Why Metrotown’s Rainforest Cafe still matters 20 years later
“It was sensory overload in the best way.”
You’re surrounded by lush, tropical greenery. The sound of trumpeting elephants can be heard in the distance and the occasional roar of a leopard keeps you alert. You look up, and a vibrantly-coloured tropical bird lounges in one of the vine-covered branches above you. Suddenly, you come to your senses as a waiter places a plate of dinosaur-shaped chicken nuggets on the table in front of you.
No, you’re not in some faraway jungle in the tropics. You’re at the Rainforest Cafe at Metrotown mall.
Although the popular jungle-themed chain restaurant has been closed for 20 years and replaced by a massive Old Navy, the memories of the Rainforest Cafe still resonate with many who frequented Metrotown between the late ‘90s to early 2000s.
Where the Rainforest Cafe all began
The restaurant first opened its doors in Bloomington, Minnesota’s Mall of America in 1994.
It was founded by Steven Schussler—a former advertising salesman—who dreamed up and literally executed the initial prototype in his home, after wanting to create a dining chain that specialized in “eatertainment,” according to journalist Lindsey Weber.
He used over 3,500 extension cords to power 20 different sound systems, lighting elements, and fog machines to bring the concept to life in his house. He racked up a $2,000 electricity bill, which gave his local power company reason to believe he was operating a marijuana grow-op.
“The neighbours thought I lost my mind,” said Schussler in a 2011 talk for Disney, where he detailed his entrepreneurial journey.
“My electric, phone and gas were turned off every single month for three years. I’m not proud of that. … But I’d wake up the next day, and I’d laugh, I’d get encouraged and I’d get back on my bicycle and I’d ride it again. I’d get back up and I’d keep fighting over and over and over again because I knew what I had, I knew that it’d be embraced by families around the world, I knew that it was a phenomenal concept and it was worthy of what I was going through,” he said.
Although Schussler’s rainforest-themed restaurant idea seemed far-fetched, his persistence paid off. Minnesota gambling tycoon Lyle Berman took interest in the concept after Schussler’s father pitched it to him during the World Championship of Poker in Las Vegas.
Berman invested $1.2 million into the restaurant and became the restaurant’s CEO and chairman.
Throughout the ‘90s, the chain expanded across the US and internationally.
In Canada, the Rainforest Cafe opened in Metrotown in 1998. A year later, two more locations were opened at Scarborough Town Centre and Yorkdale Shopping Centre in the Greater Toronto Area.
In 2000, the chain was sold to Landry’s Restaurants Inc. After the Landry sale, Weber noted that “things changed”—including menu items and decor.
The change in ownership also reflected a shift in the restaurant’s operations. Metrotown’s Rainforest Cafe, as well as the locations in the GTA, shuttered in 2001.
Today, there is only one Rainforest Cafe operating in Canada, located in Niagara Falls.
Fake gorillas, crocodiles, and thunderstorms, oh my!
It’s quite clear why the Rainforest Cafe was such a novelty attraction. Every location was designed to look and make you feel like you were being transported far away into a Disney-esque jungle.
When you walked in, you’d be hit with a slight heaviness in the air, almost to emulate the humidity of a real rainforest. Fake tropical trees, vines, and greenery made the space look lush and alive. The sounds of ribbiting frogs and squawking birds played over the speakers. Every 20 minutes or so, a routine—and sometimes frightening—fake thunderstorm would occur, which included loud sound effects and flashing lights, to emulate a torrential tropical downpour.
And who could forget the (mostly fake) animals? There was the infamous animatronic crocodile, elephants, gorillas, and leopard at the Burnaby location. Fake birds and butterflies could be found adorning various corners of the eatery. There were some real creatures, too. Tropical fish would swim circles around a tank that emulated the warm waters of a faraway ocean and live exotic birds accompanied by handlers would make appearances as well.
YouTube user ttonyat uploaded video footage of their visit to the Rainforest Cafe at Metrotown in 1999. The fuzzy VHS-filmed tape shows a now-retro and dated-looking space. But it also highlights the unique novelty the restaurant brought to visitors; it was a destination in the mall that not only provided a dining service but an entertainment experience as well.
Andy Yan, director of the SFU city program, explained that the emergence and appeal of entertainment and dining venues represented a shift in how malls were catering to customers, especially in the late ‘90s and early 2000s.
Metrotown was initially a place where you “picked up stuff,” said Yan. The dining options in these spaces were meant to be fast, quick, and convenient, hence the role of the food court.
But on the cusp of the new millennium, malls began to see a shift from shopping services to spaces that provided and specialized in entertainment, sit-down dining, and leisure.
“That kind of shift really touches upon how malls have changed significantly from their origins from retail shopping centres to more around lifestyle,” he said.
“Sensory overload in the best way”
Although Metrotown has drastically changed over the past 20 years, the nostalgia and memories that surround the Rainforest Cafe have not.
All it takes is a simple “throwback” photo on social media to get folks talking, and reminiscing.
In 2015, Metropolis at Metrotown (which is what the mall rebranded to when Eaton Centre shut down in 1999) posted a photo of the restaurant with the caption “ Remember Rainforest Cafe?” on Facebook. That post alone garnered thousands of likes and hundreds of comments.
“I would give literally anything for another Rainforest Cafe. Because no one needed another Old Navy,” wrote one commenter.
“Please bring this back … I miss this sooo much,” said another.
Shay Singh was also a frequent visitor to the Rainforest Cafe’s Metrotown location during her childhood. She told the Beacon visiting the eatery was considered a “special day trip” for her family, who resided in Maple Ridge at the time.
“We would kind of make a rotation of going to the Rainforest Cafe for lunch, and then going to the Playdium,… and then the Disney Store. That was our rotation of Metrotown. But Rainforest Cafe was always a must for us,” she told the Beacon.
Singh said the establishment reminded her of her childhood visits to Disneyland. “I feel like [it] was kind of the closest thing to that kind of animatronic experience in BC,” she explained. “It was sensory overload in the best way.”
And it was unlike any other local attraction.
“I think it was revolutionary for its time,” she said. “It wasn’t like Chuck E Cheese … or a Crash Crawly’s. It felt like more of a sophisticated kids’ place. It was so different.”
The nostalgia factor and the continued evolution of malls
Yan said the deep-rooted nostalgia folks like Singh have for the Rainforest Cafe is also tied to how life was rapidly changing in the early 2000s.
“[It was] a time in life, in a society where there was this kind of shift from analog to digital,” he said.
“And I think the nostalgia, is a nostalgia of a more analog life. A kind of pre-digitized self.”
Malls, he said, continue to evolve and shift beyond their intended purpose of simply being places to go shop, or eat at a themed restaurant like the Rainforest Cafe.
“Well, right now you’re definitely seeing much more residential development. And you saw that with the redevelopment of Station Square and I think that is symbolic of what is happening, [and] what will happen for the rest for Metrotown,” said Yan.
“And I think that’s just how malls are evolving,” he added. “And not only Metrotown, but certainly Burnaby is one of the epicentres of this shift because you think about what’s happening in Brentwood as well as Lougheed and the total redevelopment of these malls into not only the mall but also kind of much more mixed-use mixed residential with commercial retail. That is a view into the future.”