Chuck E. Cheese’s is updating its mascot in an effort to reach a new generation of people who love pizza, video games, and the combination of the two. As a parent whose children have attended many functions at Chuck E. Cheese’s restaurants, I wish them the best of success in their new branding efforts. As a video game historian I can’t resist thinking about the origins of the chain.
As many video game fans know, Nolan Bushnell, who founded Atari, also founded Chuck E. Cheese’s. He opened the first Chuck E. Cheese’s Pizza Time Theatre in San Jose in 1977, a year after selling Atari to Warner Brothers. Bushnell still worked at Atari, but he was an inveterate entrepreneur who constantly churned out new ideas, and he came up with the notion of creating a restaurant chain that sold pizza and entertained customers with animatronic displays, video games, and redemption games while they waited for their meals. Bushnell had begun his working career in the carnival business, and he knew customers loved the combination of fun, food, and family!
Atari always needed new outlets for its booming arcade business, so a restaurant where guests could play games like Pong and Breakout extended the company’s business. The establishment also helped the image of the arcade game. Traditionally, many people in the 1970s were suspicious of games because they were often located in bars, pool halls, or rundown arcades. By creating a family-friendly atmosphere, Bushnell helped legitimize the arcade games that populated Chuck E. Cheese’s restaurants.
Bushnell left Atari in 1978, began franchising Chuck E. Cheese’s, and ran the chain until 1984. Customers flocked to play games like Asteroids and Space Invaders, but when the arcade business crashed, the restaurant company suffered too and filed for bankruptcy. Eventually it reemerged from Chapter 11, however, and has continued to entertain children and families for decades since.
See old images and videos of Chuck E. Cheese’s restaurants here. Or share your own memories here!
By Jon-Paul Dyson, Director, International Center for the History of Electronic Games and Vice President for Exhibits