Among the wonders of the ancient world are the pyramids at Giza and the hanging gardens of Babylon how did they DO that? Among the wonders of the modern world is the themed restaurant chain that stays green on the vine and grows while others wither. Dave and Buster’s just opened its 30th U.S. store, in Honolulu, and counts a number of international franchises how do they DO that?
“Well, speaking of pyramids,” muses Sterling Smith, vice president for operations, “we see ourselves as one, but inverted. The customers are at the top, and all employees our whole hierarchy from wait staff down to Dave and Buster themselves work to support the customers’ enjoying themselves. Everything we do is about that! It’s an essentially simple business, but one that demands constant attention to 10,000 details.”
Who are these top-of-the-heap customers? Dave and Buster’s started out by looking for customers who would answer “Yes” to questions like the following: Do you still thrill to the challenge of a game of skill but you’ve outgrown the arcades and Home Alone computer games? Would you like to play a little pool or indoor shuffleboard in a room like that of an exclusive club, but one that welcomes you and your friends? Do you want to go out, by yourself or with a special person or a group, be surrounded by people, and enjoy yourself in a variety of ways without having to trek from place to place? While they watched customers going back and forth in Little Rock between Dave’s upscale billiards and games room and Buster’s nearby restaurant, Dave and Buster worked out the answers to these questions and decided they should tear down the walls and create one big place, one destination for a Big Night Out.
HITTING THE BIG TOWN
They combined that experience nearly twenty years ago, and moved to Dallas to implement and refine their idea. According to Dave Corriveau and Buster Corley, the secret is just the right balance. The resulting Dave and Buster’s emporia combine entertainment, food and drink in great big stores 40,000 to 50,000 square feet that generate excitement by their sheer size and level of activity, yet feel welcoming and comfortable. The result, Smith says, “is the essential Dave and Buster’s concept: a seamless, almost magical blend of amusement, fun, and beverage.”
Striking the amusement note in the unique Dave and Buster’s chord is the Million Dollar Midway, an arcade empire that combines the fun and funky Skee-Balls and similar games of skill, with prizes of an old-fashioned carnival and the high sophistication of virtual reality simulators for a thrill, cutting-edge single- and multiple-player games for generations raised on Sega, Game Boy and Play Station. Signaling this area is the checkered floor. (Rudolf Valentino once said he would never do the tango on any other kind of floor, yet visitors will look in vain for the virtual tango.)
Separate areas hold the pocket billiards and indoor shuffleboard tables. The carved dark wood of the billiards tables carry through the Venerable-and-Trusted theme of dark wood booths and floors and the glowing blond wood of the tournament-quality shuffleboard tables says “Modern fun resort.”
COME TO THE MIDWAY
Food and drink are served from front to back at Dave and Buster’s by roving servers and in the three distinct seated venues: the Grand Dining Room, the Viewpoint Bar and the Midway Bar. “The Grand Dining Room,” says Stuart Myers, vice president, marketing, “is like an oasis in the midst of the excitement, and a nice place to meet. People are often surprised how good our food is, but the freshness of our ingredients and out attention to quality brings them back. We’re now offering wine by the bottle, and after-dinner liqueurs.
Dave Corriveau and Buster Corley took their Arkansas-hatched plan to Texas and are watching it grow and grow.
“It always amazes me how different the atmosphere is in the Viewpoint Bar and the Midway Bar,” he continues, “even though they’re only 100 feet apart in many locations. The Midway Bar is in the midst of the excitement, and it’s high-energy. This is the place for fun drinks! The Viewpoint Bar has a twenty-screen video dome above a four-sided bar, and overlooks the action.”
The games generate half Dave and Buster’s revenue, food 33 percent and beverages 17 percent. Within that beverage sector, says Chris Cage, assistant vice president, bar operations, bottled beer claims first place in sales, followed by liquor, draft beer, and wine. Dave and Buster’s won the Cheers award in 2000 for Best Chain Beer Program, and Cage says, “we want to keep everything that we’re doing right, serving icy, icy-cold bottled beer, reserving local taps for regional favorites, hand-crafteds such as Karl Strauss and other microbrews, showcasing beers from around the world, featuring German and German-style beers for Oktoberfest. I also see malternatives moving up in popularity, and room to expand draft beer sales.
“But this is a competitive market and I don’t think we’re through the economic downturn yet. Those who survive will be stronger if they tune up and play. My goal for Dave and Buster’s beverage program is to increase that 17 percent share to 20 percent, raise the check average, and make it fun and memorable for the customer.” His strategy? A new bar menu featuring two pages of classic cocktails, a Martini page, a page of shooters, and a page featuring Dave and Buster’s top-selling mixed drink, the Margarita, in beguiling new varieties made with five top-brand tequilas. “We’re also thinking,” Cage says, “about signature Dave and Buster’s drinks, perhaps with souvenir glasses.”
