One might say Chuck E. Cheese's was the dawn of a new dining era. Food plus games is a formula families still love today. Next came Planet Hollywood, with its emphasis on décor and branding. Experience, not just food, is the focus of these restaurants.
Today, eatertainment venues are getting connected, using technology to entertain and bring patrons together. Earlier this year, Jennifer Worthington (founder of the Coyote Ugly Bar and Dance Saloon in Las Vegas), restaurant consultant Elizabeth Blau and celebrity chef Kerry Simon joined forces to provide American Idol fanatics a place to strut their stuff while eating gourmet food. Patrons can sing on New York City's Spotlight Live stage and take home a CD or DVD of their performance. Diners can vote on their tonal talents and IM one another. "Our goal is to give people the opportunity to experience stardom," says Worthington.
Woodland Hills, California, restaurant uWink provides touchscreens for each customer so they can order food (no servers here, only "runners") and play games with one another. "Our center of gravity is social game play and bringing people together, both strangers and friends," explains Nolan Bushnell, uWink's founder, who also founded Atari and Chuck E. Cheese's. For example, the "Truth or Dare" game might encourage players to go compliment someone at another table. While uWink's target audience is 20- to 35-year-olds, families and seniors have also taken to the concept. Bushnell plans to open two more Los Angeles-area locations in 2008.
Richard Martin, executive editor of Nation's Restaurant News, points out that the next generation is ripe for this type of tech-savvy eating establishment. "You don't really have to educate young people about what uWink is all about," says Martin. "You just have to expose them to it." Naturally, both uWink and Spotlight Live have MySpace pages.
Steven Schussler, founder of Rainforest Cafe and Schussler Creative, a creative laboratory for eatertainment concepts like the T-Rex Cafe in Kansas City, Kansas, says key factors in eatertainment success include building relationships with high-volume tourist destinations and perfecting your concept before you reveal it to the public. But "food is number one," says Schussler. "People come once for the 'wow' factor, but they come back for good, quality food and service."