Restaurant Experience

Five Strategies for Creating a Successful Experiential Entertainment Concept

Welcome to the Experience Economy

The experience economy has arrived and Millenials are in the driver’s seat. 

According to a recent Harris Poll survey, over seventy-five percent of Millennials would rather purchase an experience than a fungible good. With Millenials making up two-thirds of the working population in the U.S., their thirst for experiences is a trend restaurants cannot afford to ignore. 

So, what exactly is an “experience” and how can you sell it? In the groundbreaking 1998 article that predicted the rise of the experience economy, B. Joseph Pine II and James H. Gilmore defined an experience as “when a company intentionally uses services as the stage, and goods as props, to engage individual customers in a way that creates a memorable event.” In other words, instead of selling a physical commodity, experience providers sell the personal, intangible, and memorable. 

The restaurant industry is at a distinct advantage in this new “experience economy” because customers have always expected restaurants to provide personalized experiences, not fungible goods. Restaurant entertainment concepts are simply the logical conclusion of the customer experience initiatives that great restaurants have been capitalizing on for decades. 

However, crafting successful, sustainable, and profitable entertainment concepts still requires restaurateurs to take a step out of their comfort zone. They need to think not only like great operators, but also like experience designers. Here are five strategies for how to to do that: 

Flight Club, Chicago, IL
Flight Club, Chicago, IL
1.Take Advantage of Your Context

Restaurateurs have long understood that location is key to their success. The best restaurants are easy to access. They’re close to foot traffic, public transportation, or parking. They are also highly visible to their target population and have great curb appeal. There are other retail locations and restaurants around them, but none or few occupying the exact same niche as the restaurant. 

Experience designers take the importance of location to the next level. As Ripon DeLeon, Senior Manager of Physical Experience Design at Capital One, said, “people interpret the world based on their context, a physical experience is no different. It’s important to take into account the spaces and environments that bookend an experience. What you perceive immediately before or after affects how you view that experience.” For example, If your customers step directly from a crowded parking lot into your restaurant, they may bring the frustration of finding a parking space with them. 

Brooklyn Grange in New York City is an entertainment concept  that has capitalized on the stark contrast between the restaurant and its environment. “Brooklyn Grange is a rooftop farm, so it provides a truly unique opportunity for city dwellers to dine amongst the plants that bore the ingredients on their plates without leaving their hometown,” related co-founder Anastasia Cole Plakias. “Being nestled amongst rows of organically-raised vegetables with sweeping skyline views just beyond sets a mind-expanding tone for a meal, which I think really allows us to push the envelope in terms of how our community thinks about the food they are eating.”

Social Entertainment Ventures similarly recognizes the power of place. The company has transplanted two experiential entertainment concepts, Flight Club and Bounce, from the UK to the US, a process that entailed paying close attention to context. Flight Club is a social dining experience built around a darts game, while Bounce is centered on ping pong. “We wanted to keep the DNA of the brands consistent, but we needed to reconceptualize aspects of the experience for US markets,” stated Alan Cichon, President of US Operations Bounce & Flight Club. “Before entering the US market, we conducted competitive surveys, checked out what the local market was doing, and hired local operators. We used that information to customize our venues to the locality. From a design perspective, we’ve had to create more space in our Chicago venue than our UK ones, which are a bit more intimate. Additionally, the level of service expectations in the US are exponentially higher, so we had to adjust our procedures to accommodate American expectations. For food and beverage, we locally sourced spirits and created locally inspired recipes to make our venue feel native to Chicago.”

ZAOU, New York, NY
ZAOU, New York, NY
  1. Theme Your Experience

Restaurateurs know a clear decor concept is a key driver for customer satisfaction. Afterall, you don’t want diners to feel like they’re on the Amalfi Coast if they’re eating Chinese food. However, experience designers turn up the intensity on decor. According to Pine and Gilmore, “the theme must drive all the design elements and staged events of the experience toward a unified story line that wholly captivates the customer.”

Zauo, a restaurant with thirteen locations in Japan and one in New York City, is built seamlessly around a Japanese fishing theme. Customers are ushered into the restaurant with a traditional Japanese greeting. Employees tutor customers on how to fish and then cheer them on, beating taiko drums as customers catch their own dinner. After posing for a triumphal photo, customers eat their catch while sitting in a recreation of a Japanese fishing boat. 

The Magic Castle in Los Angeles, the exclusive private club of the Academy of Magical Arts, has similarly embraced their theme in every facet of their experience. “We consider every aspect of our guests’ evening equally important from being greeted upon their arrival at valet until their departure,” stated Joe Furlow, General Manager of the Academy of Magical Arts and The Magic Castle. “We are globally renowned for world-class magic and for the Edwardian mansion in historic Hollywood that houses our 26,000-square-foot private club, which features an abundance of historical, architectural finds rescued from Los Angeles mansions/studio sets.” 

Ace Bounce, Chicago, IL
Ace Bounce, Chicago, IL
  1. Create Community

A study by Harris Poll found that sixty-nine percent of Millenials believe experiences help them “connect better with their friends, their community and people around the world.” Therefore, If an experiential dining concept is going to be successful, it needs to facilitate community building. As DeLeon stated, “a sense of community is the most unique and powerful attribute of a physical experience, especially when compared to web and mobile apps. Every physical experience I’ve appreciated was in large part due to the people I shared it with. The power of a physical experience lies in its ability to instantaneously create community through their shared experiences.”

