The food-and-fun strategy that Pizza Time Theatre Inc. pioneered still has a following in the restaurant business, even though Pizza Time itself filed for Chapter 11 last spring. Two other national chains -- Bullwinkle's Inc. and ShowBiz Pizza Place Inc. -- are still growing fast by serving up the chow with hefty side-orders of electronic entertainment.
The founders of both chains claim that they have found the recipe for success that eluded Pizza Time -- although they are taking entirely different tacks.
Bullwinkle's Family Food 'n' Fun, a two-year-old franchised restaurant based in Santa Clara, Calif., features performing robots in the form of characters from "Rocky and His Friends," the television cartoon show of the 1960s that starred Bullwinkle and Rocky, plus an electronic game room for video fans. But president David L. Brown emphasizes food over entertainment as the attraction that keeps his customers coming back.
"Pizza Time narrowed the market by appealing mostly to kids, plus they served bad food. But our company's founders have come from the restaurant business," says Brown, whose eateries offer a varied menu that includes hot sandwiches, chicken dinners, and deep-dish pizza to appeal to adult palates. "We feel this is a restaurant first, not a game room."
Robert L. Brock, founder and president of the four-year-old Irving, Tex.-based ShowBiz Pizza Place chain, has the opposite opinion. Brock feels that Pizza Time failed because the entertainment was dull. The menu, says Brock, is a secondary consideration in his fun-house restaurants.
"ShowBiz is an indoor neighborhood amusement park," says Brock. "The concept is entertainment-driven. That's what gets people here -- not the pizza." The 200 ShowBiz centers have video arcades and electronic game rooms, and the company is testing small movie theaters in four outlets around the country. Brock is so enthusiastic about the success of the restaurant-entertainment concept that he started negotiating with Pizza Time management to buy some of its more profitable stores, pending court approval.
In the meantime, another corporation is elbowing its way into the electronic eatery scene. Warner Leisure Inc., a division of Warner Communications Inc., which bought Atari Inc. from Pizza Time founder Nolan Bushnell back in 1976, has opened a string of food-and-entertainment restaurants, called Gadgets, that also feature robot performers -- most of which are in the form of Looneytunes cartoon characters instead of a giant moose or a flying squirrel.