Imagine morphing your restaurant beyond a meal stop into a hub for experiences, memory building and life sharing. Nail these elements and you can help transform your venue into a go-to hotspot that keeps customers coming back for more.
Experience-forward dining operators have long held an industry niche. The 1970s brought Chuck E. Cheese followed by Dave & Buster’s in the 1980s—both with dinging and flashing-light kid attractions.
More quietly, Starbucks brought the hangout culture to adults with its “third place” branding. “The Third Place has never been defined solely by a physical space, it’s also the feeling of warmth, connection and a sense of belonging,” according to its website.1
Since COVID-19 lockdowns, the need for a third place between home and work has never been stronger, especially since home and work often happen in the same space. Only 35% of people are going into an office or job 100% of the time post-pandemic, according to Datassential.2
Here are some ways restaurant concepts are combining entertainment and interactivity with engaging menus.
Elevated sports dining
Several eatertainment chains are popping up in the wake of the pandemic, including Chicken N Pickle, a concept that combines the popular sport of pickleball with a menu featuring chicken, barbecue and sides with a full bar.3
While Chicken N Pickle locations offer other forms of fun, including bocce ball, cornhole, jump-ropes and more, pickleball is the centerpiece—along with a menu that focuses on high-quality ingredients.
“We proudly source from local farmers, ranchers and artisans to bring our customers the freshest, most flavorful, additive-free food possible,” said Alex Staab, Chicken N Pickle’s director of culinary, in a statement to Nation’s Restaurant News.3
Bring it tableside
From craft guacamole to freshly cracked pepper, there are many ways you can enrich your guests’ dining experience with a touch of tableside theatrics. At Miss River in New Orleans, for example, chef Alon Shaya serves a tableside whole buttermilk fried chicken that inspires many diners to take selfies. The buttermilk brined chicken is seasoned with Creole-inspired spices, fried whole, then carved tableside and served with a trio of dipping sauces.4
Or simplify and innovate by displaying a table tent with a QR code that when scanned leads to a chef’s demonstration, akin to a cooking show, detailing the preparation of a signature dish or daily special.
Seated spectator entertainment is one of the things that sets the Joe’s Crab Shack chain apart in a rowdy spectacle like no other. Every 15 to 30 minutes in this casual and spirited restaurant, the wait staff momentarily trades work for dance moves to the lively music.5
The physical table itself can foster an experience. Communal tables can encourage conversations and new acquaintances. Round tables allow everyone to be seen and heard in conversation. Smaller tables with outlets encourage workspace, which especially appeals to Gen Z. Forty-one percent of Gen Zers say they want more places to work or study at restaurants, according to Datassential.2
With greater interactivity comes greater benefit. The more time guests spend on-premises, the more money they likely will spend on food and drink, according to eatertainment veteran Robert Thompson, CEO of Angevin & Co.6
“I’m still just developing restaurant and bar concepts and using entertainment as a mouse trap,” Thompson said. “If you don’t lean into the food and beverage piece, don’t expect to expand your average unit volumes. You can make 50% profit on $2 million with the activations, or 23% on $7.5 million. I’ll take the latter, and that’s what we get by leaning into the menu.”6
Consider holding periodic events from chef tastings to speed dating to dinner and a movie projected on the wall. These are easier to facilitate if you have private rooms. The basement of Old Town Pour House in Chicago is branded The Game Room. Besides regularly hosting private events, the operation hosts Trivia Night every Tuesday with trivia themes listed online.7
Your outdoor space also provides a host of opportunities. For example, Sonic’s newer drive-thrus include covered outdoor patios and lawn games.8
Table games might be just the way to draw more of Gen Z. Twenty-seven percent of this younger generation who were asked what they would like to see more at restaurants in the future want more games and entertainment options at restaurants, according to Datassential.2 Board game cafes rise to the occasion, such as The Tabletop Tap in Englewood, Colorado, and The Rook & Pawn in Athens, Georgia.
Remember, shaping your venue as a sought-after “third place” hinges on crafting ambiance and experiences that captivate your target audience. Engaging customers in this manner can transition casual visitors into loyal patrons.
- Peiper Heidi, “Reimagining the Third Place: How Starbucks is evolving its store experience,” Starbucks Stories & News, Sept. 13, 2022, https://stories.starbucks.com/stories/2022/reimagining-the-third-place-how-starbucks-is-evolving-its-store-experience/
- Datassential “2023 Food Trends”
- Rugless, Ron, “Chicken N Pickle: Smashing its way into sports dining,” Nation’s Restaurant News, Mar. 21, 2023, https://www.nrn.com/regional-chains/chicken-n-pickle-smashing-its-way-sports-dining
- “Tableside Dining Is Making a Comeback, and Here Are 20 of the Best Experiences to Check Out,” Food Network, https://www.foodnetwork.com/restaurants/photos/tableside-dining-restaurants
- Maxwell, Samantha, “The Untold Truth of Joe’s Crab Shack,” Mashed, Nov. 11, 2021, https://www.mashed.com/633395/the-untold-truth-of-joes-crab-shack/
- Kelso, Alicia, “Eatertainment is ‘a little weird and playful’ — and ready to explode,” Nation’s Restaurant News, Jan. 18, 2023, https://www.nrn.com/casual-dining/eatertainment-little-weird-and-playful-and-ready-explode
- Klein, Danny, “Get a Glimpse of Sonic Drive-In’s New Restaurant Design,” QSR Magazine, July 2020, https://www.qsrmagazine.com/fast-food/get-glimpse-sonic-drive-ins-new-restaurant-design