DINE ON MARS, DRINK IN THE SERENGETI
— “EATERTAINMENT” BRINGS THE STAGE TO THE CUSTOMER.
Noel Wortman oversees sales
at the wacky Mars 2112.
REMEMBER WHEN YOU simply needed to hang some antique collectibles, framed photos and nostalgic memorabilia on your walls to qualify as a “theme restaurant?” When the most sophisticated technology you saw in a saloon was the 21-inch TV in the corner of the bar?
Times have certainly changed.
Increasingly, entertainment technology provides consumers with an array of options–all the way from net-surfing with home computers to choosing among movies, electronic games and interactive gambling while on an airplane. (A recent article in the New York Times pointed out that 80% of the electronics and more than half of the software code on new airplanes end up not in the cockpit to fly the plane but in the passenger compartment to run the entertainment.)
Many restaurants and bars are striving to keep up. Even Burger King is updating its image, with a unit near New York City’s Wall Street offering 20 minutes of internet time at 20 computer terminals.
Meanwhile, new theme restaurants continue to up the ante. Mars 2112, which opened in midtown Manhattan earlier this year, whisks customers inside via 22-seat spaceships and offers “Mars TV” at the bar, while at Café Odyssey, a new restaurant at the Mall of America in Bloomington, MN, diners can choose to eat in Atlantis, Macchu Pichu or on the Serengeti Plain, thanks to high-tech special effects.
“There is no doubt that customers in general are more sophisticated,” says John McKee, senior vice president at DirecTV, a digital television service currently used by about 25,000 operations across the country. “The people now in bars were brought up in front of the TV–or in front of three or four TVs–at home. They know what is available, and they want a reason to go to a destination.”
Operations that focus on fun compete not only with bars and restaurants, but with night clubs, amusement parks, television, movies and sporting events. “We’re trying to be what everyone would like to be, which is all things to all people,” says Kelly Clark, director of entertainment marketing for Damon’s, a 125-unit chain that began 20 years ago as a rib restaurant concept and has since 1989 transformed into an “eatertainment” entry.
Some operations are built from the ground up in a style called “soft entertainment,” says Peter Chernack, president of the Themed Entertainment Association. “People are there for the dining, the social interaction. You don’t want to be in their faces. But all around them, in a way that doesn’t intrude, are things that establish the theme, the place and the story that the restaurant is trying to get across,” he explains.
At Café Odyssey, for example, which uses technology from Chernack’s company, Metavision, diners pick from a variety of themed dining rooms. They can lounge in the Atlantis room, decorated to look like the ruins of that mythical city, and see, through a set of 10-foot-tall windows, a shark-filled sea. Or they can visit the Serengeti dining room and eat at what appears to be a plantation verandah while the sun rises and sets, crickets chirp at dusk and herds of animals move across the African plain.
While the concept is different, a similar idea lies behind the Jekyll and Hyde Club in New York City. Themed as a restaurant/social club for eccentric explorers and mad scientists, Jekyl and Hyde employs interactive puppets (a wall of masks comes alive and joins in conversation with nearby diners) animatronics (a preprogrammed skeleton band periodically breaks into song), and actors (the “Hunchback Lab Assistant,” the “English Butler”) to keep things hopping.
“Something is scheduled to happen about every 10 minutes,” says Darren Clark, the director of special effects at Eerie Visioneering, part of Jekyll and Hyde Entertainment which also owns Jekyll and Hyde Pub and the Slaughtered Lamb in New York City. The company is in the midst of developing a second Jekyll and Hyde Club, this one in Chicago.
Those involved with this newest generation of theme restaurants say that they will, with their superior special effects, overcome the limitations of some of the older theme restaurants, such as the Hard Rock Café and Planet Hollywood. “The reason people go to restaurants–besides novelty–is good food and surroundings that are conducive to socializing,” says Chernack. “Restaurants like Café Odyssey are distinctly different from those in the tourist markets. People will want to come back to these again and again.”
In most Damon’s, the bar and half the dining room contains theater seating, four large screens and speakers on every table. Guests can choose which screen’s audio they want to hear, and the programming ranges from network fare, such as “The Late Show with David Letterman” and “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno” which many Damon’s restaurants tape and replay at lunchtime, to children’s cartoons, trivia games and sports events.
In this section, called the Clubhouse, an entertainment director hosts events, such as live trivia contests and other games that encourage customers to interact during breaks in TV programming. On a weekly kids’ night, Damon’s Clubhouse might host also magicians, clowns or face painters.
And Clark is constantly looking for new ways to entertain the chain’s guests. Recently, he tripled business on Sunday nights, traditionally slow for the chain, with World Championship Wrestling events. “Five years ago, if you had asked me about showing pro wrestling, I’d have laughed you off the phone,” says Clark.
The net result of this entertainment focus? Damon’s, with average sales between $2.2 and $3 million per unit, is currently growing at the rate of 20 to 30 new units per year. “I am firmly convinced that if you can make customers laugh, they will like your establishment and come back,” says Clark.
Pong and Donkey Kong may have gone the way of 25-cent jukeboxes, but operators are finding that on-premise games still hold bottom-line promise, like the newest virtual-reality and simulation products that offer patrons a chance to fly airplanes or ski downhill and even the completely non-technical options of billiards and darts.
