Eatertainment: The Next Frontier for Casual Dining
When two savvy entrepreneurs launched Dave and Buster’s, a 40,000-square-foot eatery in a Dallas warehouse in 1982, where diners could play games, they likely didn’t know it would result in a new restaurant concept: “eatertainment.” Eat your food, hoist a beer or two, and bowl, play ping-pong or darts in a separate space before or after a meal.
These eatertainments eateries appeal to a wide swath of customers: youngsters love it, 20-and-30-somethings gravitate to it, and their parents can relive their youth or take their families.
Now the eatertainment segment is exploding, attracting a bevy of competitors. Most are primed for expansion in 2018. Besides Dave & Buster’s, leading eatertainment rivals include: Main Event, Pinstripes, Punch Bowl Social, and Topgolf.
But will the heated competition lead to slimming down, where top performers prevail and bottom-feeders fall by the wayside?
The eatertainment chains that thrive will grow in a measured way, choose their locations carefully and capitalize on their niche.
When Dave & Buster’s debuted its gaming plus dining concept 35 years ago, “It was revolutionary; it was eatertainment for adults,” says Darren Tristano, a River Forest, Illinois-based foodservice consultant. Previously, the major form of entertainment plus dining was Chuck E. Cheese’s, which targeted kids.
Eatertainment venues proved popular because they “caught on with young consumers, the millennials of their day. It had the gaming, the pool table, and the sports bar,” Tristano says.
Indeed millennials and GenXers are attracted to playing ping-pong, arcade games or bowling while waiting to eat or post-dining. “They’re exceptional multi-taskers so they can text, check social media, maintain a conversation, and play ping pong in between,” Tristano says.
Though casual dining chains Applebee’s and Ruby Tuesday’s have been struggling, eatertainment eateries are thriving because they “focus around being a destination and focus on the experience,” Tristano says. And most of these food-plus-gaming chains rely on a more upscale menu than their casual dining rivals, he points out.
In fact, menus at eatertainments appeal to millennials that prefer “grazing. They like to eat appetizers, rather than a main course. But he adds that “socializing is the driving force of these brands.”
The games may lure them in, but Tristano expects most eatertainment venues derive 75 to 80 percent of their revenue from food and beverage, and the remainder from fees for playing games.
Because of the stepped-up competition in the eatertaimment space, growth has been slowing down, Tristano says. “Growth is coming from stealing chairs from existing businesses,” he says. He sees their revenue spiking by 3 percent a year, but “there aren’t enough new locations to go around.”
The eatertainment brands that will thrive are the ones that offer “value and frequency, whether it’s quality of food, or the bartender makes a great drink, or specializes in great value,” Tristano predicts. And the winners will attract steady customers who return once a week, not once a season.
Take Main Event, a fast-growing chain of 38 eateries with 16 located in Texas that offers bowling, laser tag, billiards, interactive videos, and ropes adventure. It’s opened 24 locations in the last three years and is slated for five new outlets in 2018.
Wayne Stancil, Main Event’s Plano, Texas-based vice president of operations, attributes its growth to the fact that “You can play games with family, friends or work friends, and let your hair down, because we bring everyone together under one roof in multiples venues.” Families are its target audience, and it attracts them via birthday parties, social media, community events and summer fun camps for kids.
Main Event “takes care of the veto vote. Someone might want seafood, steak or vegetarian, and we have something for everyone. Someone can bowl, play laser tag or billiards and we have great food and beverage,” he says.
Playing games when dining “moves us from the sea of sameness,” Stancil says. Most eateries found on any major highway dish out typical fare like burger, fries and beer, but Main Event offers “chef-inspired food and you can play a game. It’s a pleasant and unexpected surprise,” he says.
Pinstripes, a Northbrook, Illinois-based chain of eight eateries with four in the Chicago environs that specializes in upscale food with playing bocci and bowling, is also on the fast track. It’s expanding to Cleveland, Fort Worth, Houston, and San Mateo, California, in 2018.
By offering gaming experience plus quality dining, Pinstripes is in the “sweet spot given the Amazon effect on traditional retailing,” says its CEO Dale Schwartz. He says the irony is most people these days are tied to their iPhones but crave face-to-face interaction. “People are disconnected with real humans in forming quality connections. With Pinstripes, we’re going back to the future by embracing human connections,” he says.
But it’s the food and beverage menu that retains Pinstripes’ clientele. “We offer sophisticated fun. Everything is made from scratch, and we offer a phenomenal wine cellar and craft beers, in a comfortable family friendly environment,” Schwartz says.
Schwartz says the intense competition forces Pinstripes “to be hypersensitive to pick the right location and continue to grow at a measurable controlled pace. We’re opening four or five locations a year; we’re not opening 15 to 20 a year.”
Schwartz says about 75 to 80 percent of its revenue stems from food and beverage. And people come in for Italian American food with an inventive spin including Italian jambalaya, homemade gnocchi and grilled chicken with a spicy cilantro.
He says Pinstripes has carved out its own turf in the eatertainment industry. By comparison, Punch Bowl Social “is more focused on urban locations and Dave and Buster’s skews younger than ours,” he says.
Topgolf, says its website, offers, “competitive golf game for all ages and climate-controlled playing bays similar to a bowling lane.” Players use real golf clubs and golf balls, aiming for targets on a 215-yard outfield. Each ball is microchipped and tagged to the player’s account and players receive instant feedback on a TV screen.
But its CEO Erik Anderson points out that each venue offers an accomplished executive chef and chef-driven menu. He says that half of its customers are “non-golfers,” and it attracts an array of guests for “date night, a corporate event, happy hour, breakfast or a birthday party.”
Moreover, Topgolf has gone global. It has 36 venues throughout the U.S. and U.K. and is expanding next year to Australia and Mexico. Anderson says it’s planning to expand by seven to 10 outlets annually over the next few years.
Robert Thompson, CEO of Punch Bowl Social, which has 11 outlets with six in the works for 2018, says its urban setting differentiates it against rivals. “Everyone of the other brands orient toward the suburbs. Urban is our sweet spot,” he says.
He also says Punch Bowl Social stresses its upscale, chef-driven menu, which produces 89 percent of its revenue, more so than most rivals.
To keep its edge, it’s introducing virtual reality parlors, where participants can see on a screen what others are seeing.
With competition heating up in the eatertainment industry, Pinstripes’ Schwartz admits the odds are that there will be winners and losers. “The strong will get stronger, and the weak will get weaker. With people’s ability to enjoy prepared food at Whole Foods and their equivalents, restaurants and eatertainment eateries will have to execute and deliver phenomenal food, consistent service and superior décor” to survive.
Punch Bowl Social Thompson envisions that some mergers-and-acquisition could transpire in the eatertainment industry in the next few years. “There could be some consolidation,” he says.
Thompson also observes that eatertainment is taking revenue dollars from traditional casual dining spots. “Instead of going for traditional casual dining, diners are spending their drinking and dining dollars in eatertainment,” he says. Hence, eatertainment will prosper while traditional dining continues to plummet.
Main Event’s Stancil also underscores the marketplace is wide enough for several chains to succeed with specific niches. “Many times there’s a Main Event located a mile from a Topgolf, and each caters to someone a little bit different,” he says, suggesting all can thrive.