Pink Taco Restaurants founder Harry Morton will get a taste of the live music business following his recent purchase of Los Angeles’ 250-capacity Viper Room, which sits on Hollywood’s Sunset Strip.
Morton, whose father Peter Morton founded the Hard Rock Cafes and Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas, says minor cosmetic changes will be made to “freshen up” the Viper Room’s current location. But his plan doesn’t stop there. Morton says future Viper Rooms are planned for Las Vegas, Miami, Portland, Seattle, New York, London and Tokyo.
“My goal is to create the premiere 300- to 500-seat venue,” Morton tells Billboard.biz. “I’ll put as many out there as I can, while still being able to maintain the integrity and ethos of what it’s all about.”
To help fulfill this goal, Morton has tapped industry vet Arich Berghammer, who formerly served as national chief of staff and national senior director of operations at House of Blues. “He definitely has the knowledge and history with his background in music, so it’s a great match for the brand,” Morton says of Berghammer, who also runs the Pink Taco Mexican restaurant chain.
Financial terms of the Viper Room sale were not disclosed, but Morton now serves as the majority owner of the club and its moniker. Investment bank Blackhawk Capital Partners, which purchased the venue from actor Johnny Depp in 2004, will retain a minority stake.
Morton spoke with Billboard.biz about the Viper Room’s expansion into new markets, the possibility of using the club’s moniker in other facets of the music business, and priceless advice he has received from his father.
What was your interest in purchasing the Viper Room?
I grew up right above the Sunset Strip, so I’ve seen it evolve from the early ’80s. I’ve always seen the Viper Room and the talent going through there. It’s a great old spot that’s been around forever, and I saw the great brand potential with the name.
What are your plans to expand the Viper Room into new cities?
We’re weighing our options right now. With the announcement, there have been a lot of phone calls and interest. But I’m taking my time. I don’t want to rush into anything just for the sake of doing a deal. I can’t really stress enough how important the brand integrity is to us. I’m not just going to throw it somewhere because it makes sense financially. It’s about carefully picking the locations and looking at the markets where we want to go to.
How did you hook up with Arich Berghammer, and what does his past experience in the live music biz bring to the table?
Arich is concurrently running my Pink Tacos for me. He was recruited out of the last organization he worked for. He definitely has the knowledge and history with his background in music, so it’s a great match for the brand. Operationally he’s excellent, but he also understands the music business. It’s not just dollars and cents in this business. When it comes to live music and entertainment there are other factors that need to be weighed in. His knowledge and understanding of that business is very helpful.
Aside from new club locations, will the Viper Room moniker be used for other branding purposes?
I bought the name. We’re planning stuff just besides the venues. I can’t really go into exactly what we’re doing, but it’s going to be music oriented and true to the integrity of the brand. Don’t plan on seeing Viper Room vodka and things like that. My whole goal now is to really bring it back to its heyday and get bands excited to play there again. It suffered a little bit of neglect for a while. The only goal is to make it musically driven to the point where we get some great talent in there.
What changes, if any, will be made to the Viper Room on Sunset Blvd.?
We’re going to freshen it up. If something is broken, don’t try to fix it. I’ve had calls, saying, “Oh, God, is he bringing hip-hop in and club night?” No, it’s staying what it is. If anything, we’re trying to restore it to its heyday. That means cosmetic changes on the outside and cleaning the place up — and making any sound, visual or audio improvements.
Your father, Peter Morton, founded the Hard Rock Cafes and the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas. Has he offered any helpful advice about your purchase of the Viper Room?
He always gives me advice. Some of the best advice I’ve gotten from him is the value of your brand and how important it is to protect it. There are a lot of people out there looking to make a quick buck and don’t really care about it. You have to be vigilant in making sure you make the right decisions so that your brand has staying power in the marketplace.