Thursday, May 23, 2024

Why the future of eatertainment is in proprietary technology

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There have been many iterations of eatertainment over the years. It began with stalwart chains like Chuck E. Cheese and Dave & Buster’s, places to play arcade games and win tokens that would lead to prizes.

Over the past 10 years, that idea has been flipped. Eatertainment had moved onto larger-scale games like bowling and pool. Chains like Punch Bowl Social, founded in 2012, were also focused on offering upscale food and drink in a hipper environment.

Following the struggles of Punch Bowl Social, which filed for bankruptcy in December 2020, a new class of eatertainment venues have arrived. For the most part, they are concepts based on sports ranging from golf to pickleball to bowling. They’re just as focused on elevated food and drink offerings as their predecessors, but the concepts focus on just one or two larger-scale games rather than several.

With the focus on just one game, these eatertainment concepts have been able to drill into what makes each brand special. For most of them, it’s technology that elevates gameplay.

Check out our Eatertainment Showdown for more on many of these brands:

Be sure to vote for our two finalists on LinkedIn and Instagram!

At Puttshack, the technology began with the simple question — how can scoring in mini golf be automated?

The founders, twin brothers and Topgolf founders Steven and Dave Jolliffe, and Flight Club co-founder Adam Breeden had a long history in eatertainment using technology already, but they wanted to take mini golf to the next level.

The technology at Topgolf that the brothers developed uses embedded chips that automatically record and tabulate different game metrics. It uses radio waves to identify and find objects, then connects to the internet through a tag and chip system.

This allows customers to find out how close to the target they hit their golf ball.

Dallas-based Topgolf differs from Puttshack in that it’s a singular game more reminiscent of a batting cage than a game to participate with friends.

The game at Puttshack is meant to include everyone and enhance the game of mini golf. The company’s website says it takes “the fun, the accessibility, the trash talking,” of mini golf and powers it with seamless, modern technology.

“I think within the social entertainment space, part of the key to success is creating a game,” Puttshack CEO Joe Vrankin said. “It’s fun and compelling.”

Vrankin, another Topgolf alum, joined the company in early 2019. It received a $150 million investment from BlackRock in 2022.

The technology at Puttshack is called “Trackaball technology,” and is patented by the Chicago-based casual-dining concept.

“We own the ability to essentially be the only place that you can have automatic scoring and miniature golf,” Vrankin said. “And we’ll have that for a long time because we’re really a technology-based company.”

The golf balls are embedded with what is essentially a mini iPad, allowing the technology to track the ball throughout the course and keep score, rather than players using the traditional pencil and paper.

Changes to the technology are constant and can be done without altering the current holes at the chain’s 14 locations and eight upcoming units.

“Our tech department is the largest department we have because we’re continuously creating new holes for the traditional Puttshack game,” he said.

Another golf concept, Five Iron Golf, is also using tracking technology to tell its guest more about their swing.

Much like Topgolf, Five Iron Golf is a long-range golf-based concept. However, it began in New York City, a place not exactly known for its abundance of space.

Five Iron Golf uses simulators for its game. Golf balls are hit a short distance into the simulator and the technology tracks everything.

“If you’re a serious golfer or single digit handicapper who wants to utilize the best track commercial simulator that’s out there, [go to Five Iron Golf],” said Josh Frankel, national director of franchising at Five Iron Golf.

The brand’s tracking technology is called TrackMan and is a box located at the base of the swing area.

It tracks:

  • Face angle ­ — the direction the club face is pointed at impact;
  • Club path — the direction the club head is moving (left or right) at impact;
  • Attack angle — the direction the club head is moving (up or down) at impact;
  • Dynamic loft — the amount of loft face on the club at impact,
  • Club speed —a golfer’s potential distance;
  • Ball speed;
  • Carry — the distance the ball travels through the air;
  • Spin rate — the amount of spin on the ball, and smash factor, which is the ball speed divided by the club speed; and
  • Launch angle — the angle at which the ball takes off relative to the ground.

In March of this year, 24-unit Five Iron Golf received a $20 million investment from Danny Meyer’s Enlightened Hospitality investment fund. Meyer and Enlightened Hospitality co-founder/managing partner Peter Mavrovitis also joined Five Iron Golf’s board of directors. It’s the investment fund’s first foray into sports.

“This investment is a testament to our belief in Five Iron’s vision and commitment to opening the world of golf both to enthusiasts and avid amateurs who want to practice their inner love for golf without having to visit the links,” said Meyer in a statement at the time.

Moving away from golf is London-based Flight Club. While the name sounds like it could be about golf, this concept focuses on darts.

Much like the traditional game, guests are invited to play a game of darts, but these are technology-enabled and safer to play while drinking.

Called Social Darts, a patented phrase, Flight Club uses its technology to broaden the number of people who can play a single game of darts and turn it into a group activity.

Up to 20 people can play one game. There’s also instant scoring, much like Puttshack.

“[Players] wouldn’t watch on the screen, the score,” said Toby Harris, CEO of State of Play Hospitality which is Fight Club’s operator under license in North America. “It’s got a very healthy and fun way of becoming competitive.”

The company is very quiet on the technology itself and did not speak about it during the interview with Nation’s Restaurant News.

Co-founder Steve Moore touted the company’s 89% Net Promoter Score in 2019, a market research metric that measures customer loyalty and satisfaction by asking customers how likely they are to recommend a company’s product or service to others on a scale of 0–10.

“The gameplay itself with the technology means that people want to keep playing,” he said.

Electric Shuffle is another concept developed by the team behind Flight Club. It’s centered around shuffleboard. Its first U.S. location is set to open in New York City this year.

It has high-tech tables that utilize camera-vision technology to track and score every puck. And bonus? It also takes selfies of guests while they play the game.

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