LOS ANGELES — Ron Bension had spent months refining the optimal French fry — traveling to more than a dozen cities, sampling batches upon batches of fries.
And on a recent summer night at the House of Blues on Sunset Boulevard, he put the latest version to the test — a Russet potato sliced to a width of 5 millimeters.
“It’s perfect,” he declared. “Too narrow and the fries cool down far too quickly. A little wider, and they get too starchy.”
As the new chief executive of House of Blues Entertainment, no detail is too small for Bension. The 57-year-old executive who once ran Universal Studios’ theme parks is charged with the task of reviving a 19-year-old restaurant and nightclub chain with a storied and often rocky past.
Launched in 1992 by Isaac Tigrett, co-founder of the Hard Rock Cafe chain, the House of Blues was partly inspired by the 1980 movie “The Blues Brothers,” starring Dan Aykroyd and the late John Belushi.
After a successful run that led its investors to the brink of an initial public offering of stock in early 2000, the company was rocked by a series of disasters. The first was the dot-com crash in March 2000, which wiped out many potential buyers, said Aykroyd, who founded the House of Blues with Tigrett.
“We couldn’t even get an investment banker on the phone after that,” Aykroyd said.
The next year, the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks decimated the U.S. tourism business, sealing the fate of many restaurant chains that were struggling to hang on. These included Planet Hollywood, which filed for Bankruptcy Court protection weeks after Sept. 11.
The House of Blues avoided closure after Aykroyd and several investors pitched in to pay its bills. In 2006, they sold the chain to concert promoter Live Nation Entertainment Inc., which combined the clubs with 23 of its other mid-sized venues, including the Fillmore in San Francisco, Gramercy Theatre in New York and St. Andrew’s Hall in Detroit. From there, the chain drifted as Beverly Hills-based Live Nation diverted its attention to other matters, including its 2010 merger with Ticketmaster.
“It was a period of time when the ship was very much rudderless,” said Gary Bongionvanni, editor of Pollstar, a publication that covers the live entertainment business. “It’s nice to see that they’re getting someone with Ron’s expertise to oversee the business.”
Bension’s plan for revitalizing the 13-club chain is straightforward — return the House of Blues to its roots as a top destination for live music, good food and outstanding service. To do that, Bension has a three-pronged strategy: Recruit mid-tier bands that can tour the House of Blues venues, have live entertainment at each club every night of the week and rev up the food quality.
“We fell into a rut, and now we’re getting back on track,” Bension said. “We’ve broken inertia.”
At the Hollywood House of Blues on a July evening, he patrols the club’s two restaurants, keeping a watchful eye on the way the crowd moves, whether patrons seem to be having a good time and whether their drinks are full or empty. Pleased, he notes that the servers are smiling.
“The service has not been great,” Bension said. “We’re trying to get back into that.”
It is a work in progress, and Bension has spent the last six months crisscrossing the country, visiting every House of Blues — including its club at Downtown Disney in Anaheim, Calif., — studying the character of each and taking stock of their strengths and weaknesses. In the earlier months, when few employees recognized him, Bension liked to dine at each restaurant. He told the servers that he was waiting for four friends, then proceeded to order a table full of food.
“It was so embarrassing,” Bension said. “I went through the entire menu and gained about 10 pounds.”
His hands-on, feet-on-the-ground approach comes from his years at Universal Studios, where he started at the age of 15 as an usher hosing down the Gibson Amphitheater after each late-night showing of “Jesus Christ Superstar.”
He rose through the ranks and eventually caught the eye of legendary MCA Inc. chief Lew Wasserman, who ran Universal at the time and made Bension president of the Hollywood theme park in 1987 when he was only 33. Bension went on to become chairman of Universal’s theme park business, overseeing its expansion into Orlando, Fla., and Japan until he left in 1996, saying he did not see to eye-to-eye with the new owners, Seagram Co. (Universal’s corporate parent now is Comcast Corp.)
While there, Bension built a reputation as a straight-talking executive who had an ability to impress his bosses with his clear strategic vision while engaging his employees with his grasp of operational detail and informal style.
“There is just something very cool about having a meeting with your boss while playing pinball in his office,” said LeeAnn Stables, who worked for Bension twice, once at Universal when she was vice president of marketing and again at Sega Gameworks, a chain of game arcades with restaurants he ran between 1999 and 2001.
Stables, now executive vice president of worldwide marketing partnerships for Paramount Pictures, said Bension liked to roll up his sleeves and dive into the nitty-gritty. “I can just picture him infiltrating every minutiae” at the House of Blues.
Bension’s plan is only now starting to kick in. The new menu, created with the help of Food Network celebrity chef Aaron Sanchez, will roll out this month at all the clubs.
To fill up the clubs with people, Bension brought back the Sunday gospel brunch, featuring live local singers, which had lapsed over the years. But he also expanded beyond the nightclub’s roots as a blues venue. For example, he came up with a concert series called the Metal Arise! Tour featuring up-and-coming metal bands that are touring 14 Live Nation venues this month, including seven House of Blues clubs. And he encouraged club managers to come up with their own ideas to draw customers. One manager came up with Bollywood night, which attracted 600 people at the first event.
By year’s end, Bension estimates that his division will have staged 5,700 shows attracting 5 million people, up 10 percent from 2010. The division, which includes 23 other Live Nation clubs and theaters, is now profitable. But the company does not break out the unit’s financial information.
Whether Bension succeeds in persuading customers to come back also depends on little things, like the French fry. After his fries were served, Bension set them aside and waited 10 minutes. Then he tasted one.
“Great,” he declared, satisfied. “Still hot.”
HOUSE OF BLUES ENTERTAINMENT
CEO: Ron Bension, 57
Founded: 1992 by Isaac Tigrett, Dan Aykroyd and Laurence Bilzerian
Venues: 36 clubs and theaters, including 13 Houses of Blues
Owned by: Live Nation Entertainment Inc.
Concerts and shows (2011): 5,700 *
Attendance (2011): 5 million *
—A metal box filled with mud from the Mississippi River Delta is welded under every House of Blues stage.
—Dan Aykroyd, whose Elwood Blues character in the 1980 movie “The Blues Brothers” helped inspire the franchise’s theme, —continues to host a weekly one-hour syndicated radio show featuring blues music.
—The chain houses the world’s largest collection of American visionary folk art, with about 10,000 pieces from artists such as Howard Finster, Jimmy Lee Sudduth, Jake McCord and Sam McMillan.
—The name was inspired partly by Aykroyd’s film “The Blues Brothers” and partly by John Lee Hooker’s 1959 album “House of the Blues.”
* Projected number of shows and attendance for 2011
(Source: Los Angeles Times research)