What's Chuck E. Cheese without its iconic animatronic bands?
It may be more appealing to children who have grown up with sophisticated video games and entertainment, according to owner CEC Entertainment. The kid-focused pizza chain is updating a handful of restaurants with open kitchens and toned-down colors, as well as one striking omission: the animatronic animals who play music and entertain families.
The revamp comes as the restaurant chain is looking to reengage families and kids with a "modern experience," said CEC Chief Executive Tom Leverton. The redesigned locations also feature a dance floor where a live Chuck E. comes out to shake a leg with children. The animatronic bands were shown the door with the new design.
"It's the biggest thing we've done for the look and feel of Chuck E. Cheese for two decades," Leverton said. "The kids stopped looking at the animatronics years and years ago, and they would wait for the live Chuck E. to come out."
Children's taste in entertainment is much more sophisticated now than when the chain started in 1977 because kids today are used to slick animations and special effects, he added. The animatronics bands may be an icon for parents and grandparents, but children today prefer dancing with Chuck E. -- a worker dressed up as the chain's icon -- or big-form video games, Leverton added.
"The animatronics became a side show," he said.
The company is starting its revamp with four locations in San Antonio, Texas, and will then renovate three restaurants in the Kansas City, Missouri, area.
The new design highlights changes the company had made to Chuck E. Cheese's menu, which now includes wraps, gluten-free pizza and a thin-crust pizza. The company is also touting a blind taste test in which diners rated Chuck E. Cheese's thin-crust pepperoni pizza higher than rival Pizza Hut.
"We are trying to make sure while we are focused on being a kid business, mom and dad will have a great experience," Leverton said. Parents "shouldn't have to sacrifice" when they take their kids out for dinner.
What will happen to the animatronics in the chain's other locations? That depends on the results from the seven revamped locations. Leverton noted that the company has a "strong hypothesis" that it will eventually shift its focus to the live Chuck E. performers instead of animatronics.
The shift may seem slightly ironic given many businesses are increasingly relying on robots and automation as a way of lowering operating costs and improving productivity. Yet when it comes to entertainment, robotics aren't yet ready for prime time, Leverton said.
"For production or ringing up guests, that is clearly a trend in the industry," he said. "We have 35 stores where we have full-service kiosks. That's a natural progression" rather than replacing live entertainers.
As for whether the animatronics may remind patrons of the horror video game "Five Nights with Freddy," Leverton said while he has played the game and sees similarities, it doesn't concern him. That game is set at a fictional restaurant chain where animatronic machines come to life and try to scare the player.
"It's a startling game," he said, adding that he believed the references to Chuck E. Cheese "are purposeful." Families that visit Leverton's chain are usually bringing younger children who aren't likely to be familiar with the game, he said.
"If [the game] increases awareness, maybe that's good," he said. "That doesn't cause me much worry."