CEC Entertainment is finding the right blend of quality food and fun experiences at its Chuck E. Cheese's and Peter Piper Pizza locations to appeal to kids and adults, too.
By Eric Slack
For nearly four decades, Chuck E. Cheese’s has been a nationally recognized leader in family dining and entertainment. Founded in 1977 and operating under the CEC Entertainment, Inc. corporate moniker since 1998, the company has grown to include more than 580 Chuck E. Cheese's stores located in 47 states and 10 foreign countries or territories.
Chuck E. Cheese’s has been able to build and maintain ties with generations of families. Indeed, adults today still identify with the iconic characters that help the brand reach modern kids.
“Chuck E. Cheese and the other characters are a central part of the brand,” Senior Director of Culinary Innovation Gregory Casale says. “The entertainment and games enthrall our guests. They are part of what compels the adults to bring the kids, but our current leadership is now focused on enhancing the experience for adults, too.”
From a corporate perspective, CEC Entertainment has been evolving in the last few years. Apollo Global Management, a leading global alternative investment manager, acquired CEC Entertainment in early 2014. President and CEO Michael Magusiak retired from the company in 2014 after nearly 27 years with the company, and Tom Leverton was named CEO shortly thereafter.
Although CEC Entertainment is protecting the fundamental elements that have always made Chuck E. Cheese’s stand out, the company wants to do more than provide a great experience for just children. By placing a focus on the adult guest from a culinary perspective, the company has been able to develop menu options that appeal to all ages.
“We want items on the menu that are approachable for kids but that adults can also see as something for themselves,” Casale says. “The menu must appeal to kids, but adults have to see a menu that has quality food options. Our guests come for a variety of events and celebrations, and we want the food to include healthier, quality options that will also appeal to adults from a flavor profile standpoint.”
Another part of the CEC Entertainment portfolio is Peter Piper Pizza, a mid-sized pizza and family entertainment chain. Acquired in 2014, Phoenix-based Peter Piper Pizza was founded in 1973 and has 139 locations in the Southwest and Mexico. The acquisition fit nicely alongside CEC’s strategy to accelerate Chuck E. Cheese's growth nationally and globally, while also allowing it to build on its commitment to provide enhanced customer experiences to children and families.
The Peter Piper Pizza acquisition is also what brought Casale to CEC Entertainment. Casale is a graduate of Syracuse University and The Culinary Institute of America. His professional history includes time with the nationally acclaimed River Cafe in New York City, the Scottsdale Princess Resort and his own Gregory's World Bistro. Casale positioned Gregory's World Bistro as one of America's Best Restaurants according to Zagat, and he was a three-time semifinalist for the James Beard Award for the Best Chef of the Southwest. Inducted into the Arizona Culinary Hall of Fame in 2005, his career moved to the Royal Palms Resort and Spa in Phoenix and Paradise Bakery and Café before joining Peter Piper Pizza in 2011.
CEC Entertainment plans to maintain the Peter Piper Pizza brand and expand it nationally. Its entertainment centers average 10,000 square feet and feature flat screen televisions, interactive games, pizza, free Wi-Fi, and beer and wine for adults. Casale has brought his culinary style to Peter Piper Pizza for years, and now he has the chance to introduce that innovative food focus to Chuck E. Cheese’s as well.
CEC Entertainment has been working on culinary initiatives for each brand. “We have to approach the two concepts in a compartmentalized fashion, and we are not merging product between the two, so the concepts retain their uniqueness,” Casale says. “There are synergistic products like fresh produce, but they have different cheeses, sauces and pepperonis, for example. We may use similar vendors but we want different flavor profiles.”
The company announced several reinventions of the Chuck E. Cheese’s menu earlier this year to provide more dining options for grown-up tastes. New signature pizzas in the lineup included the Cali Alfredo and BBQ chicken pizza, as well as alternatives to pizza such as Caesar and club whole-wheat wraps, BBQ chicken ciabatta sandwich, BBQ and sweet chili boneless and bone-in chicken wings, soft parmesan breadsticks, buffalo chicken cheesy bread and dessert churros.
Other menu initiatives have focused on the creation of limited-time offers (LTOs), such as a macaroni and cheese pizza at Chuck E. Cheese’s. Pretzel Dippers, taco pizza and spaghetti and meatball pizza are other LTOs under development.
“Our focus has been on developing more on-trend items that are fun and will appeal to the guests,” Casale says. “We are looking to be whimsical while having an emphasis on better ingredients.”
Chuck E. Cheese’s initiatives include a Salad 2.0 project that will be tested in Dallas and include a wider variety of vegetables and a new look to the salad bar. “The idea is to do even better with what we are already doing while improving choices and enhancing quality,” Casale says.
The way the company approaches the food component at Peter Piper Pizza can be more complex. “Peter Piper Pizza’s food quality is already part of its identity,” Casale says. “Our choices with LTOs there are on specialty flavor profiles expanding beyond original offerings.”
Strong ties with vendors are a critical part of ensuring access to top-quality ingredients. CEC Entertainment looks for quality and consistency from vendors. “Our restaurants need items when they expect them to be there,” Casale says. “We utilize Q&A metrics in our purchasing department, and GMs let us know right away if there are any problems. I work very closely with our purchasing department to make sure we know all of our sourcing options.”
Making sure food quality is a defining characteristic of its brands will be an ongoing effort for CEC Entertainment. The organization expects its LTO programs will be a great way to stay on trend and illustrate its quality commitments to guests, while also giving the company’s marketing department some ammunition. In the end, the company’s menu initiatives will allow CEC Entertainment’s brands to consistently position themselves in line with what they stand for from a culinary perspective.
“With Chuck E. Cheese’s, we are keeping our efforts connected to fun and great food, while Peter Piper Pizza will continue to enhance its innovative menu options,” Casale says. “We must be able to maintain brand differentiation in the culinary aspects of our operations. At all locations, we are making sure we provide the best possible food and fun environments, always innovating without necessarily having to constantly change the menu.”