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JIMMY BUFFETT, WATCH YOUR BACK

Keith, the reigning Academy of Country Music Entertainer of the Year, told reporters at a Nashville press conference that cutting the deal for his new "I Love This Bar And Grill" chain was a straightforward process on his side of the table. Here was his negotiating position:

"We've got to have great food, and I'm going to have the last say-so on that, and y'all get the royalty checks right and we'll all agree," he said, noting that at first the investor group "made me an offer I couldn't understand."

Somebody in the group sure understands restaurant locations, because the first two units will go into prime spots in their respective markets.

The 17,000 sq. ft. restaurant in Las Vegas will be located in the middle of the Strip at Harrah's, right next to a monorail concourse that will deliver high-volume foot traffic around the clock to I Love This Bar And Grill. "As soon as you walk off that train, you walk right into my doors," Keith told an interviewer for Country Music Television. "If you get off at Harrah's to go to the Bellagio or Harrah's or Caesars, you've got two ways to go, so it's 50-50. If you go this way and you walk 20 steps, you start seeing my memorabilia, and then you turn the corner and then, bam, you're in."

The Las Vegas unit is scheduled to open this summer, as should the one in Oklahoma City, Keith's home base. That one will sit at the high-profile intersection of I-35 and I-40, adjacent to a Bass Pro Shop. Other restaurant locations will include Kansas City, MO, Council Bluffs, IA (Harrah's operates casinos in both cities) and at the Louisiana Downs racetrack in Shreveport, LA,

Keith was serious about having the final say over the menu at I Love This Bar and Grill. He's going with an extensive sandwich lineup plus chef-prepared Southern-flavored entrees. As for the atmosphere, it's going to be "roadhouse. It's not going to be hillbilly country," Keith promises. "It's going to be John Wayne meets Captain America."

For now, Cheeseburger in Paradise still seems like a solid growth vehicle for Outback. It's a partnership between Outback and Jimmy Buffet's Margaritaville Holdings. Most units are located in the Midwest, where there are plenty of markets left for expansion. However, while Jimmy Buffet has a loyal following of parrotheads and still draws big crowds to his concerts, he's yesterday's news compared to Keith, who has sold more tickets to live appearances than any other country music artist two years running. And anyone who can turn a song entitled "Beer For My Horses" into a No. 1 single should have a big future in this corner of the restaurant game, especially as long as his commercials for Ford Trucks keep saturating network television during NFL games and other sports-related shows.

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