Shock rocker Alice Cooper has been in the business of provoking people for over 40 years, mostly onstage with his outrageous attire and make-up and gory set pieces. But he’s full of surprises. Outside of his passion for golf, the most surprising revelation about his career is that he owns a family-friendly restaurant in Phoenix, Arizona called Alice Cooperstown. It’s a hit with the locals and tourists and has been going strong since 1998.
Taking time out from his busy schedule juggling his roles as rocker, radio host, philanthropist, golfer and family man, Cooper spoke to ADD about life in the restaurant business. You can find more of his thoughts on his food exploits in my “Eat, Drink & Rock and Roll” feature for Grammy.com.
So Cooperstown has a fun atmosphere?
Oh yeah. I designed the restaurant to be rock ‘n roll and sports because I realized that those are the two things that everybody can agree on. Those are the two things that you can’t go wrong on. So you’ll have a bass from The Who and a bat from Al Kaline. You’ll have Johnny Miller golf clubs and a drumhead from the Rolling Stones. Most of our clientele is either going to be going to a Phoenix Suns game or a Diamondback game because we’re right there [by both stadiums]. You have to walk right by our restaurant. So I said barbecue. Everybody loves barbecue. I said let’s get big fans just to blow the smell of barbecue out there. If I had a choice between going to the stadium and having a hotdog for eight dollars or going into Cooperstown and feeding my family for fifteen, I think I might do that. One time [celebrity chef] Anthony Bourdain came in, and he wanted to try the two-foot hot dogs. We have a two-foot hot dog called The Big Unit, named after one of my co-owners, Randy Johnson the baseball player, who they call The Big Unit because he’s about six-foot-eight. So we couldn’t resist calling the hot dog The Big Unit, and anytime anybody orders it, sirens go off.
It sounds like the Rock and Jock Hall of Fame.
It really is. The thing I found out about restaurants is you don’t ever try to serve something that you can’t do. Don’t try to serve fancy food. Our food is totally based on comfort food — tuna noodle casserole, meat loaf and mashed potatoes, things your mom used to fix you.
You are many things — rocker, golfer, radio host. Why a restaurateur?
My manager Shep Gordon is a foodie. He used to manage Roger Verge and Wolfgang Puck, and he made these guys into international stars. He looked around and said, “How come everybody is treating you guys like you’re the help? You guys should be rock stars.” So he organized them. The reason why these guys are now getting $100,000 every time they go out is because Shep put them in that situation. So he’s the foodie. Somebody came to us and said, “What do you think about a sports restaurant downtown?” And I said, “If you say Alice’s Restaurant, I’ll hit you with a five iron.” They said, “No, Cooperstown.” I thought that was actually clever. I said as long as it’s a place that’s family oriented where you don’t have to worry about a wet T-shirt contest — you can bring your kids, and they can have their birthday parties there — and I don’t want everything deep-fried. I want the food to be something people like and will come back for.
I imagine that young Alice would have looked into the future at older Alice and said, “You’ve got to be kidding me.”
It’s unbelievable. And the funny thing is that I told the people that worked there, “For the first month, I think it’d be great if you wore my eye makeup because it will just be a cool gimmick.” So they did, and after a month I said, “You don’t have to wear it anymore.” Then people started complaining. They really like the makeup. So for 12 years now everybody wears the makeup. I let them do their own versions of the makeup. When a pretty girl comes over to take their order with my makeup on, people from out of town really love that. It gives it that extra little bit of signature. Kids love it [Cooperstown] because there are 35 televisions. And if it’s not a sports station on, it’s MTV or music videos, so you’re getting your dose of really loud rock music and sports at the same time.
There are other rockers who have embarked on food ventures. Geoff Tate and Maynard Keenan make wine. Sammy Hagar has his tequila and Michael Anthony and Joe Perry have hot sauces. Why do you think rock stars who have been in the business for 30 or 40 years are delving into these kinds of undertakings?
