The video screens dimmed and the kiddie rides slowed for a time at area Chuck E. Cheese restaurants, but they're now running again at some outlets in Virginia and Maryland.
Both Family Entertainment Centers Ltd., which once managed 16 local Chuck E. Cheese restaurants, and Pizza Time Theater Inc., the chain's California-based parent company, have reorganized under bankruptcy proceedings, enabling seven area Chuck E. Cheese restaurants to carry on the tradition of robot puppets, electronic games and family-oriented entertainment.
Family Entertainment Centers stills runs what it considers three of its most profitable stores -- in Bailey's Crossroads, Hampton and Norfolk -- although Jeff Newman, vice president of the company, said they will be sold as soon as a suitable buyer can be found. Four other stores have been sold; the remaining nine have been closed. "We don't have enough money long-term to make the proper changes," said Newman, who added that the entertainments must be upgraded constantly to entice young patrons.
The New Carrollton store has reopened as the country's first Showbiz/Chuck E. Cheese Pizza Time Theater under the management of Kansas-based McBiz Corp., which manages 19 Chuck E. Cheese restaurants nationwide. McBiz has expanded the menu, brought in a new pizza recipe and serves beer for those adults not entranced by 6-foot-tall dancing puppet animals.
Richard O. Pogress, a Montgomery County resident, purchased the Gaithersburg and Briggs Chaney restaurants. Bill Adams, formerly a general manager with Family Entertainment Centers, bought the Alexandria outlet.
"I have a lot of plans, but the basic concept will be the same," Pogress said, adding that the restaurants are mostly geared toward children. He also plans to change the focus of the games from electronic to those requiring more skill, such as basketball toss and miniature golf. "I feel there's a strong need for a family to have a place to go and have fun together," added Pogress, whose said his three children always have liked the restaurant.
Family Entertainment opened its first three stores in 1981, 10 more in 1982, three more in 1983, and then declared bankruptcy last year. "We did grow too fast," Newman admitted. "We failed to take into account the 'honeymoon curve.' When we settled down, our true level of sales was below the break-even point."
Newman blamed poor planning for many of his franchise's financial problems, saying some of the outlets were in weak locations and were too large. Costs of starting up were high as well -- up to $900,000 per franchise, he said.
In their heyday, Chuck E. Cheese stores could take in $1.5 million a year in sales, 10 percent of it pretax profit, according to Newman. But sales fell off as more Chuck E. Cheeses were built, the concept lost some of its freshness and the restaurants found themselves playing a cat-and-mouse game with customer attendance. Eventually, Newman said, sales at the Family Entertainment stores were cut at least in half.
After going bankrupt in March 1984, the parent company was bought by Texas-based Brock Hotel Corp., which created the new company, Showbiz/Pizza Time Theater Inc. There are now 350 restaurants with family entertainment and pizza since the Chuck E. Cheese restaurants merged with ShowBiz Pizza, a similar restaurant chain.
Newman said many people mistakenly think Mouse Chuck E. Cheese and his friends Jasper T. Jowls and Pasqually are gone for good. But "The strongest ones in the country are left," he added, "and if ShowBiz can continue to provide the services and the direction that this concept needs, then it's going to be a very exciting time again."