With Toronto's Hard Rock Cafe closing, what does the future hold for the chain?

Toronto's Hard Rock Cafe — the second to open in the company's history — is closing in May to make way for a Shoppers Drug Mart. Has the chain outlived its appeal? Or is it simply shifting locations?

Closure leaves behind just 2 Hard Rock locations in Canada

Toronto's Hard Rock Cafe in Yonge-Dundas Square was the world's second Hard Rock location. Shoppers Drug Mart will take over the space after the restaurant closes in May. (Haydn Watters/CBC)

When Lincoln Geraghty goes on holiday, he picks anywhere with a Hard Rock Cafe. That's no surprise coming from the self-professed Hard Rock scholar, who collects the restaurant's merchandise and has written academic articles about the chain and its rabid fans.

What does surprise him is why the chain would be shutting down its storied Toronto location — the second to open in Hard Rock's history — to make way for a Shoppers Drug Mart.

"They pride themselves as a company of preserving music history or heritage," he said. "It strikes me as a bit odd, really."

Geraghty, who teaches at the University of Portsmouth in England, has watched as Hard Rocks in Canada have come and gone — Calgary, Edmonton, Ottawa, Montreal, Kanata, Ont., Whistler, B.C., Banff, Alta., and downtown Vancouver all used to have Hard Rock Cafes.

There was even a second Toronto shop inside the Rogers Centre. But they all shut down and haven't been replaced. "Canada seems to lose more cafes than get them."

Hard Rock is keeping mum about its Canadian future. When CBC News called the Toronto location, it was referred to the company's corporate publicist. She confirmed the Toronto lease expires in May, but said in a statement the chain is still "committed to a strong brand presence in Canada."

In a further email, she said there are "no immediate plans" for a Toronto replacement. That leaves behind just two Canadian locations: one in Niagara Falls, Ont., and the Hard Rock Casino in Coquitlam, B.C. The Hard Rock still operates dozens of restaurants worldwide, as well as casinos or hotels in the Caribbean, Singapore, China, Spain and in several locations in the U.S.

'It's sad business'

Word of the closure caught Steven Kerzner off guard. He's better known as the hand behind Ed the Sock, the cigar-chomping sock puppet that used to be a fixture on MuchMusic.

Kerzner has been hosting a weekly web series live from the lobby of the Toronto Hard Rock since last November. "It was a shock to everybody," he said. "It feels like we're being evicted."

Ed the Sock, voiced by Steven Kerzner, hosts an episode of his web show from the lobby of Toronto's Hard Rock Cafe in January. On this particular episode, a student choir from Ottawa stumbled onto set and broke into song. 'Where are you going to do that?' Kerzner asked. 'Shoppers Drug Mart will throw you out.' (ED THE SOCK LIVE!/YouTube)

The news takes on even greater meaning for Kerzner, as he plans to launch a new online network this Thursday aimed at reclaiming "hallmarks of cultural history" that have been taken away.

He laments the loss of the old vibe at MuchMusic and now adds Hard Rock to the list of lost cultural hallmarks. It was supposed to be a home base for the new project, called the FU Network (For Us).

"I understand this is just business. But it's sad business. It's sad that we're losing a piece of our history."

One of the Hard Rock Cafe's signature T-shirts hangs in the window of its Toronto store. Some fans collect shirts from all the different Hard Rock Cafes they visit around the world. (Haydn Watters/CBC)

The restaurant has been a tourist attraction and a boon to the local music scene — often showcasing up-and-coming talent on its stage. Just last week, the Toronto Hard Rock hosted Ryerson University's Battle of the Bands competition.

Although the internet and social media have arguably provided freer access to musicians and their memorabilia, Kerzner thinks the Hard Rock still has a place.

"Sure, you can tweet to somebody, but are you going to be able to stand there in front of their guitar?"

'I owe Hard Rock a huge debt'

A lot has changed since Toronto's Hard Rock opened in 1978. The franchise has gone through rebranding. And through that, some have argued that its focus on music memorabilia has slipped.

David Simmer II has been travelling the globe since 1990, making pilgrimages to 166 different Hard Rock locations from Fiji to Poland. The restaurants were a familiar taste of home for Simmer in some of the far-flung places he visited. He collected Hard Rock pins, shot glasses and its famed T-shirts.

"I owe Hard Rock a huge debt for taking me to parts of the world that I never would have seen before," he said.

The Hard Rock Cafe in Salt Lake City is 'packed to the rafters' with music memorabilia, according to David Simmer II. He says the new and renovated locations lack this ambience. (Submitted by David Simmer II)

But he's noticed a decline over time. He said Hard Rocks used to be "packed to the rafters" with memorabilia — "It was the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame before there was a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame."

In contrast, the new and renovated restaurants are much more tidy, opting for what Simmer calls a "hipster lounge esthetic." Some memorabilia has come off the wall and is now displayed virtually, on screens. 

"It's not the Hard Rock Cafe that I fell in love with."

It's caused him to cut down on his Hard Rock travels, but he still thinks about them often — after all, the majority of his wardrobe is Hard Rock T-shirts.

Simmer gets feted at his 100th Hard Rock location. He has currently visited 166 around the world. (Submitted by David Simmer II)

He's sad to see Toronto's go. "You know when one of the Hard Rock struggles, all of them are struggling to a degree."

That's not to say the brand is dying. Geraghty said the restaurants are popping up in Europe, but often wait a while to find the perfect space. In Copenhagen a Hard Rock shut down in one location before springing up again elsewhere. He said that could very well be the case in Toronto.

"They may have lost Yonge Street," he said. "But it's about the right space ... there's hope."


Haydn Watters is a roving reporter in Ontario, mostly serving the province's local CBC Radio shows. He has worked for the CBC in Halifax, Yellowknife, Ottawa and Toronto, with stints at the politics bureau and entertainment unit. He ran an experimental one-person pop-up bureau for the CBC in Barrie, Ont. You can get in touch at haydn.watters@cbc.ca.