We obviously understand that our name is worth something. I think all of us have our favorite places to eat. One of the things that I liked about this was that the [Cooperstown] building is 100 years old. It’s brick and kind of looks like the Chicago Cubs stadium. I didn’t want to lose all the old brick and everything, so we kept that. It has a really warm feeling. When you walk in you feel like it’s really homey. I want it to feel like it’s been here for a long time. I don’t want it to look like a new restaurant. That was part of the trick, to make people feel like they get there and feel like they belong. And then the fact that I’m there [once in awhile].
Didn’t you have Cooperstown restaurants in Denver and Cleveland in the past?
As far as the one in Denver, after 9/11 the whole strip of restaurants just went down. People just wouldn’t go out. We had one in Cleveland, but we farmed it out to T.G.I. Friday’s. It was our menu but not really, so when it closed down I wasn’t unhappy. I like having the one open that’s the mothership. If I go down there and the barbecue sauce is not what I want it to be, I can go, “Hey, this needs more vinegar.” Or, “Why did we change sauces?” I can go directly to the source and ask whose idea was it to change sauces because what we had before was really good.
Have you tried everything on the Cooperstown menu?
Pretty much. They keep putting different things on there. I go out on tour for six months out of the year, so I’m not home for six months. I’ll come [back] in, and they’ll have two or three new sandwiches. We try to name them after celebrities in sports or rock ‘n roll. I say always give them something where they taste it and think it’s great. The funny thing was watching my mom in the kitchen teaching these guys how to make tuna noodle casserole. “Okay, here’s the noodles. You open up Campbell’s mushroom soup. Here’s the tuna.” They’re trying to add something in, and she goes, “No no no, it’s very simple. You’ve got to keep it simple.” The thing that makes tuna noodle casserole great is to keep it simple. Don’t add things to it. In the end, people will come in there and order ten of them and take them home and put them in the freezer because every once in a while they’ll have a craving for tuna noodle casserole.
Are there any other restaurants run by famous rockers that you’ve been to?
I went to Bill Wyman’s restaurant [Sticky Fingers] in London. We did a couple of functions there, and it was very American actually. Wings, ribs and cheeseburgers — very Americanized. And it was good. I’ve been to Cabo Wabo. In fact, we did a live album there. I’ll tell you the funniest story about this. My restaurant had been open for five or six years and was very successful. Meat Loaf comes to me and says he wants to open a restaurant. I say, “What a great idea. Nobody’s ever done a meatloaf restaurant. Chinese meatloaf, Italian meatloaf, Spanish meatloaf and all these different meatloafs with a certain kind of flare. That’s a great idea, man.” He goes, “I was thinking about a chicken place.” That stunned me for a second. I said, “Your name is Meat Loaf.” “Yeah.” “You open a meatloaf place.” He said, “That’s why I come to you because you have such good ideas.” So I kept saying, “What’s your name?” He goes, “Meat Loaf.” I said, “Right. What kind of restaurant?” “Meatloaf.” Every time on my radio show I do that. Every time I play a Meat Loaf song, I go, “Meat Loaf, what’s your name? What kind of a restaurant are you going to open?”
Has he opened it up?
No. That one was such a no-brainer. It’s a great idea still. Nobody’s done an exclusive meatloaf restaurant. I think your job now is to get in touch with Meat Loaf and get him to start his restaurant and get in on the bottom floor.
So what did you think of Cabo Wabo?
Cabo Wabo is great because it was exactly what I expected — pretty good Mexican food. When you’re down in Mexico, you hire the locals because they know how to make it.
After all these years, what do you think your fans would be surprised to learn about you?
Luckily for them that I don’t cook, but I do have good taste for what I want to see on the menu. The one thing about me is that I want a restaurant where everybody can go in at any time and not be embarrassed to take their kids in. And kids want a great cheeseburger. Give them a great cheeseburger, and they’ll come back every time. The one thing that I flat out stole is that we do sliders. I grew up on White Castle hamburgers, and I tried to get as close as I could to them. I said, “Cook these little hamburgers and cheeseburgers in onions with a pickle on them in a soft bun.” It’s something that I grew up with that you can’t just eat one. When we sell them, you have to buy six of them.