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Tuesday, Jun 6, 2023

Chuck E. Cheese Founder Goes for the Grownups

In 1970 he founded Atari and forever changed home entertainment. In 1978 he opened the first Chuck E. Cheese restaurant, and arguably changed kids’ playtime forever. Now Nolan Bushnell is at it again. Can he change the restaurant industry? Bushnell’s new company uWink Media Bistro is a restaurant-entertainment center for grownups that uses Internet-based technology instead of menus and waiters and gives people-watching a whole new meaning. It is set to open in coming days in the Westfield Promenade in Woodland Hills. Think neighborhood bar with a menu that doesn’t need to be washed down with a stiff one and simple computer games instead of pool tables and dart boards. Then add on the ability to play the games at one’s own table or in combination with any neighboring tables or even the entire restaurant and you’ve got uWink. “Most chains are looking for something to get people involved,” said Eric Wold, managing director at Merriman Curhan Ford, an investment company that helped uWink to raise capital last year and has a position in the company. “There are a million and one different environments out there, and everyone’s getting very competitive. What they’ve done is create something that’s a great way to keep customers sitting there longer and get them excited to come back next time.” UWink works this way: Customers are seated at a table with a touch tone screen that includes the menu and bar offerings as well as a selection of games. <!– Site: Promenade in Woodland Hills. –> Site: Promenade in Woodland Hills. Touch the screen to access the menu, and a selection of items such as Crispy Sushi Roll, Southwestern Ceasar Salad, Spicy Thai Shrimp Pizza or Braised Short Ribs comes up. Touch the screen again to modify the order, leaving out some of the ingredients or adding an extra helping of others, or to get nutritional information on any of the dishes. Then decide whether you want all or some of the dishes served right away or held, perhaps after a cocktail. Cocktails too are described on the touch screen where those who are unsure of what they would like can play a whimsical game to get a recommendation. The computerization allows for numerous permutations, so, for instance, if children are hungry they may be served immediately while the adults dawdle, and if some members of the same party want a separate check they can do that too. While they wait, or as they eat, customers can then tap into any one of a number of short games like Sharp Shooter, a basketball game or Trivia, watch a movie trailer, read a horoscope or learn the latest Hollywood gossip. There are no waiters. Instead runners bring the orders that are electronically transferred to the kitchen and bar and entertainment directors make sure patrons are making the most of their experience, or hooking up different tables to the same game for a little competition. “We wanted to reinvent the entertainment experience in a public space, introduce technology in an area we think is technologically sparse and we wanted to be a place that represented an extension of people’s digital life,” said Bushnell of the concept. A typical check will run $12 to $16 per person without alcohol. Meanwhile, the computer-based ordering system shaves labor costs anywhere from 6 percent to 8 percent. And uWink has already sold screen space to advertisers such as Evian and Stockholm Vodka, a revenue-generating opportunity that Bushnell thinks will have long legs. UWink is an incarnation of an earlier effort, E2000, that was aborted by a long, ugly legal battle with Merrill Lynch over debt financing the company extended to Bushnell as he tried to incubate several different technology-based business models. The lawsuit was resolved late in the 1990s, but not before Bushnell lost most of his own personal fortune. He began uWink in 2001 with little fanfare, initially as a company that built games for sale to other restaurants and bars. The company has spent about $10 million to develop the software, and in March raised another $1.5 million through Merriman, Curhan Ford. But when orders dried up in the wake of 9/11, Bushnell decided he needed a model that would provide more income stability and decided to integrate vertically. Largely as a result of the shift in the business model, uWink, which is traded over the counter, reported sales decreased 83 percent to $110,000 for the six months ended June 30, 2006 and the company recorded a net loss of about $1.3 million for the period. Bushnell is hoping that the bistro will fill a void, particularly for women. “Sports bars are done to death for men,” he said. “The casual gamer was squeezed out of the market.” Although computer games are typically thought to be a male domain, Bushnell said that, at Atari, when executives took new games home, their wives became engrossed in them. The uWink games, like the early Atari games, are not long odysseys through violent worlds, but rather, easy to navigate, quick hits that encourage conversation rather than rolling over it. The games are free as long as patrons are eating or drinking. But after about 45 minutes, without a new order placed, the screen will deliver a message: order more or start paying for the games. UWink has already received some interest in franchising, and the company has engaged a law firm to help. But Bushnell wants to get several units up and running before rushing into a chain concept. After a storied career that kept him on the front pages of national media for years, Bushnell seems content to go slowly. “I perceive this as a starting point,” he said. “We will see what people like and make sure that what they get is what they want.”

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