Chuck E. Cheese's aims to grow sales by pleasing grown-ups' palates

Posted at 12:55 PM, Apr 10, 2015
and last updated 2015-04-10 16:06:38-04

The place where a kid can be a kid also wants to be the place where mom can get a cappuccino and dad can chow down on an artisan-like pizza.

The Irving-based Chuck E. Cheese's chain this week completed the nationwide rollout of the biggest change to its menu in more than a decade, officials said in an interview this week. The change is meant in part to reduce the vetoes from parents craving more sophisticated tastes.

New offerings include California Alfredo thin and crispy pizza with mushrooms and spinach and, for a limited time, New York-style cheesecake.

The point, Tom Leverton said, is to recognize that while children drive the desire to visit, it's the parents who hold the car keys.

"When you think about Chuck E. Cheese's, you certainly do think about kids entertainment upfront as well as pizza," said Leverton, chief executive of the parent company, CEC Entertainment Inc. "We see an opportunity to further improve ... on providing menu offerings that entice the adults more to agree to take their children to Chuck E. Cheese's.

"If we provide a good experience for mom and dad," he added, "they are going to be more willing to take their kid to Chuck E. Cheese's instead of ... going out to a competing place."

Nationwide, the company rolled out the Cali Alfredo pizza along with an update to its BBQ chicken pizza, now with a smoky barbecue sauce and fried onions. It also has introduced whole-wheat tortilla wraps such as Chicken Caesar and a Club wrap.

And it added churros with dipping sauces.

All locations in North Texas are being remodeled in the coming months. Some will include full coffee bars, featuring cappuccinos and lattes. Others will have full dessert bars.

If those items prove popular here, they may be expanded.

The company's website touts "all-new menu items for grown-up tastes," proclaiming "we're not playing games with our food anymore."

In addition to the menu updates, the company is mulling replacing those jingling tokens with a plastic "play pass," a la Dave & Buster's. It also sees an opportunity to get more into the to-go business, with the food drawing diners who aren't necessarily toting a toddler.

Parental feedback on the menu additions so far, from some of the early adopter markets, has been "phenomenal," Leverton said.

"I think you'd guess 10 or 15 other places before you'd guess that Chuck E. Cheese's would provide this type of pizza," he said. "It's not artisan, but it is surprising."

The chain's push toward the upscale comes as the pizza industry nationwide is beefing up the menu in the face of increased competition.

In November, Pizza Hut, the nation's largest pizza chain, announced the most expansive brand update in the company's half-century history. That included menu additions that mirror some items seen at artisan pizza shops and at fast-casual players.

Michigan-based consultant Dave "Big Dave" Ostrander sees the market dividing into four distinct groups.

"I think that there's going to be three big winners when it's all said and done," said Ostrander, a frequent pizza contest judge. "No. 1 will be the very highest quality providers, (restaurateurs) that just make a fantastic pizza. No. 2 is going to be the lowest cost provider, and we all know who they are.

"The third ones are the fast-casual types. Some of it is above average to very good," he added. "The rest are going to be slugging it out for the same customers."

That means more competition in the middle of the pack, where some consumers place Chuck E. Cheese's pizza now.

"I eat pizza a lot," Ostrander added. "I haven't eaten their pizza in a long time. I don't think they'd win gold, silver or bronze in the competitions I've judged."

At a Chuck E. Cheese's in suburban Dallas this week, several parents said they like the chain's pizza as it is, especially the pepperoni, which seemed to reign supreme this particular evening. None of the parents spotted during the dinner hour were dining on the menu updates.

As she kept a watchful eye on just-turned 5-year-old Annabelle and big sister Gracie, 8, Brandie Bohmer noted that bolder flavors might come in handy during birthday parties, when the restaurant hosts a mix of adults.

Bohmer is a mom of four and said she has at least two birthday parties at Chuck E. Cheese's annually.

"When I have all of my family come, you do like to have different pizzas," she said, as Gracie and Annabelle stopped by to display their ticket haul.

She and the kids are partial to pepperoni, which Bohmer said she'd buy on its own merits. She doesn't think she'd order any of the new pizzas on a regular "family fun day" outing, adding "that's not going to happen."

Beyond the food, the company is updating its technology, adding Wi-Fi to U.S. locations.

In some local outlets, the company will test the new "play pass" system, replacing tokens.

That's a scary thought for Bohmer.

"Because this is for younger kids, I say no," Bohmer said. "If they lose one token, I'm not going to cry over that. If they lose a card with 100 tokens, I'm going to cry."

Not to worry, the company said. The cards can be reissued.

Leverton didn't give many details on the test.

"We want to make sure we're continuing to innovate," he said. "So this is a test for a small number of stores. We'll be monitoring the experience as we go."

Mostly, the company is excited to talk about the food.

"Chuck E. Cheese's is certainly best known for an outstanding entertainment experience," said spokeswoman Michelle Chism. "Some people, though, may not know the array of lunch and dinner options available or they may have preferred a destination with more adult-focused offerings."

Added Leverton: "We want to make sure the adults are as excited about the visit as the children. The menu was a great opportunity to really do that."

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