across the country, from the National Basketball Association restaurant in Orlando, Fla., to the ESPN Zone sports bars opening in select cities.

If it's a trend, maybe we'll see snowboarding snack bars, BMX bistros, or even kickboxing cafes?

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