America’s second-most-famous mouse, Chuck E. Cheese, is getting a makeover. The possessively named restaurant and play place known for PG-rated games, plentiful pizza, and animatronic shows revamped a few locations this summer: New storefronts look vaguely like blocks of Swiss cheese, colorful dance floors light up a la Saturday Night Fever, open kitchens give kids a peek at pizzas going into the oven, digital kiosks streamline ticket and food orders — and those iconic animatronics are going away.
“Kids stopped watching the animatronic shows,” Chuck E. Cheese’s CEO Tom Leverton says of the robot versions of Chuck E. Cheese and his pals, which periodically dance and sing to musical recordings each afternoon. “What we’ve seen over time with improvements in tech, with screens, and the expectations of kids today, the animatronics aren’t the main draw.”
Most of the company’s 524 U.S. locations still sport the animatronics, which, depending on kids’ ages, sometimes came off as silly or terrifying. But three locations in the San Antonio, Texas area have been completely remodeled without the robots, and the new look is headed to Kansas City area locations this fall. “We could be remodeling more company-owned units across the country as soon as next year,” Leverton says.
Leverton knows that there’s some nostalgia for those shows — over the weekend, singer-songwriter Father John Misty wrote a tongue-in-cheek “eulogy” for the animatronics on Facebook, saying of the mouse, “This man introduced me to music. Though the world may have moved on, the music remains.” But Leverton and the brand are betting that the live Chuck E. Cheese shows, where a costumed employee poses for photos and dances around, is “what generates the most excitement. Kids love the live Chuck E.” And as the brand works to sunset old animatronic technology, Chuck E. Cheese’s is investing in new tech to draw in today’s generation of parents.
Falling in line with other chains like McDonald’s and Applebee’s, 35 Chuck E. Cheese’s locations across the country are testing digital ordering kiosks. “There’s maybe one or two kiosks at each of these locations,” Leverton says, “but you can go up to the counter and order a typical value meal deal on the screen, with pizza, drinks, and Playpass cards. You get the Playpass immediately so the kids can go off and play, and then you get a number to put on your table so the food comes to you.”
The one-stop service center seems like the future for a chain like Chuck E. Cheese, but the CEO admits there’s a learning curve. “Some customers are always going to want to order from a cashier,” he says. (To that end, Chuck E. Cheese’s is also investing in tablets for servers.) When asked if kiosks would help the chain save on labor costs as minimum wages rise across the country, Leverton says, “we’d just reinvest that labor into other aspects of the experience, maybe by offering more live shows.”
The restaurants’ new disco-era dance floors are also meant to emphasize the live Chuck E. Cheese appearances, which happen every hour. As kids dance around on the colored tiles, they light up, providing more photo opportunities for parents.
Open kitchens, meanwhile, have been a trend in casual dining for a few decades. Living up to its middle name, Chuck E. Cheese’s saw another opportunity to entertain by designing new kitchens that show off the company’s made-in-house pizza dough, fresh vegetable prep, and baking process. “It’s like theater,” Leverton says. “The kids like watching the pizza toppings go on and seeing the pizza coming out of the oven.”
The last time Chuck E. Cheese’s revamped its menu was in 2015, when it rolled out more beer and wine options in an effort to woo millennial parents. Its new menu still features booze alongside build-your-own pizza options, pretzel bites, and other shareable snacks. By 2018, Chuck E. Cheese’s will start offering more regional specialties: Earlier this year it tested Philly cheesesteak pizzas at some locations, and soon plans to put Cuban coffee on the menu at locations outside Miami and offer certified kosher food at other locations across the country.
“Adults have more discerning tastes today,” Leverton says. Revealing the prep process and fresh ingredients via the open kitchen “is the best way to get credibility from moms and dads.” And the way to do the same for kids these days, it seems, is to say goodbye to the singing and dancing animatronics.
• Chuck E. Cheese Expands Booze Offerings to Woo 'Millennial Moms' [E]