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Reopenings pose special challenges for eatertainment brands

Just ask Pinstripes, where staff members will shortly be wiping down bowling balls and handing out gloves.
Photo courtesy of Pinstripes
Peter Blog

Restaurant staffs are settling into the new sanitation protocols necessitated by the coronavirus pandemic. For employees of Pinstripes, a fun-and-food concept set to reopen all 13 of its branches on Friday, that’ll mean wiping down bowling balls along with tabletops and door handles.

That’s not the only twist for the staff. Among its new duties will be providing gloves for patrons to wear as they choose a ball, and making sure customers stick with that selection during their entire time on the lane, which is capped at two hours. It’s part of Pinstripes’ new Concierge Service.

The chain’s new operating procedures illustrate the extra efforts that so-called eatertainment concepts are undertaking as part of their reopening. The irony is that the places’ main draw is the promise of an experience, and that couldn’t be provided while the cavernous facilities were closed to customers. The sector was among the hardest hit by the pandemic. Now the reopening is imposing a whole new set of challenges peculiar to the operations.  

Virtually every eating place that resumed dine-in service had to reconfigure its seating so it could offer 25% or 50% of pre-pandemic capacity while keeping parties six feet apart. At the eatertainment stalwart Dave & Buster’s, the social distancing had to extend to the concept’s arcade games, a key source of revenues as well as the main draws for customers. The chain proudly told investors recently that it puzzled out a way to keep 75% of the attractions in operation as dining rooms reopened.

Now the brand is dealing with a menu that was cut down from 40 items to just 15.

Main Event, a direct competitor, has arranged through Uber Eats to deliver games along with the concept’s food. Monday's announcement suggests that customers can opt just for the mini laser tag or Velcro darts if they’re hungering for a distraction rather than something to eat.

And then there’s the humbled rodent of the eatertainment sector, Chuck E. Cheese. It, too, plans to social distance its games, which will be limited to just one player at a time instead of allowing contestants to battle head to head.  Among the victims of staff cutbacks was Chuck E. Cheese himself, who’ll no longer be strolling through the arcade for selfies with pint-sized patrons.

The biggest change for the concept, which recently filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, was shifting would-be diners’ attention from Chuck to the mascot’s former animatronic drummer, Pasqually P. Pieplate, whose apparent day job is working as a chef. The chain has created a virtual restaurant called Pasqually’s Pizza & Wings, which offers a very limited menu of items available only through delivery.  Management says the new venture is now generating 10% of sales.

Pinstripes is sticking with its traditional focus on bocce, bowling and corporate party business. The latter has long been a major source of business for eatertainment concepts, and it virtually disappeared as offices closed and potential corporate customers shifted to a wartime footing that left little money or reason for having parties. Pinstripes hopes to foster it again by incorporating social distancing into the setup, something it claims is viable for an operation with 30,000 square feet of floor space. The effort will also extend to replacing buffets with other forms of staffed service.  

It’s also betting that a $100 credit on group bookings of $500 or more will entice groups back for the Pinstripes experience.  But just in case, the chain is offering three new catering packages for pickup or delivery.  Two of the three include a $50 gift card.

If things don’t work out for Pasqually, Chuck and the other animatrons at Chuck E. Cheese, they might have a shot at working for Pinstripes. The concept plans to re-introduce live music.

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