There’s no collection of words that strikes as much terror in the hearts of adults as, “We’re going to Chuck E. Cheese’s.” Kids know the birthday-friendly chain as a semi-lawless fun zone full of games, tokens, and all the soda their grubby little hands can steal. But for anyone over the age of 12, the pizza-and-arcade chain is a pit of neon desperation—a soul-destroying scream factory where parents are more likely to get into a bare-knuckle brawl than enjoy a pleasant pie.
Chuck E. Cheese’s realizes this dilemma, and they know it’s killing them. After 30-plus years of advertising designed to whip kids into a frenzy, driving them to pester their parents into taking them out for pizza and Skee-Ball, the struggling company has decided to try something radical: sell parents on the idea first. The company’s internal research found that while kids ages 5-12 want to go to CEC 11 times a year, they only manage to convince their parents to take them an average of three times. Along with a makeover for Chuck himself in 2012, the company has rolled out more comfortable seating areas, free Wi-Fi, better beer and wine service, specialty coffee, and—this year—an upgraded, adult-friendly menu in an effort to lure in more customers.
Parents, corporate believes, are the key—especially moms. “Before she was a mom, she was going to places like Panera. She wants something that fits into her millennial lifestyle,” said Greg Casale, the chain’s new executive chef and a CIA-trained Beard Award semifinalist from Arizona. A recent TV spot depicts a group of cool moms (looking decidedly post-millennial, tbh) telling a friendly CEC rep what they want from the new-and-improved Chuck E. Cheese’s experience—pedicures! Rom-coms! Cabana boys! They’re so relatable.
“A recent TV spot depicts a group of cool moms (looking decidedly post-millennial, TBH) telling a friendly CEC rep what they want from the new-n-improved Chuck E. Cheese’s experience—pedicures! Rom-coms! Cabana boys! They’re so relatable.”
These wacky moms are the model customers the chain is hoping will undo its current reputation as the home of the most ratchet YouTube brawls this side of a Walmart Black Friday sale. By 2012, these bring-the-whole-family fights had become so frequent that news outlets were reporting on them as another sign of the decline of Western civilization. Not that the coverage—and increased security in some especially feisty stores, like one in Pennsylvania that had the cops show up 17 times in 18 months—has had much effect; the most recent YouTube clip, featuring a woman who manages to keep her baby on her hip during the entire fight, was posted just a month ago.
I’m no mom, but my friend Lauren is, with a six-month-old who surely hasn’t yet reached the age of CEC consent but will get us in the door incognito. In the spirit of journalism, I drag them both to the nearest location in the Atlantic Terminal mall in Downtown Brooklyn.
(GIF via Buzzfeed)
Chuck E. Cheese’s was never part of my childhood, but Chuck himself sure as hell was. The commercials for his party house were inescapable; if you watched Saturday morning cartoons, you knew the guy. Outfitted in the finest mid-’90s safety gear, knee and elbow pads flying as he ollied across my screen, Chuck was one cool dude. And then there was the pizza! From its very origin, CEC understood there was no food kids wanted more than pizza—all kids, even the pickiest, weirdest ones. “Going to Chuck E. Cheese’s was a life event that cemented pizza as a party food for every kid growing up in the 80s and 90s,” says author and noted pizza scholar Scott Wiener.
Originally called Pizza Time Theatre, the chain was started in 1977, a solid generation after the early ’60s wave of pizza commodification that brought Pizza Hut, Domino’s, and Little Caesar’s into homes across the country. By then, the pizza party was a staple of American childhood. Its only drawback: Even restaurants as casual as Little Caesar’s demanded a basic level of polite behavior from children. By taking that restriction away, building a venue where kids get up from the table, run, shriek, and throw balls as they pleased during dinner, CEC created an unbeatable force—where a kid could be a kid ®.
“By 2012, sprawling, bring-the-whole-family fights breaking out at CEC during birthday parties had become so frequent that news outlets were reporting on them as another sign of the decline of Western civilization.”