Myers talks about recently focused attention on happy hour as a “value opportunity for the whole Dave and Buster’s experience.” This means an expanded program: from 4:30 to 7:00, half-price on snacks and all top-shelf cocktails, $2.95 price on 20-ounce domestic drafts, $3.95 on 20-ounce imports, $1 off wine by the glass, and a Midway Power Hour: for $10, a no-limit swipe card that allows 60 minutes of game play.
“We’ve seen a double-digit increase over-all,” he says, “and we’re well on our way to achieving our goals of driving in new guests, bringing back guests who may have lapsed, increasing sales, and raising the check average on guests already in the building.”
One factor marketing must remain aware of, he adds, is the variety of laws governing liquor sales and advertising. In some regions, for example, any discounted price must be available all day. “In those areas,” Myers adds, “we may have a drink of the day.”
Among the regional differences Cage notices are “the greater popularity of microbrews in Texas and the West Coast versus the greater popularity of older, mass-market brands like Miller and Budweiser back East. The ‘brown spirits’ like Scotch are also more popular on the East Coast. In California, our guests are more aware and informed about wine, and we sell more there than elsewhere, but spiced rum drinks are also popular in California. We keep an eye on regional trends, and we also look for promotions by national brands that have the marketing strength to sustain a campaign that meshes with the special Dave and Buster’s ambiance. For example, Major Peters, our Bloody Mary mix supplier, offers a Build-Your-Own Bloody Mary set-up that we put together with our food into a kind of tailgate party for football games.”
For the recently launched Dave and Buster’s beverage initiatives, bartenders will have new uniforms and training to emphasize showtime flair. “It’s important to hire the right people in the first place,” Smith emphasizes, “and we look for very special people who are high-energy, honest, willing to learn, and who enjoy having fun with our customers.” Bartenders receive one to two weeks’ training, and before each shift, test their free-pouring accuracy from a quarter-ounce pour up to one of 2 ounces, 21 pours all together into the Exacto-Pour system, a set of precisely graduated test tubes whose markings are hidden from the pourer. “If you miss more than three of the 21,” Smith says, “well, then, you’ll be measuring out your pours during that shift. But working with the Exacto-Pour system also makes a bartender’s free pouring more accurate.”
Employees can see a career path, if they’re interested. “All our regional operations directors have been promoted from within,” Smith explains, “They need to believe in our concept and have a passion for the industry, with a strong operating focus. There are five operations directors now, each with five to seven stores, 50 to 60 million dollars’ worth of business, and each of them is driving all the time for enhanced revenue, cost control, and quality maintenance of the physical plant.”
Dave and Buster’s has also invested in new business analysis software from Cognos. According to Sterling Smith, an extensive reporting method amasses data, and these are warehoused in a figurative cube that can be sliced and diced by a number of different tools and angles for analysis. “We can know today what happened to us yesterday,” he says, “and drill down to any level; for example, to a spike in liquor pour costs in an individual store during a particular hour or two. We can see by store by bar by hour what’s being sold.
“The software is so powerful and detailed that a person can easily become hypnotized and spend hours in front of a computer screen, so we basically use it at headquarters to prepare the financial report cards that do us the most strategic good and forward the information they need to the regional and individual managers. We want our individual managers to be out on the floor, with their customers and employees where they can do the most good. The software confirms what we know from back-of-the-house smarts most of the time anyway, but at a useful level of pinpointing detail that allows us to fine-tune our responses.
“Nothing, however, can take the place of good service, or being remembered or the feeling of being welcome and valued. It’s important to me as an executive, too. I like the fact that Dave and Buster are on board and involved. The business becomes bigger and more sophisticated, but it’s still warm and friendly, and remains, above all, fun.”
Aurora Gallagher is based in Austin, Texas.
AT THE BEGINNING
“Back in 1976,” Dave and Buster’s Dave Corriveau reminisces, “I opened a place in Little Rock called Slick Willy’s. No connection to Bill Clinton, who wasn’t ever called that until 1980! My place was an upscale billiards and games parlor called Slick Willy’s in honor of Willy Mosconi who was one of the greatest billiards players ever, and very, very dapper.
“I only served beer and popcorn. Buster was managing a restaurant down the street that had a full-service bar. Well, we used to watch the people go back and forth. We opened a restaurant called Buster’s but we never could combine our two establishments in Arkansas, where an old law on the books forbids the selling of mixed drinks in the same room where billiards are played.
“We moved to Dallas and worked on the idea for a bigger and more sophisticated facility. It was the Eighties, and concepts were changing yearly, places were opening and closing all the time. Our vision was to build a great, enduring business around the timeless concept of having fun. Along the way, we thought, we would make money, reward ourselves and the people who work with us. We brought six people from Little Rock and four are still with us!
“There are some very old games that are still played, like billiards, but others change as technology changes. We keep a keen eye on the fast-moving field of games. What doesn’t change is our human desire to enjoy ourselves, to enjoy ourselves with others. As far as any other secret to success, as we say around here at Dave and Buster’s headquarters: “Plan your work, Work your plan, Never give up.”