Upscale and innovative food and beverage programs help set family entertainment venues apart.
Combining bowling alleys, video game centers, laser tag and other activities with restaurants, buffets and/or concessions operations, family entertainment centers (FECs) have been fixtures in established communities for decades.
In particular, bowling alleys integrated with arcades, and restaurants and music have made a comeback in recent years by expanding entertainment choices, according to Alexandria, Va.-based International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions (IAAPA). Meanwhile, laser tag centers have dwindled because of unreliability and high maintenance costs. North American families go to FECs three to five times per year at an average cost of $12 to $22 per visit. Other FECs include playgrounds, go-kart rides and batting cages.
Focus on Foodservice
Pinnacle Entertainment Group, located in Palms River, N.J., has been building FECs for four decades.
"What has become obvious in the last five years is that these operations need great foodservice," says George McAuliffe, Pinnacle Entertainment's principle owner and president. "In the past, many of these centers included snack bars offering premade, formerly frozen burgers, but we're learning the most successful FECs are seeing benefits from upgrading their restaurant presentations and offerings."
FECs usually appeal to the 8- to 14-year old age group and their parents, while certain businesses, such as bowling, command broader demographics, according to IAAPA.
"It's only in the last five years that we have become popular mainstream entertainment due to the arcade shifting from video-dominant for teenage males to a wider demographic for games like Skee-Ball, basketball and other skill games," says McAuliffe. "That's where we've grown and how our audience has expanded."
FECs compete with malls and restaurants, even though many FECs position themselves as restaurants that offer a blend of food and entertainment, according to IAAPA. Frazier Capital, a Los Angeles firm that provides business valuation services, reports FECs can gain an edge over competing restaurants by improving food quality.
To encourage longer stays and higher spends, these centers will add full-service restaurants and more upscale menus. "Years ago, people would eat first and then go to the FEC, but expectations for these operations are higher these days," says McAuliffe.
Food offerings tend to include American fare, such as burgers, sandwiches, pizza and barbecue. "Pizza has always been a mainstay, but now it's better quality," says McAuliffe. "Also, pizza chains are adding FEC components to increase their margins and complement their birthday party and group sales business." These upgraded foodservice programs also feature more efficient kitchens, with multipurpose equipment geared for high volume, he says.
"Bowling entertainment centers' revenue stream is typically a third food and beverage, a third bowling and a third family entertainment," says McAuliffe. "The next level of modernization is with bowling lanes being removed and
freeing up space for kitchen infrastructure, seating, etcetera."
Customers' length of stay and the guest/value equation directly determine the success of an FEC.
"This is a place where people have great social experiences, spend money and make connections, and food is a contributor to that," says McAuliffe.
Trends for new center designs and components are similar in all regions across the country, and the emphasis on food and beverage remains prevalent throughout. "We're in a heyday right now with FECs," says McAuliffe. "The demographic is expanding, and we're seeing serious money in terms of private equity investments."
Rebranding and Supersizing
After Bowlmor Lanes acquired AMF Bowling Worldwide four years ago to create Bowlmor AMF, the plan was to remodel all sites to create a cool, unique and crazy atmosphere.
While the Bowlmor brand has 305 locations, Bowlero, now part of the portfolio, includes about 55 sites. The decor is the same for both, although sizes vary, as the design fits either a smaller or larger footprint. The average square footage is between 45,000 and 55,000.
The majority of the food and beverage offerings line the concourse by the bowling lanes, which feature upscale booth seating along with high-top tables. Bowlmor also uses flip-up tables when hosting special events. Larger Bowlero concepts have smaller dining areas. Food and beverage encompasses 65 percent of AMF Bowlmor brands' revenue. That rate dips slightly at Bowlero locations, to 60 percent.
When updating this concept, Steve Bartek, vice president of food and beverage and a self-described foodie, went on the hunt for diverse, yet fun, menu concepts that fit both brands. He collected dish ideas that caught his eye, and also scoured the internet to see what other FECs were doing to avoid duplicating them. Ideas were fleshed out at a 2,700-square-foot test kitchen in New York's Times Square.
The concessions offerings pay homage to the food truck craze. Even the setup — an Airstream trailer cut in half serves as the front of the serving area — emulates the theme. And, when it comes to the menu items, bigger has definitely been better.
Bartek and his team developed the 5-pound Behemoth Burger as well as the 2-foot-long Chi-town Hot Dog, and both have been well-received. "We also rolled out a new menu that includes The Beast, an 8-pound burrito served on a pizza pan," he adds. "The biggest one I saw online was 7.5 pounds, so I had to go bigger."
Best-selling items include street tacos, hand-battered chicken tenders and the 28-inch Goliath Pizza, a more recent addition popular during the football season. "I also saw a pizza cake idea and wanted to grab that, since no one had one in a national branding environment," says Bartek. "Two years ago, after doing some research, I added both alcoholic and regular shakes."
Bartek runs his ideas past his corporate executive chef and also holds a monthly menu development day. "I have a product mix report to see what sells," he says. "I am always trying to look at cool things to put on the menu."
Fortunately, 2,000-square-foot restaurant-style kitchens support the super-sized food effort. Cook lines include double-deck pizza ovens, fryer banks with three to four wells, a convection oven, steamers in some locations, ranges and flattop griddles for burgers. On the opposite side sit pizza make tables, steam wells and regular make tables.
"Our event menu is extensive and virtually unlimited," says Bartek. "We tend to get unique requests in big cities like New York and Los Angeles, where our executive chefs can execute our retail menu and do almost anything else for events."
The fryer and deck oven serve as the kitchen workhorses as well as the convection oven during events. Due to the profit potential and demographic expansion, foodservice will continue to be a main focus. "We do more in food and beverage in a day than most restaurants do in an entire month," says Bartek.
