Adjusting to the New Reality: Chuck E. Cheese in the COVID-19 Era

Photo: BroStocks Media.

I was doing my biweekly grocery pick up when I saw a rather striking site across the plaza, an empty Chuck E. Cheese’s parking lot with big writing on the windows: $5 PIZZA. It was in that tacky writing you see on the back of a midsize SUV or minivan that says “Just Married” or “Class of 2021” after graduation day.

I always loved Chuck E. Cheese’s pizza but always found it to be rather cost prohibitive. Plus, who really feels comfortable as a grown man going into Chuck E. Cheese with childless just to get the pizza? But now, in plain site, as the era of social distancing reigns all across the globe, Chuck E. Cheese’s business model is quite literally catering to people solely facing my previous dilemma.

According to the website Restaurant Meal Prices, the cost of a Chuck E. Cheese’s large cheese pizza is 12.99 plus 1.99 for toppings during normal times. Now, the cost is just $5 with a topping included. The combining forces of thrift, curiosity and nostalgia overtook me and I had to give it a try.

5 Buck Chuck

To be completely honest, I have been rather timid about even getting take out food in the COVID-19 era, mostly opting for grocery pick up. That said, it made this venture quite the occasion. I called in the order and noticed the person answering said “Thank you for calling…” to start their greeting, not uttering in any fashion the words “Chuck E. Cheese.” This was interesting in light of reading an article recently that noted Chuck E. Cheese had been operating on apps like Grubhub and Uber Eats under the name “Pasqually’s Pizza & Wings.”

It appears the strategy of selling pizza and wings isn’t just something Chuck E. Cheese is doing to stay afloat in a global pandemic, but something that was also already in the making. Here’s an interesting quote from the piece:

…A Chuck E. Cheese spokesperson told Food & Wine via email. “Pasqually’s Pizza & Wings, named after another favorite member of Munch’s Make Believe Band, shares kitchen space with the Chuck E. Cheese restaurant, ensuring high-quality, fresh ingredients. Pasqually’s Pizza & Wings’ recipes use fresh, homemade pizza dough, just like Chuck E. Cheese, but it is a different pizza that features a thicker crust and extra sauce, giving consumers a more flavorful, more premium pizza experience. While Pasqually’s Pizza & Wings recipes are currently only available for delivery, select items might be added to the Chuck E. Cheese menu in the future.”

Food and Wine, April 24, 2020.
The entrance to Chuck E. Cheese, photo: BroStocks.

Maybe that explains why the person answering the phone gave no name, maybe to some customers it is Pasqually’s, maybe to others it is Chuck E. Cheese. I was not too concerned with any name when I was able to order a large 2-topping pizza and mozzarella sticks for under $12.

I finally arrived wearing my required mask for entry. It was really interesting to see the whole store blocked off. There were tables full of what would in normal times be prize merchandise for exchange of the ticket currency, but instead they were for sale as merchandise priced by the dollar. These tables served as a barrier to keep customers away from what used to be the real Chuck E. Cheese experience. This Chuck E. Cheese now served the lone function of serving take out food–like a small shopping plaza’s Pizza Hut or Papa John’s.

No Mask No Entry, and note the ropes keeping the customer in a specific direction. Photo: BroStocks.

The site inside felt surreal, maybe partly because I had not been in a Chuck E. Cheese for years. Food often felt like an after thought on those childhood trips to Chuck E. Cheese. After all, the experience was centered around the entertainment of games and the singing mechanical animals. COVID-19 has forced many businesses to figure out how to adapt, and now Chuck E. Cheese was nothing more than a regular take-out pizzeria.

The plastic barrier, the roped off pathway and 6-feet distance markers were among the safety measures in place. Photo: BroStocks

I would not be surprised if they only had 1-2 employees maximum working there. Upon walking in, a bell goes off from the door and the employee then comes out to the front asking the name for your order. They tell you your total, you pay with your card, and they slide your pizza and any other food down a little metal chute off to the left of that plastic barrier in front of the register as pictured. I was almost certain the person who took my payment and handed me (and probably made) the pizza was the same person on the telephone.

This table full of prize toy merchandise now for sale served as a barrier to the Chuck E. Cheese of happier times. Photo: BroStocks

With that, I was out the door and off to give the pizza a try in the comfort of my own home. I will note the box was unbranded, which feeds into the whole concurrent Chuck E. Cheese/Pasqually’s narrative. Anyway, back to the pizza, I am not what one would call a “foodie” but I must say, it’s pretty damn good pizza. So much so, that I have ventured back twice. Another thing to note is that Chuck E. Cheese actually offers stuffed crust pizza which is hard to come by these days. For just a three dollars, you can upgrade their baseline $5 special to a stuffed crust. I tried it on my most recent trip and it was worth the upgrade. It’s definitely a more subtle stuffed crust experience unlike Pizza Hut where it is a mammoth amount of cheese, which isn’t a bad thing necessarily.

A fresh Chuck E. Cheese pizza. Photo: BroStocks

What about the foot traffic? The first time I went, I was the only customer there and I asked the person working there how business was going and she had indicated they’d been doing fine but her tone wasn’t super convincing. The second trip, there was one other customer waiting. My third trip, there were two other people waiting for food. In all instances, the other customers were adult men alone with no kids in sight. The phenomenon might be catching on?

The Abnormals of the “New Normal”

These are strange times. We are living in a world we couldn’t imagine just over two months ago. General Motors plants are producing ventilators. Some clothing retailers are dedicating operations to making cloth face masks. Major sports, when they eventually go on, will be played without fans. While we all long for the conveniences of the old times, there is something to be said for the intrigue and inspiration of seeing how people and companies learn to quickly adapt to the present. As we will tragically watch more inevitable bankruptcies and small businesses fold over the coming months, it might sadly, only be those who learn to adapt quickly that survive.

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