Lisa Vanderpump's restaurant empire has become “Bravo Disneyland”—with her cast of waiters and waitresses playing the role of the characters.
In perhaps her most famous tagline over nine seasons on Bravo’s The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, Lisa Vanderpump mused that “life isn’t all diamonds and rosè, but it should be.” It’s this spirit of opulence and revelry that takes center stage at all of her four Los Angeles restaurants—the most notable of which, SUR (an acronym for Sexy Unique Restaurant), is the setting for her hit spinoff series Vanderpump Rules, now in its seventh season.
The show revolves around the waiters and bartenders at the restaurant, a group of friends who have stayed together through countless fights, breakups, cheating scandals, marriages, divorce and everything in between, with Vanderpump acting as matriarch and referee. It’s been a recipe for success that Vanderpump credits to the cast’s natural chemistry—and penchant for alcohol-fueled drama.
“We didn’t just manufacture a reality show by pulling people from left field,” says Vanderpump, 58, in this week’s issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday. “They really were friends before the show, and have struggled to grow up together, and sometimes that manifests in contentious situations.”
The cast reiterates this sentiment. “I feel like every group of friends at some point has been like, ‘God, we really need a TV show,’” says Tom Schwartz, 36. “That’s what actually happened with us.”
Adds Kristen Doute, 36, “We were just as dramatic before the show, and that is exactly why we have a show.”
With the increased business brought in by flocks of fans, Vanderpump has expanded her restaurant empire to include PUMP (located next door to SUR) and TomTom—a cocktail bar she opened around the corner with Schwartz and fellow cast member Tom Sandoval, 35. (She is also set to open Vanderpump Cocktail Garden at Caesars’ Palace in Las Vegas in the coming months.)
They joke that the block has turned into “Bravo Disneyland,” in which the cast plays the role of characters more so than a functioning waitstaff. “Whenever I first came on to the show and I was working at SUR, it was a lot easier for us to come in and work and pick up a table,“ says Brittany Cartwright, 30, who joined the series in season four and is now engaged to castmate Jax Taylor. “As the show has gotten more popular, I can’t wait a table because a fan is always coming up to me. Now we like to come in and bring drinks to people and just, like, mingle.”
“Even if I wanted to come in and take a section I would not be able to,” adds Katie Maloney-Schwartz, 32, one of SUR’s longest-serving waitresses and an original cast member.
For more behind-the-scenes scoop on Vanderpump Rules and exclusive recipes from SUR (including the famous goat cheese balls!), pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday.
The show only shoots for three months out of the year, but the cast continues to hang out when not filming, as often seen on their social media feeds. “We’ve seen when the cameras are down they’re still at each other’s birthdays, they’re still on vacation with each other,” says Vanderpump. “That’s the way they are.”
So what happens when drama goes down but the cameras aren’t rolling? Producers either scramble to film in the off season—as happened with Scheana Marie’s divorce and Lala Kent’s engagement—or they harken back to it once filming begins again.
“I almost wish we filmed two seasons a year because there is so much going on,” says Doute. “In the past few months, so much has happened that wasn’t filmed, but you’ll find out about it eventually.”
For some cast members though, the off-season is a time to recharge. “We’re having an event and we’re drinking almost every night for three months straight while we’re filming,” says Ariana Madix, 33. “I rarely leave my house when we’re not filming.”
RELATED VIDEO: Vanderpump Rules’ Jax Taylor Does a Celebrity Alcohol Taste Test
Vanderpump tries to stay above the day-to-day drama—focusing on her businesses and philanthropic work like her canine rescue center, Vanderpump Dogs Foundation—but occasionally acts as a disciplinarian, firing various cast members including Doute, Taylor, and most recently James Kennedy after he body-shamed Maloney-Schwartz in the current season. Watching the show back, Vanderpump says she sometimes second guesses these decisions.
“The audience often doesn’t realize that they’re seeing more than I ever did,” she says. “The situation with Katie and James, I wasn’t aware that she provoked him first. It’s hard to make a good judgment call all the time.”
Through all the drama, though, Vanderpump feels a special bond to her star employees. “I love them, not only because they work for me,” she says, “but we’ve all been through this incredible experience together.”