Spokane Journal of Business

A restaurant with some ‘RPMs’

The Hot Rod Caf

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POST FALLSRob Elder glances out the window of his Hot Rod Caf here and points to a truck hauling a vintage Ford Thunderbird thats pulling into the restaurants parking lot.

See that T-bird? he asks, then grins. We get this all the time. People bring their cars here to take pictures in front of the restaurant.

As anyone who has ever been into or even driven by the Hot Rod Caf knows, its all about cars. Hot rods, specifically.

A hot rod adorns the top of the restaurants building, which was designed by Elder to mimic a 1950s-era Mobil gas station. Inside, a vibrantly colored hot rod cruises the top of the bar, and others jut from every conceivable corner. Each and every hot rod, by the way, was customized and refurbished by Elders brother, Jeff.

Elder, who just turned 40, has a confession, though. Ive never been a major, major hot rod buff, he says, although he admits to having owned a few muscle cars in high school in the late 70s.

So why the Hot Rod Caf? A lifelong restaurateur, Elder says he put two and two together: America loves automobiles, and America loves theme restaurants.

Now, two years after the Hot Rod Caf opened, Elder says he thinks he has a hit on his hands.

If I had a dollar for every time somebody asked me to buy a franchise, he says, Id be doing great right now.

Second location coming

Elder has expansion on his mind, but not through franchising, he says.

His plans call for opening and operating five new Hot Rod Caf restaurants within the next five to seven years, he says. He hopes to open his second such eatery by fall, and is evaluating sites in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho. If those restaurants do well, then hell consider franchising the concept, he says.

I want control, Elder explains. Once youve been in here 17 times, youve seen the Ford hanging over the roof, and its not as exciting. (The restaurant) had better have good food and good service to keep customers coming back, and Elder wants to be in charge so he can make sure that happens.

The Coeur dAlene native says he has worked in the restaurant industry for 27 years, starting in his early teens washing dishes at Tonys Supper Club, on Lake Coeur dAlenes Bennett Bay. After graduating from Coeur dAlene High School, he took a hospitality industry course at North Idaho College, then worked for the next decade in food and beverage administration for the company that became Hagadone Hospitality Co.

After leaving that company, he sold everything he owned and opened Crickets Restaurant & Oyster Bar in downtown Coeur dAlene in 1985. He kept tweaking that operation by traveling, and looking at what other restaurants in bigger cities were doing. During that time, he became convinced that he wanted to open a theme restaurant, he says.

Entertainment dining is a concept that America has really warmed up to, he says.

So he sold Crickets and opened the Hot Rod Caf in 1998.

Post Falls? No Way!

When his real estate agent took him to look at a site on the south side of Interstate 90 in Post Falls as a potential location for his restaurant, Elder says he laughed.

I said, Absolutely no way will I ever open a restaurant of the magnitude I want to do in Post Falls.

After looking around some more and taking into account the estimated 60,000 cars that pass by the site every day, however, he bought the property.

The restaurant has 220 seats inside, and another 60 seats are added outdoors during the summer. It employs 87 people during the winter and 130 during the summer.

Shortly after the Hot Rod Caf opened, Elder decided to host a hot rod show as a tie-in. It started out that I wanted a little car show, he says.

The first year that the show, the River City Rod Run, was held, it drew 300 cars and 30,000 attendees in its three-day run. Last summer, close to 600 cars and 50,000 people showed up.

Kerri Thoreson, executive director of the Post Falls Chamber of Commerce, says that after just two years, the Rod Run has become one of the citys premier summer events. She says shes thankful that Elder chose Post Falls for the site of his restaurant.

People have talked about the things that have put Post Falls on the map, like the greyhound park and the factory outlets, but the Hot Rod Caf has got to be way up there, she says. Thoreson adds that Elder has her undying gratitude because most of the Hot Rod Caf merchandise the restaurant sells is emblazoned with the words Post Falls, Idaho.

And the restaurant sells a lot of merchandise, from $15 T-shirts to $350 bomber jackets to toy hot rods to computer screen savers.

We sell more merchandise than we do liquor, if you can believe that, Elder says, adding, Thank God for the Hard Rock Caf. Theyve installed in everybodys mind that when you go into a restaurant, you walk out with a T-shirt.

If anything about owning the Hot Rod Caf has surprised him, Elder says, its that the business has done so well, so quickly. That makes him look forward to building the chain in coming years, he says.

Ive never seen such a positive response (to a restaurant), he says, referring to the people who bring in old gasoline signs and other petroabilia to add to the collection on the restaurants walls and the auto aficionados who photograph their favorite cars in front of the restaurant.

Thats what tells you the concept is right and people do enjoy it, he says. Its a winning combination.

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