Digital Dining


Customers at uWink can order their food and play video games on terminals at their table.

With touchscreen terminals at each table that allow patrons to play games, order food and pay at the table, uWink is one-third food and two-thirds fun and digital technology. The mastermind behind the concept is Nolan Bushnell, who, as the founder of Atari Corp. and Chuck E. Cheese, knows a thing or two about gaming and entertainment dining experiences.

“I wanted to create a place where people would get together to dine, and also enjoy each other’s company by playing fun games, with all of it facilitated by technology,” explained Bushnell, CEO, uWink, Los Angeles, which has three locations in California. “I think of uWink as the next big wave in social-game play.”

Similar to the way board games once brought families and friends around the table, Bushnell has the same hopes for uWink.

“When they first started out, video games were all about the group dynamic,” said the creator of PONG, the first computerized video game. “But, starting back in the ’80s, things got away from that and the games became complex, isolating, long-form, and more violent.”

Bushnell wants to put the social back into game-playing with uWink. The linchpin of the concept is a digital-content operating/display system and real-time, multi-player game platform that allows easy access to an array of content and custom applications. Patrons can pay at the table with a swipe of their credit card and receive their receipts via e-mail.

Stylish and dramatically lit, uWink has the look of a hip, informal eatery, complete with a lively bar area. There are terminals at every table where guests can browse the menu (which ranges from burgers and pizza to more sophisticated fare), ordering food and bar drinks with the touch of a button. The average transaction is $16 per person. (Sales ran about $500 per square foot in 2007, according to the company.)

Instead of waiters, uWink has “runners” who deliver the orders to the tables.

“We have people who will take the order for customers who want to go that way, but nobody seems to want to,” Bushnell said.

Patrons can access a range of other content at the terminals, including horoscopes, movie trailers and music videos. But it’s the gaming that attracts the most interest. Each terminal offers more than 40 short-form (approximately two to four minutes) games, ranging from “first date” games to “truth or dare” challenges, to a Pictionary-styled game. Diners can even play against other tables in a group trivia game.

“The restaurant is set up into areas that a large group can feel like it’s in its own private space,” Bushnell added. “The walls are covered with video screens, and guests can bring in a CD with photos and other content which we will project onto the walls in the area. We also will create personalized trivia games.”

All of the games are proprietary to uWink (the software and hardware was developed by the company). None are violent. Indeed, anyone looking for the equivalent of Grand Theft Auto would be sorely disappointed. Most of the games are designed to appeal to uWink’s target audience: women ages 21 to 35.

“It’s a misperception that women don’t like to play video games,” Bushnell said. “All you have to do is have the right type of games, and women are right there. In the early days of Atari, women played games as much as men. But as games became more violent over time, they lost the female demographic. Our games encourage and increase conservation so that going to uWink is a social experience. They don’t turn you into a game zombie.”

uWink debuted in fall 2006, in Westfield Promenade, Woodland Hills, Calif. After fine-tuning the prototype, the company opened its second location, a 7,300-sq.-ft. space in Hollywood & Highland Center, Hollywood, Calif., in July 2008. It’s a more jazzed up, high-tech version of the first, with digital wall projections that allow the restaurant to change its vibe instantly. The bar features multiscreen technology that brings the bar top to life, letting customers use their drink glasses and hands to conjure up images and “paint” the bar top.

Menu language translation capabilities are another recent addition. The uWink menu can be instantly translated into any one of a number of different languages, from Chinese to German. The interface for each language is the native flag of the country.

At presstime, uWink was due to open at a downtown location in Mountain View, Calif., in the heart of Silicon Valley.

Going forward, the company plans to expand uWink alone and also through franchising (a previously reported on franchise agreement to open units in Miami has been terminated).

“We are being opportunistic,” Bushnell said, “and we’re also open to converting existing restaurants to our concept. If you have an underperforming restaurant, call us.”

Interest in uWink has exploded since the company opened its high-profile Hollywood location, company VP Jon Boucher said, particularly on the franchisee front.

“We’re getting calls every day from potential franchisees from all over the world,” he added.

With a footprint from 7,000 sq. ft. to 10,000 sq. ft., the build-out costs are not that expensive, according to Bushnell. A big point of emphasis is that uWink avoids one of the most difficult components of restaurant operation: finding good wait staff.

“Our software/hardware solution has a six- to eight-month payback in labor savings,” he said, adding that the employee training costs associated with uWink are a fraction of what it would normally cost to open a similar-sized restaurant.

In addition to expanding uWink’s retail portfolio, Bushnell plans to sell its proprietary self-pay technology and digital entertainment delivery system to other restaurant operators. In the next five years, the company sees self-order/self-pay as the next big trend in casual dining.

“We see this type of entertainment restaurant growing in different places and in different ways, with uWink as the supplier,” Bushnell added.

Editor’s note: Stir Crazy, Pinkberry and Pollo Campero were among the recipients of the 2008 International Council of Shopping Centers (ICSC) “Hot Retailer” awards. 

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