January 29, 2023

For Chuck E. Cheese, ‘a beautiful atmosphere’ remains after COVID ravages business

No more dance parties? Oh, well. For Chuck E. Cheese restaurants, there hasn’t been much to celebrate in 2020 anyway until recently.

The namesake mouse and star of Munch’s Make Believe Band no longer makes regular appearances on the brightly lit dance-floor as Irving-based CEC Entertainment retools its dining and entertainment brand to adjust to COVID-19.

“Traditionally, Chuck E. would come out once an hour and would do a dance party,” CEO David McKillips said at an interview last week in the remodeled Sugar Land store. “All that right now is on hold.”

After shutting down in March, Chuck E. Cheese is open for business — at 50 percent capacity — with new procedures, products and technology in place to allow customers to enjoy the brand they’ve come to know over the past four decades in other ways.

The company has a dozen locations in the Houston area, and McKillips, who joined the company in January, toured 20 Texas locations to hear employee concerns and welcome back customers. Making sure people are safe is paramount, he said.

“We’re wiping down the games constantly,” McKillips said. “Over 90 percent of our guests are telling us they feel safe. It’s a beautiful atmosphere. It’s clean. People are having fun.”

Arcade games are in the DNA for Chuck E. Cheese, started by Atari founder Noah Bushnell, who is known for early Pong and Asteroids games.

Moms with children ages three to eight are the target market, and they shell out an average of $42 per visit to play games and eat pizza, according to McKillips. Even before the pandemic, clean restrooms and game rooms were high on the list.

Chuck E. Cheese looks much as it always did, but there are key changes.

Temperatures are checked upon entry. Masks are required. The kid-check program at the front door used to be a hand stamp; now, to minimize contact, adults and children take a selfie to show upon exiting.

Some tables are blocked off and games are spaced to allow distance between customers. Cashiers are protected behind plastic shields, and salads are packaged rather than self-service. Hospital grade air filters are being installed at the suggestion of employees, McKillips said.

The Ticket Muncher, where customers would feed bags of tickets won playing arcade games, has been rendered obsolete. Customers now use a card to play games and redeem prizes such as plush unicorns, costume jewelry and ring toss games. In addition to minimizing contact, a benefit of the electronic card is saving time checking out, McKillips said.

Chuck E. Cheese, which derives 55 percent of sales from entertainment and 15 percent from birthday parties, was particularly hard hit by the pandemic.

Parent company CEC Entertainment filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in June, but is on track to emerge as early as December, McKillips said. About 40 restaurants have closed, none in Houston, where the company is negotiating with landlords on leases for rent abatement or deferment. There are 515 company-owned locations in the U.S., of which 315 have reopened.

Each location now employs between four and eight people, down from 28 to 35 employees before restrictions were placed on the business, McKillips said.

Chuck E. Cheese is also trying to reach customers who may not be comfortable getting out yet, offering daily afternoon “fun breaks” and other programming on its YouTube channel. Specials for delivery or pick-up incorporate games and other items for celebrating at home.

“We’re an entertainment family destination,” McKillips said. “When we shut down, we had to be a food-first restaurant. We weren’t built for that.”

The company quickly signed deals with Uber Eats, DoorDash and Grubhub to shift to delivery, but there were challenges.

“Chuck E. Cheese is not in the consideration set for most people’s pizza ordering,” McKillips said. “We had to develop a brand that was meeting a more sophisticated pizza customer.”

Enter Pasqually’s Pizza & Wings, a virtual kitchen brand based on a character from Munch’s band: a chef who hails from Naples. The pizzas, baked at Chuck E. Cheese locations, use more sauce, two different cheeses and Italian spices. The twice-baked wings feature flavors such as chili lime or lemon pepper.

“Innovation has been so important to this brand during the pandemic,” McKillips said.

[email protected]


Continue Reading

Source Article