Alan Cichon knows that community building has been key to Bounce and Flight Club’s success. “What we’re really getting people to do is reconnect in a social way, away from cell phones,” he divulged. “Because there’s an activity involved, people don’t have those awkward moments when their first reaction is to look at their phone. It helps people find a place where they can connect and socialize. Everything from the way we’ve constructed the oches and seating arrangements to the way we bring the food out to the décor on the walls creates a homey feeling. The cocktails are fun, the food is fun, the activity is fun, and groups are each in a semi-private area. Socializing comes naturally because of the space we’ve created.”

Abigail Hitchcock, Chef and Owner of Abigail’s Kitchen in New York City, similarly views socializing as the secret sauce that makes her experience successful. Abigail’s Kitchen hosts Dinners in the Dark, where diners eat a secret prix fixe menu wearing blindfolds. Hitchcock related, “your other senses become heightened with lack of distraction from sight, and you have the opportunity to engage with the person or people you come with on an entirely new level.” While the experience of eating in the dark draws customers, it’s community that hooks them. 

Foreign Cinema, San Francisco, California
Foreign Cinema, San Francisco, California
  1. Engage All the Senses

Restaurateurs know that eating is always a multisensory experience. Before we’ve even taken a bite of our food, we judge how good it will taste based solely on how it looks. If you’ve ever tried holding your nose when you eat, you know that smell is an integral part of taste. Experience designers extend this principle of engaging the senses to every aspect of the restaurant

The experiential entertainment concept Foreign Cinema, which celebrated its 20th year in San Francisco’s Mission District, is so successful because it thoroughly engages all the senses. Housed in a historic cinema, Foreign Cinema screens movies, hosts art shows, and provides award winning food. Co-owner and co-chef Gayle Pirie describes the restaurant as “a sensual, vibrant program of sounds, smells, sights, and elements working together to transport the guest into another realm.” When guests arrive at Foreign Cinema, they “are drawn in by the glowing courtyard, the interior hearth, and the smell of wood burning,” where they experience, “the analogue flicker of vintage cinema across a large wall, of 35 millimeter film, a canopy of lights, the smell of fresh garlic and steaming calamari plancha from the oven, a wine list to satisfy all, and craft cocktails to match the globally-inspired food, and the vibe that just feels good to be there.” Foreign Cinema’s attention to all the senses allows it “to offer an environment and experience that goes beyond the tangible and into the metaphysical,” making the restaurant “irresistible.”

The extremely popular three michelin star restaurant Ultraviolet in Shanghai similarly engages all the senses, using “multi-sensorial technologies to create a fully immersive dining experience.” According to Monica Luo, Ultraviolet’s Director of Communications, the restaurant engages customer’s sense of smell through a “unique dry-scent diffusion system” that pumps different scents into the space, their hearing through “background multichannel sound and directional speakers,” their sight through 7 projectors that create a complete visual environment, their touch through a turbine that changes the air flow, and, of course, taste through high-quality food. 

  1. Great Food

Restaurateurs may think that great food is a consideration unique to dining experiences, but Eventbrite found that 77% of people say food is important when attending any kind of public event. Therefore, while experience designers understand the importance of including great food in their experiences, Restaurateurs are even better positioned to tailor tasty menus and profit. 

When Cichon was bringing Bounce and Flight Club to the US, one of the first people he brought onto his team was all star chef Rick Gresh. As Cichon related, “Rick Gresh is the director of culinary for all our concepts. His input has been critical for us because it has given us real credibility as a food and beverage operator. With most experiential entertainment concept, the food and beverage is an afterthought to the activity. Our food and beverage program stands out and that’s one of the key things that makes us successful.” 

Hitchcock of Abigail’s Kitchen similarly emphasizes the importance of great food. As a chef, Hitchcock knows, “food quality and taste are paramount for any meal. Hands down. End of story. It doesn’t need to be fancy or complicated, just good.”

The Future of Entertainment Concepts

Every day 10,000 Baby Boomers retire, making Millenials an increasingly important market and establishing entertainment concepts as a future norm for restaurants. In fact, experiential concepts have already been identified as one of the top restaurant trends of 2020 by FHA-Food & Beverage, Food Service Equipment Journal, Insider, Finances Online, and more. 

However, there are diverse visions for the future of entertainment concepts. Suz Mountfort, Director & Co-Founder at Gingerline, the pioneers of London’s immersive dining scene, believes two strands of entertainment concepts will emerge, “with one type veering more toward the mainstream and integrating offerings alongside existing theatrical content. The other will continue to push the boundaries and seek out new ways the dining experience can be enhanced, using technology, sensory manipulation techniques. It will be interesting to see where both areas end up.” 

Cichon also believes that experiential entertainment concepts will evolve because of changing technology. “Experiential dining is really just in its second phase of evolution,” he stated. “The next evolution will come with next level technology that will allow us to enhance the guest experience as well as allow us to provide a deeper connection to people across all of our locations.”

Whatever the future holds for experiential entertainment concepts, it will definitely remain a key trend in the future of dining. 

Restaurant Experience
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