Dallas-based Dave & Buster’s, a chain of 16 entertainment complexes containing restaurants, bars and “Million Dollar Midways,” areas with 150+ games each, is a leader in this hybrid “games saloon,” and keeps growing. Within the next year, Dave & Buster’s will have opened six more locations, and the company is developing a smaller prototype, 30,000 to 40,000 square feet in size, for less densely populated “intermediate markets.”
According to Dennis Paine, the chain’s director of communications, an average Dave & Buster’s measures 50,000 to 60,000 square feet and costs about $10 million to open. He stresses that the concept does not just draw tourists for a one-time visit. According to the company’s research, its main customers are affluent adults, aged 21 to 44, slightly more male than female who visit the concept an average of 10 times a year and travel 10 to 20 miles–or 22 minutes–to get there.
In addition to repeat customers, many entertainment-complex companies report healthy sales from private and corporate events. According to Paine, about 13% of Dave & Buster’s overall revenue comes from such business. Meanwhile, R.W. Good Times, an entertainment complex that opened last year in Norcross, GA, has one department dedicated solely to corporate business. “It is really mushrooming,” reports Alan Johnson, president of R.W. Holdco, the company behind the concept.
What are the most popular games? “One trend over the last couple of years has been simulator rides. They’ve grown by leaps and bounds,” says Dave & Buster’s Paine. Currently, four Dave & Buster’s are equipped with TurboRides, theaters in which the seats move in sync with audio and visuals played. Iwerks, the Burbank, CA company behind Turbo-Ride, recently introduced its first 3D movie, called Mad Racers, for the product.
While the Buckeye Hall of Fame Café in Columbus, OH, has a sports theme, it is narrowly focused on Ohio State University. The café, which opened in October of 1997, offers something for everyone, including games. “There are so many reasons to come here, not just to curb your hunger,” says Jeff Perrin, assistant general manager. The 55,000 square-foot eatertainment facility contains one upscale and one casual restaurant, a “Walk of Fame” through Buckeye memorabilia, the Trophy Bar in which each booth is TV-equipped, and a 16,000 square foot game room containing $1.25 million dollars’ worth of the latest electronic games. “We had 2,400 people come in on a Tuesday,” says Perrin. “Ohio has never, ever seen anything like this.”
At Buckeye, life-size golf simulators which allow golfers to imagine competing on famous courses while hitting lightweight balls full-force are popular. So is the San Francisco Rush Game, where several players can race against each other and the clock as they careen through the streets of San Francisco.
One technology that has not taken off yet in these concepts is the internet. Though some are experimenting with internet lounges, where customers can go to read their e-mail or surf the web, Damon’s is testing the idea of an internet kiosk at one of its locations. Some don’t see the idea of customers engrossed in computer screens as exciting. “We’ve stayed away from the internet,” says Dave & Buster’s Paine. “That would be people communicating with others outside our space. We would rather they play within our space.” Meanwhile, Damon’s Clark envisions internet access as something that would appeal mostly to business people at lunch.
While the internet has mostly proven to be inter-NOT for restaurateurs, other forms of entertainment–electronic and otherwise–seem to be proving valuable to some operators. And with old reliables like jukeboxes and video games still humming along in many operations, you can be sure some of the latest permutations will become the next big money-maker.
Cheryl Ursin writes frequently about the restaurant industry for Cheers and other publications.
Sports bars, constantly striving to pull customers in with more televised sporting events, trail-blazed the way for other food and beverage operations to enter the high-tech entertainment business. Mike Wood, former owner of Coach’s Locker Room, the well-known Orlando sports bar with a 23-satellite receiver, is now president of Sports Knowledge, Inc., a company based in New Symrna Beach, FL. Wood often describes the company as the “TV Guide for sports bars.” Subscribers to Sports Knowledge receive weekly faxes listing all the sporting events being shown in the country and how to access them from satellites and services.
“In order to call yourself a true sports bar these days, you need to have a small dish or digital satellite reception, such as from DirecTV or PrimeStar, and you need a large dish to get the C-band and KU satellite feeds,” he says, adding that, in addition, sports bars can easily pay $7,500 to $10,000 a year for special programming.
And that’s if you focus just on sports. These days, many restaurants and bars are seeking to expand their appeal beyond the sports enthusiast and are looking for television programming and games that appeal to others, especially women and children.
Increasingly, however, people want to see things like this–namely entertainment–when they go out to a bar or a restaurant. According to a recent survey done by Simmons Market Research Bureau, Inc. for NTN, an interactive television network, over 10% of Americans over the age of 18 have played NTN’s sports trivia games. Recently, NTN changed its pricing structure to encourage a broader range of hospitality operations to subscribe. While the network’s complete package of programming, which includes several different kinds of trivia and sports games, remains priced at $595 a month, operators can now choose to subscribe to more limited packages, such as just one trivia channel, for a lower fee. Meanwhile, the company is beta-testing a new internet-based technology for its network, which will, among other things, allow it to create its own full-motion video programming.
DirecTV’s McKee has seen his company’s business expand beyond sports bars. “The trend I foresee is more family restaurants using services like ours,” he says, “in order to get a better return on all the real estate they own, the big facilities they run and the big staffs they use. We are a way to get people in earlier and later than they usually see them.” Indeed, DirecTV has recently signed agreements with 10 restaurant and bar chains including Chili’s, Macaroni Grill and On the Border (all owned by Brinker International Inc.), Hooters of America, El Torito and Chi-Chi’s (from Family Restaurants Inc.) and Bertucci’s. —CU