But by the 2000s, matted robotic dogs and chickens singing “Twist and Shout” while tantrums over the Whack-a-Mole machine loomed had lost its appeal—to both parents and kids. The 2012 makeover was not the first time Chuck has been updated; since his birth in 1977, the world’s most unlikely culinary mascot has been nipped and tucked regularly to make sure he appeals to kids. CEC founder Nolan Bushnell’s original, terrifyingly shaggy “Rick Rat” costume became a cigar-smoking, vest-wearing New Jersey comedian who gradually became more mouse than rat. His new persona has swapped extreme sports for rock ‘n’ roll, complete with a sweet electric guitar and new voice by Bowling for Soup singer Jaret Reddick. But nearly 20 years passed between that iteration I knew and this new one—long enough for Chuck to sink into irrelevance.
Couple that stagnation with the boom of home video games and the rise of casual dining restaurants like the Cheesecake Factory that appeal to food-savvy kids without tormenting their parents, and CEC has been in a death spiral. In 2014, CEC was purchased by Apollo Global Management, a private equity firm that buys sinking companies and turns them around—or wrings a profit out of them before they go under. It’s Apollo that brought in Casale, the first named chef in the company’s history, and hired the ad agency that came up with the new mom campaign.
Is it enough? New features are still being rolled out across stores, but the Atlantic Terminal CEC still feels trapped in 1998. It turns out that alcohol service is at the discretion of each individual manager—while 70% of stores do serve beer and wine—and the Atlantic Terminal manager has revoked those privileges. Our cashier will only cryptically tell us, “We used to, but we can’t anymore because of the manager.”
From the menu of ostensibly grown-up options that include a chicken caesar wrap, parmesan breadsticks, and something called a Cali-Alfredo pizza, we choose a BBQ chicken CPK rip-off on a new thin crust that, we’re promised, proved better than Pizza Hut’s in a taste test. We take our order number, soda cups, and paper plates and settle into a booth whose molded plastic defies all of the principles of ergonomics.
The noise is horrific, a sensory overload that makes sense when you learn that CEC founder Bushnell was first a co-founder of Atari, whose machines made a fortune for bar and arcade owners by getting drunk adults and teens hooked on that high-score thrill. He wanted a piece of the action, and saw an opportunity to sell the same flashing-light buzz to kids. Pizza was easy to make and easy to love, and an animatronic cabaret act added another level of ADHD distraction to keep kids entertained.
After waiting 25 minutes for our pizza, even the six-month-old is ready to start a fight. We watch a birthday performance from Chuck, which consists mostly of pre-recorded spots shown on giant TV screens and the appearance of a guy in New Chuck costume who leads a brief dance routine, doles out a few hugs, and disappears through an unmarked door. An animatronic Old Chuck lurks in a corner, and costumed New Chuck is careful to never get too close, just in case the two of them appearing in the same photo will cause the universe to collapse, Langoliers style.
“Cool moms and cappuccinos aren’t the answer to a CEC comeback. Chuck E. Cheese’s already has everything it needs, it just has to remind America that pizza parties are our birthright.”
When our pizza finally comes, it’s draped in a blanket of corn syrup-sweet Kraft-style BBQ sauce and showered with “crispy onions” that are almost definitely Funions, floury and bland. But I’m into it, and I realize that sharing this mediocre pie with my friend is fulfilling some deep-seated pizza party desire I thought I’d lost decades ago, one that just isn’t fulfilled by the fussy Neapolitan joints and slices I get now.
Cool moms and cappuccinos aren’t the answer to a CEC comeback. Chuck E. Cheese’s already has everything it needs, it just has to remind America that pizza parties are our birthright, something woven into our DNA. Toys “R” Us understands this; their new CEO, hired this year, came from an 11-year tour as head of Domino’s. It’s not unthinkable that he’ll bring in some pizza magic to boost the struggling toy store. CEC’s got that magic potential already. And hell, why not hug a giant rat while you’re at it?