Rainforests are dying, and so are their cafes

With the closure of the Chicago location of Rainforest Cafe, a once mighty chain restaurant is now relegated to 21 worldwide locations.


Walker Winkler

Rainforest Cafe entrance shows a large contrast between itself and the rest of the mall. Overall adding to the environment and atmosphere of the restaurant.

Jake Ilkka and Walker Winkler

Arguably the most wild place to shop and eat is dying. In August, the Chicago location of Rainforest Cafe closed. As reported by The Chicago Tribune, the restaurant closed its doors more than a year ahead of schedule. With “Cha! Cha!” missing from Chicago, Gurnee remains as the only location of Rainforest Cafe in Illinois.


Founded in 1994, Rainforest Cafe made its name in the late 1990s and early 2000s on the cutting edge of animatronics. The restaurant experienced quick growth, opening 34 locations during a span of four years. The restaurant also made a global mark during that span, opening in countries like Canada, China, England, France and Mexico. For senior Nicholas Taylor, a themed restaurant like Rainforest Cafe helps the restaurant succeed, if executed well.


“Chuck E. Cheese, for example, is all based around a couple of characters, and that’s stayed relevant to younger audiences,” Taylor said. “[Rainforest Cafe’s] theme is more in the background, but it still works pretty well.”


Rainforest Cafe also built their brand on the appeal to children. With mascots to the brand like “Cha! Cha!”, the restaurant was able to appeal to children and provide an avenue for which the restaurant could market and sell trinkets of their characters. German teacher and parent Chad Rusk believes another reason children connected to the restaurant was based on values implemented by their parents.


“A lot of times, [children] like and think whatever their parents have built into them,” Rusk said. “If the parents are similar to my wife and I, then the kids would probably like it and have a decent shot at encouraging their parents to bring them.”


Closures have become more common and some have been accelerated in modern times. For the past seven years, one location of the Rainforest Cafe chain closed per year. This closure rate, combined with the current COVID-19 pandemic, has led to more and more Rainforest Cafes ending their leases and closing up shop. Rusk thinks the current pandemic only exposes issues with companies.


“There are already factors that were leading to Rainforest Cafe closing prior to COVID, and my guess is that COVID-19 is just going to accelerate whatever those issues were,” Rusk said. “It seems like businesses that were already struggling were afflicted faster and harder.”


Where does this leave Rainforest Cafe now? There are now only 21 locations globally, with the last one opening in 2016; however, it was simply a relocation of the Mall of America location to the third floor. The last time Rainforest Cafe opened to a brand new city was in 2015 in the Planet Hollywood Hotel & Casino, Las Vegas. Taylor believes the dwindling number of Rainforest Cafe locations is due in part to the opinions of consumers.


“Most people aren’t going to eat out very often, and even when they do, I don’t think it’d be at a mall,” Taylor said. “They go somewhere that’s more of a sit-down, fancier place, or just maybe more localized.”


Although the location in Gurnee is still open, it is unknown when the last thunderstorm will pass through the restaurant.