Chuck E. Cheese's, Silicon Valley Startup: The Origins of the Best Pizza Chain Ever

This great American franchise, and by extension, childhood itself, almost never existed.
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You may not know this, but Chuck E. Cheese's -- yes, the pizza place -- has its origins as firmly planted in the soil of Silicon Valley as Apple, HP, or Intel. In fact, it sprang from Nolan Bushnell's Atari like Athena to the videogame company's Zeus.

Which is to say two things: one, if you grew up in the 1980s, the same guy -- Bushnell -- is basically responsible for a good portion of your childhood longings; and two, WHAT! ARE YOU KIDDING ME?! THAT'S CRAZY.

This connection got me thinking wild thoughts. I got very excited about the hypothetical secret history of Chuck E. Cheese's. Perhaps Bushnell used an early computer to calculate precisely how to burrow Chuck E. Cheese's brand into the very soul of every 7-year-old in America! And did he imagine that the animatronic rat mascot and his friends were going to be the leading edge of a personality-infused robotic future? (iChuckECheese!)

I had to talk to Bushnell. Desperately. Finally someone would understand his vision for the animatronic revolution. Luckily, a colleague put us in touch, and we spoke yesterday. And he revealed the hilarious origins of Chuck E. Cheese's, the Silicon Valley pizza joint startup.

I'm just going to walk us through what he said, interjecting where appropriate.

"It was my pet project. I started it inside Atari. My objective was to vertically integrate the market. We were selling coin-operated games at about $1,500 or $2,000 a pop. In their life, they'd make $15 to 20k. It didn't take rocket science to say I'm on the wrong side of the equation," he told me. "I didn't want to compete with the people I was selling to, but the game operating business is all about securing locations. So the way to not compete with them was to secure my own locations. The original genesis was to create a big arcade with food as a support structure, almost as an ancillary service."

Why pizza? Good question.

"I chose pizza because of the wait time and the build schedule: very few components and not too many ways to screw it up. If the dough is good, the cheese is good, and the sauce is good, the pizza is good. I didn't have any preconceived idea that I knew how to run a restaurant, but I knew simple was better."

Who describes food in terms of a "build schedule"? I told you Chuck E. Cheese's was a Silicon Valley startup. Bushnell wanted the minimal viable restaurant platform on which to offer his game services.

But why did he need all the entertainment stuff?

"The reason for doing the animals, believe it or not, was not for the kids. It was meant to be a head fake for the parents. Kids are really smart at knowing how to play their parents. and the kids knew that if they said, 'I want to go to Chuck E. Cheese and play the games' the parents would just see themselves spending money. But if they said, 'I want to go see Chuck E. Cheese entertainment -- and it's free,' they'd be good to go," Bushnell said. "The other thing was that we wanted the parents to have something to amuse themselves while the kids were in the game room. If you listened to the dialogue, it was fun, edgy stuff, kinda like Toy Story, written as much for the parents as the kids."

Fair enough. 

But why choose giant singing robotic animals for your entertainment? 

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It seemed crazy to me, even as a kid. Turns out it was, roughly, chance. Several things Bushnell happened to see hybridized in his imagination into a monstrous and wonderful new pizza joint chimera. 

"The synthesis came along because there was a pizza parlor called Pizza and Pipes. It basically resurrected a Wurlitzer theater organ and the place was packed when they had an organist that actually played on the thing. And I thought, there is a demand for some kind of entertainment to go along with the pizza. But I'm not going to have something that heeds a player and I'm not going to do something that requires finding and restoring an antique. And some time as I was doing this, I went to Disneyland and went to the Tiki Room. It was Disney's animatronics. I said, 'That's pretty simple. I bet I can get my engineers to knock that out.'"

The synthesis, then, is entertainment pizza theater minus the humans. How about that for "labor efficiency"?

Assuming animatronic control, the real problem, Bushnell imagined, was getting characters that looked good. But that worked out happily.

"As the project got close to being green-lighted, I happened to be at a trade show in Orlando. The IAAPA. The International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions. There was a group there selling walkaround costumes."

What's a walkaround costume? It's the kind of enormous wearable costume that sports mascots and Sesame Street characters get into. Here are some from a recent IAAPA expo.

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Just your standard human-sized furry costumes (flickr/davecobb).

"The operating name for the project, the codename, was Coyote Pizza," he said. "And I saw this Coyote costume. I went over, gave them my credit card, and had them ship it to the restaurant. I knew my guys could make him talk. I didn't know if they could make anything that looked like a coyote. Now I had my coyote."

OR SO HE THOUGHT. DUN DUN DUN.

"I went to where they were working and said, 'How's the coyote coming?' And they said, 'What coyote? You sent us a rat costume. I said, 'I'll just change the name to Rick Rat's Pizza.'"

YES, Chuck E. Cheese, the most-famous rodent in American childhood branding not in the Mickey Mouse clan, was supposed to be a coyote. And then, the first choice for Chuck E. Cheese's name was Rick Rat's Pizza. Luckily, Bushnell's marketing angels convinced him Rick Rat's Pizza (!) wasn't such a good name for an establishment that had to go before a health inspector.

"My marketing department just had a shitfit: 'You can't call a restaurant a rat place! People think rats are dirty. It's not going to work,'" he said. "But what if he is a rat but you don't call him a rat, I suggested. 'You name it,' I told them. 'I don't give a shit what it is. But it has to be happy.' A week later, they said, we got the name. And not only is it happy, it's triple happy: Chuck E. Cheese, you can't say each one of those without smiling."

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No, seriously, isn't that the best possible way that Chuck E. Cheese could have been dreamed up by a marketing department? And it's triple happy. Take that, character from Mad Men!

Listening to all this, I had a terrifying thought: the creation of Chuck E. Cheese's was completely contingent. The pizza time theater may never have been founded. All historical narratives are a lie, basically. And furthermore, given that Chuck E. Cheese's was a necessary component of childhood, in the many alternate universes in which Chuck E. Cheese's never came into being (remaining Coyote Pizza or Rick Rat's Pizza), could childhood even exist?

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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