Arcade parlors serve pizza with everything

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

How would you like to eat dinner with a five-foot-tall, fully automated rat? Or drop quarters into video games while your dinner cooks? Or watch soap operas on a wall-sized screen while eating?

Wait, there's more: You can talk to your spouse over pizza and hamburgers while your children take rides on a sliding fire engine (complete with sirens). Or you can relax and watch a show - five-foot-tall purple gorillas singing '50s hits, or four mop-topped ''beagles'' doing the Beatles.

Sound weird? Promoters call it ''sophisticated'' (as in ''highly sophisticated robotics'') and ''family fun.''

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Entrepreneurs call it ''big bucks.'' Each of the roughly 500 such playland-restaurants averages about $1 million gross in a year.

Some parents call it ''plastic'' (as in, ''It's everything that's plastic and awful about America, all in one place''). And a young girl whose mother was dragged into one such place to do research for this article calls it ''totally wonderful.''

A combination of Coney Island and pizza parlor, the concept of a family-pizza-video-arcade hit Nolan Bushnell (founder of Atari and father of five children) as a way to get the young-parents crowd interested in his video games. In 1977 he started Chuck E. Cheese's Pizza Time Theatre, an operation that has grown to nearly 270 company-owned and franchised units, grossing close to $150 million for the company alone last year.

Mr. Bushnell reasoned that a combination pizza parlor/arcade would attract that generation, ''since most people are used to waiting 15 or 20 minutes for their pizza and might be interested in spending that time playing games.''

He was also trying to find a way to avoid the stigma of an arcade in communities that, increasingly, write zoning laws against them. At Chuck E. Cheese, no child under 18 is allowed in without an adult - a fact that does much to eliminate the teen-hangout atmosphere of an arcade.

Here's how pizza-playgrounds work: On entering, you step to a counter and pick from a menu of pizza, hamburgers, chili dogs, beverages, and other items. Part of the price of any food item includes ''free'' metal tokens designed to go into the video games, skee ball alleys, or kiddie rides. Strategically placed machines throughout the playground also gobble up dollars and turn them into tokens (''Just one more, Mom, please!'').

While you wait for your food, you're free to wander through the playground, typically located in a converted store. It might include two or three eating areas (some with TV screens, others with robot shows), an arcade area, a place for rides for small children, and a ''store'' where patrons can spend unused tokens on everything from plastic figures to T-shirts. Costumed characters - like the fuzzy gray rat called Chuck E. Cheese - wander throughout, Disneyland-fashion, shaking hands with children, while some employees do magic tricks periodically.

How's the pizza? Showbiz says theirs is ''excellent - we were in the restaurant business before, so we started with a quality product.'' But a Chuck E. Cheese spokesman calls theirs ''improved,'' saying that they've market-tested a number of recipes and are trying for a more uniform product. Ask a child or two how it is, and they probably won't tell you - they're too busy dropping tokens into slots to eat. From the looks of many pizza-strewn, empty-looking tables, the answer of most children is the same: They didn't come here for the food.

What they seem to be coming for is birthday parties - ''a very important element in our marketing strategy,'' says the Showbiz spokesman. Many people, in fact, see these as places ''where you go for some event - birthdays, parties, holidays,'' says the Chuck E. Cheese spokesman.

The playland restaurateurs are out to change some of that, they say, by luring the people they originally set out to serve - baby-boom parents. ''We've heard complaints about the noise,'' admits the spokesman, ''and are trying to do things to tone it down. And we're designing the shows to incorporate more music of the '60s and '70s.''

They're also expanding at a time when the pizza-playground business seems to be on shaky ground, going into Puerto Rico, Hong Kong, China, and around the United States. In fact, if you have a good financial record or a fast-food background, you may be able to get in on this franchise expansion - for only $20 ,000 up front, plus the money to fill your funland ($500,000 to $1 million, depending on the space).

Showbiz, which says the market is shaky because it's ''oversaturated,'' also has some franchises for sale. But they're concentrating on shoring up the restaurants they already have and introducing a new area called ''Showspan,'' an admission-charge room showing short, adventure-packed films and selling popcorn and soft drinks. ''We'll be able to turn (customers) out every 30 minutes with this thing,'' a Showbiz spokesman says with obvious glee.

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