A Full Makeover
Its tagline, 'Eat. Bowl. Play.' serves notice that Main Event Entertainment's concept has a heavy emphasis on foodservice.
In fact, at the 20-year-old Plano, Texas-based chain's 38 sites, food and beverage makes up more than 36 percent of its revenue.
"That's the big focus now, as we think of our clientele and grow our foodservice program," says Graham Morgan, Main Event Entertainment's director of menu innovation. "Families, young adults and group parties are a good portion of our F&B [food and beverage] revenue, so we're driving this as the first part of our tagline."
The concept is in the process of morphing from a traditional bowling alley and pizzeria with the quintessential walkup counter service to now include an updated full-service La Bella's Pizza restaurant. Although the core menu will stay intact, new, healthier options and more handheld food will help broaden the appeal for a wider demographic.
Main Event Entertainment's locations range from 50,000 to 60,000 square feet, although most skew toward the lower end of that spectrum, and include bowling, multilevel laser tag, a high rope adventure course, billiards and a gaming area with about 100 different interactive and virtual games. Kitchens encompass 3,400 square feet of space, with areas designated for event prep. Dining rooms measure approximately 3,500 square feet and include a large bar. The bowling alley includes a seating area, in addition to La Bella's 150 seats. The facility also includes separate areas for meetings, parties and other events. Newer sites feature patios with about 120 additional seats.
Main Event Entertainment updates food offerings twice each year: once in October and again in April. Pizza is the top seller and includes from-scratch, kettle-cooked sauce and a high-quality Italian cheese blend. Newer topping options include lighter, healthier choices, as well as roasted ingredients. There also is a wide selection of sharable foods, such as breaded calamari, chicken quesadillas, onion rings and the biggest seller, chicken wings.
"In April of 2018, we're going to step up our focus on wings to broaden our sauces and introduce dry rubs," says Morgan.
Kitchen equipment includes a six-burner range, double stacked convection oven, charbroiler and flattop. The fryers also get a workout in Main Event's back of house.
"The biggest machinery we have is a triple stacked conveyor pizza oven," says Morgan. "What I love about this equipment is it does so much more than just pizza. It has a lot of functionality, like roasting tomatoes for our salsa."
The current equipment lineup will remain intact to support the menu revamp moving forward.
"Although we're not looking to change the kitchen at this point, we eventually plan to test a combi oven due to its versatility and because we do a great deal of banquets," says Morgan. "This oven would really help with that side of the business, providing us with the ability to smoke meats in-house. It most likely will be the next piece of equipment we bring in to test, but we don't have a timeline for this yet."
Main Event is in the process of adding five new locations and remodeling four existing sites to include sports viewing areas and other family-friendly options. "With both new and existing builds, the quality of the facility is key," says Morgan. "We're not just taking over existing buildings; it's more about placement for us and making sure we're in the right place and visible [to the community]."
An Evolving Concept
Established as a traditional pizzeria 49 years ago, Austin, Texas-based Gatti's Pizza with Family Entertainment
Center's 89 locations have undergone a major transformation since the concept's debut.
"We've spent most of our time stabilizing the brand and reinvigorating it over the last couple of years," says Michael Poates, president.
Food ranks as a priority, with a kitchen consuming a third of the space; the dining room, which seats between 150 and 300, gobbles up another third of the space; and the remaining third (between 4,000 and 7,000 square feet) goes to family-friendly games. Like most FECs, Gatti's sites also have dedicated areas for private parties, birthday parties and other social events.
Its two platforms, buffet and non-buffet/fast-casual, both utilize a brick oven to produce wood-fired pizza. The DNA is the same in both buffet and non-buffet installations, although offerings vary. For example, menus at non-buffet concepts include Italian roast beef sandwiches, chicken parmesan, meatball sandwiches and Italian subs.
"We also have pizza rolls, which are really popular in both types of centers," says Poates. "In terms of food production, saute stations are exclusive to buffet sites, whereas sites without buffets utilize an oven with six burners and a salamander."
As a restaurant, Gatti's is known for its pizza, with fresh ingredients providing the point of differentiation.
Its signature pizza is a sampler that comes with smoked provolone, pepperoni, Italian sausage, Canadian bacon, ground beef, green olives, mushrooms, bell peppers, white onions and black olives. The most popular topping remains pepperoni.
The flatbread pizza, with a very thin and crispy crust, also is a strong seller. Appetizers range from cheese bread to large meatballs. Although production kitchens are similar for both the buffet and non-buffet platforms, when it comes to pizza production, cooking methods differ.
"We use [conveyor] ovens on our buffets and a big stone-fired oven for our fast-casual installations that can produce 200 pizzas in an hour," says Poates. "It's a great centerpiece of our kitchen and brings authenticity to our brand."
Back-of the-house standards include walk-in coolers, floor mixers for dough, sheeters, and a pizza/sandwich make station with a prep table. Additionally, pasta cookers rethermalize product at some locations.
Water filtration garners special attention for the daily-made pizza dough. "It's the most important part of the pizza, so we use wall-mounted direct line filtered water for all dough," says Poates. "The dough roller also is an important piece of equipment."
The 4,000- to 7,000-square-foot midways sit below family entertainment centers and include game rooms. Favorites include the jump house, along with a giant foot-billards game, which is essentially pool played with soccer balls. "We like to have a blend of games for each age group and offer prizes that are relevant," says Poates.
Currently with sites in 12 states, growth plans include expansion for 23 states.
"For the remodel, we revisited our past when our brand had market share and name recognition," says Poates. "Rather than reinventing our concept, we went to a time when we were most successful and started to drive that format. Now, we're initiating an effort to relaunch for our original customers, who are now parents."