Many factors contributed to the rise of Eatertainment, or experiential dining, but the socio-economic conditions brought about in 2020, have solidified the approach. It’s not enough to simply meet the basic standards of care (good food, clean environments, etc.). If diners are expected to spend their time and money to sit down and eat, it needs to be an experience. The ‘canned nostalgia’ popularized by chain restaurants of the ’80s and '90s just doesn’t cut it anymore. In today’s post-pandemic society, artificial embellishment is no longer sufficient to compensate for shortcomings in other areas. The food at your local establishment may be consistent, but is there a better, more genuine, and possibly unique option? Yes. For that . . . you’re going to have to pick a side and take a risk.
The Eatertainment industry is not exactly new. Its true beginnings came from arcade and gaming concepts like Chuck E. Cheese and Dave and Buster’s in the late 1970s and grew in popularity in the 2000s with the rise of the experience economy. In recent years, new concepts have emerged and taken the industry to the next level - a bowling venue with seating for food and beverages, a driving range that serves food and drinks, a movie theater that lets patrons order a meal as they watch their film – these are the more common Eatertainment concepts seen today. Millennials have been at the forefront of this movement, as they have proved time and time again that they value experiences of products. In fact, 78% of millennials are more likely to spend money on trips and nights out rather than material items. For them, it’s all about creating and capturing those memories.
When developing an Eatertainment business model, a great deal of time and energy is spent thinking critically, to optimize the most efficient operation with broad customer appeal, driven by a sustainable revenue stream, while balancing quality with customer experience. It’s a highly formula-driven endeavor. The opposite approach is the Chef’s Kitchen (GastroPub) model. Each location is meticulously curated around a single culinary vision. Often at great cost and sizable risk. The food is, and must be, the star. Everything else is secondary. These concepts live or die by the Chef and their reputation, which is built over time . . . often not turning a profit for 2-4 years.
Between these two extremes exists some interesting growth sectors. Each evolving into major players within their respective markets. Taking cues from their overall concepts and employing a responsive twist, in an effort to fill a new niche within their local dining scene. If GastroPubs are the sophisticated elder sibling, Eatertainment venues are surely the younger wild child; focusing on what happens before, after, and during the food (and beverages). Concepts come in all shapes, sizes, tastes, and markets. Most of which have grown out of the classics, bowling, billiards, darts, and pizza, into truly innovative experiences for all ages.
Successful concepts position themselves as a destination, drawing in a wide variety of patrons and providing a range of activities to entice and occupy the vast majority of the community. They’re typically structured around a core activity and provide limited offerings in complementary entertainment. But as competition increased . . . so have the stakes. Eatertainment functions on a level more akin to a casino than a restaurant; providing numerous entertainment options with plenty of food and beverages along the way. That’s not to say that the food and beverage offerings are skimpy or sub-par, but the draw is the ability to entertain a diverse group for hours at a time.
Bowling has remained a staple of many venues, with many concepts employing some variation, seemingly in homage to such outings in many towns, large and small, around the world. Some venues have even gone to a smaller format, such as duckpin bowling, simply to minimize the space needed.
Arcades are another standard offering in the Eatertainment landscape, providing a much-needed distraction for younger patrons. Growing ever larger and more complex over time, most will certainly have a presence, for the foreseeable future. Analog gaming (i.e., skee ball, pinball, foosball, etc.) is making a comeback, in even the most progressive of markets. Apparently, some level of nostalgia never goes out of style.
Of course, when it comes to their core demographic, one cannot overlook the importance of a well-designed bar. With unobstructed views of many, many televisions. Eatertainment venues feed off of destination events; groups gather to watch the big game or pay-per-view event. Such activities are often the catalyst for large group outings. Whether it’s a destination event or an activity, it can be integrated into an Eatertainment venue. The difficulty lies in predicting spatial needs and the parking required to accommodate the capacities generated from these unique uses. To cultivate off-peak revenue for these facilities, a growing number of venues cater to corporate clients, providing meeting rooms, distributed power, wi-fi, and rentable space(s) for private events.
The single biggest determining factor in an Eatertainment venue is niche competition, which drives entrepreneurial individuals to create new and unique concepts to entice demanding, diverse patrons. With many taking advantage of food trucks to lessen the burden on staff and offer a more varied menu during favorable weather conditions, without a permanent commitment, the possibilities are virtually endless.
Determining an approach when entering this unique sector of the hospitality industry is a multi-faceted undertaking and should be considered carefully. The best advice is to find a niche you’re passionate about and curate an experienced team to build a concept around your core vision, with the strength and determination to see it through.