Restaurants and family entertainment centers have been particularly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. You might expect businesses that combine them to be in a defensive mode. On the contrary, Chuck E. Cheese — the world-famous chain of arcade pizza parlors — is continuing to roll out a radical remodeling of all its locations, emphasizing interactive video technology and original seasonal content. The revamp was completed at Orlando’s International Drive, where we were able to interview Chuck E. Cheese CEO David McKillips, who recently took charge after a career that’s included SeaWorld, DC Comics, and Six Flags.
Photos by Seth Kubersky
What brought about your decision to join Chuck E. Cheese in 2020? That’s a really tough time to enter a CEO position. What’s it been like the last year and a half for you in this role?
Well, like everyone in the industry, it’s been certainly a challenging time, but I joined Chuck E. Cheese in January of 2020. As you all know, in March we closed our doors. We then went through a financial restructuring. The capital structure just wasn’t built to last through a pandemic. We managed to navigate that. We emerged at the beginning of December. The rest of the year has been about managing recovery, keeping our employees safe, and our guests safe. And now, reimagining the brand like you’re seeing today.
How long has Chuck E. Cheese been in this position? What’s the trajectory been looking like for you in this last quarter?
All of our locations are now available in the U.S., Canada, and almost all of them are open in international markets. So that’s a really good thing.
We had to think differently during the pandemic. We were one of the first national brands to launch a virtual kitchen, which the namesake is after Pasqually himself, so it’s “Pasqually’s Pizza and Wings.”It was the first virtual kitchen to be set up in every one of our locations. It was a way to keep our people employed and take care of them, as we reopen our doors and invite guests back to the experience.
At Chuck E., we’re all about entertainment. We’re all about games, and we compliment that with great food, but it’s all about celebration. So the birthday business is starting to come back, and we’re recovering in various areas on different trajectories. We opened our California store a lot later than in Florida and Texas. We manage a large fleet of over 450 stores in the United States. We’re managing through the supply chain, we’re managing through labor, and we’re delighting our guests, and that’s most important.
Talk to me about the redesign. This is the first one in the Orlando market, but you’ve been rolling out this model since even before the pandemic. What was your design philosophy when you decided to do this renovation? What were the key features you wanted to implement?
So, the company ran several tests pre-pandemic. We looked at the performance of the locations, we looked at the insights from the guests with kids and moms, our core target audience, and then made a decision post-pandemic of how we’re going to reimagine this brand.
We wanted to incorporate technology into the experience. […]However, the purpose was entertainment. Anybody can build an arcade, but you just can’t build a Chuck E. Cheese. So he’s the star of the show. We wanted to make sure you have a great experience, even if it’s just for five years old. We’ve got the best games — we’re actually the largest arcade in the world, we have two billion gameplays — so we want to make sure we have the best games in here. We have a digital dance floor with floor-to-ceiling monitors that play all original Chuck E. Cheese content, as well as third-party music.
We finally embraced technology. We launched a brand new app [where] you’re going to be able to order in-store, you can [now]Order delivery and carryout. We’ve got a brand-new loyalty program. We now accept cashless payments and have just upgraded the technological capabilities of the entire area.
Let me know more about the entertainment content. I noticed that puppet segments are very high quality. It’s almost like Henson-quality work. Plus, you’ve got original video, and then there’s a seasonal component, too. How do you plan to keep that content fresh throughout the year, and what are your plans?
I’ll start with seasonal. The celebration of the seasons was one of the core pillars in our new strategy. “four seasons of fun.”This is exactly like the theme parks industry, which I spent a lot of time in. We really want to give you a reason to come multiple times throughout the year, and we’re doing that by redecorating the entire concept from an entertainment perspective, as well as some of the décor you see.
We’ve got “Springtastic;” “Chuck E. Cheese Summer of Fun;”Our “Halloween Spooktacular,” which we’re building to be the number one family entertainment Halloween destination for young kids and families — that’ll take time to build over the years — and we’re getting ready to debut what you’re seeing today, the Winter Wonderland, where every kid’s a winner. Every kid gets a game piece and we’re giving out thousands of prizes and millions of dollars in value. We’re really excited about that.
To talk about entertainment, we’ve really made a focus on the entertainment content and quality here at Chuck E. Cheese. So you’re 100% correct, it’s an elevated entertainment experience. It’s also technologically impressive with the digital screens that line the entire store and the interactive dance floor. We’re mixing the best of entertainment, music, and, of course, the star of the show is Chuck E. Cheese. This video is also available online every Friday. “Chuck E. Cheese Fun Break,” and we’re on YouTube Kids now with all of our content. We released two albums during the pandemic. You can also find them on iTunes and Spotify.
So it’s transmedia; finding you at home and finding you in-store.
Absolutely. We took the characters outside of the four walls for the first time. It was a five-city tour of music and it was amazing. We started at Clearwater in Florida. They were taken all over the country. It was very well received by the guests.
Talk to me about gaming. What do you look for when you’re deciding what kind of arcade machines are going in? How do you keep up with the trends, and give something to kids that they can’t just get from a video game console or a smartphone that they have at home?
We have a great relationship with all the major manufacturers and we’re the largest purchaser of arcade games in the world, actually. We like to meet with all of them, and we’re really unique because […]We need attractions and games for younger audiences, but we also need to have games that appeal to traditional arcade and sports fans.
We’re looking for big properties that we can look to develop and right now we’re thinking long-term and actually meeting with some of the IP holders, so the toy companies, the studios, to start to develop exclusive games for our audience specifically.
What’s most important for Chuck E. Cheese is we’re all about celebrating families and great moments together. So we want to really lean in on the multiplayer games where parents and kids can play together so that’s really, really important to us and that’s what we’ll be shopping for this year.
Chuck E. Cheese was where I grew up. It featured animatronic characters based on pop-culture. ‘tributes’Like “Five Nights at Freddy’s,”Or the Nicolas Cage film “Willy’s Wonderland,” there’s obviously still an adult audience that has a connection to the Chuck E. Cheese of the ’80s. Have you ever thought of doing something aimed at that audience that maybe isn’t coming here with their kids, but still has a connection to the brand?
This brand has a rich history that has entertained generations after generations. Four generations have gone through Chuck E. Cheese. We know animatronics are a key part of the innovation that was Chuck E. Cheese. We’re always going to lean in on the importance of the character, and there could be a place down the line where we may reimagine that, but right now, through our insights and the new generation of Chuck E. Cheese guests, we’re looking to bring that in a digital format. We do have animatronics in over 300 restaurants. We’ve only remodeled 100 of these locations.
But, as the remodels progress, those animatronics will be retired?
They are being retired.
Is there a warehouse with all the old animatronics in it?
Some secrets I just can’t share.
It could even be a movie!