Bowling alley at Main Event.
Main Event

Main Event does a solid league business with bowling, but it doesn't end there.

Main Event Remains Eatertainment's 'Progressive Innovator'

Founded in 1998, the 43-unit chain continues to bring fresh experiences to guests.

If you think back to the 1980s and 90s, taking children out to dinner could be a pretty hands-off affair. Grab a drink, pizza, and cough up some change for the arcade. But one reason the “eatertainment” sector has sprung to prominence, especially in the last few years, is its ability to deliver families a mutual, shared experience, not serve to distract one half while the other gets a break.

“This, to me, is just more new-age,” says Sarah Beddoe, the chief brand officer at 43-unit Main Event. “… What we’re trying to do today is bring mom and dad and the 8-year-old and 10-year-old—all four of them—for a neutralized bonding moment that is fun for the child, and for everyone.”

In some ways, it’s how casual dining spread across the country. Yet as technology rushed in and attention spans shrunk, the idea of disconnecting, then reconnecting over a meal became a less clear reality. At least you could argue it’s more of an ideal than a hard practice.

Beddoe, however, believes there’s still demand in today’s mobile-glued culture to put down the device and take a break. “It’s a pretty big responsibility, and we have a concept that parents and children all feel the same way about,” she says. “Across our category that’s a very unique benefit. Because there are chains within [eatertainment] that are very adult centric and there are concepts that are very kid centric.”

Main Event is hardly a newcomer. The Dallas-based brand has been around since 1988 and serves more than 20 million guests annually.

To Beddoe’s point, though, eatertainment restaurants are hardly outliers on the dining map today. Cracker Barrel recently agreed to spend upward of $140 million to grab stake in 18-unit Punch Bowl Social. Dave & Buster’s has been around since 1982 and has 132 restaurants. Chuck E. Cheese started in 1977 and finished last quarter with 608 units. Pinstripes, a Chicago-centered upstart, has 10 locations but recently struck its second strategic partnership in a six-month window when it sold a minority stake to Simon Property Group. It plans to hit 100 venues. Cracker Barrel believes Punch Bowl Social has triple-digit potential.

So, simply offering entertainment alongside food isn’t the unicorn element it once was. Think Top Golf and movie theaters with luxury seating that serve top-notch food.


Concept differentiation has become as critical as segment differentiation in this vertical, especially given the real-estate and staffing requirements. Main Event, known for its bowling and laser tag, typically pushes 50,000 square feet.

Spotlighting those qualities has been a personal mission for Beddoe, the former VP of marketing at Pizza Hut and Sonic Drive-In and CMO of Taco Bueno. She has two young children and knows how difficult it can be to meld activities, while also keeping everyone sane and happy.

At the end of the day, inclusive family experiences are the innovation lens Main Event looks through.

“We know who our guest is and we know who our customer is,” Beddoe says. “We know a lot about what they want and what motivates them and where they are in their lives, and we can be highly emphatic with their needs.”

Main Event considers itself a “progressive innovator,” among its competitive set. Here are some examples.

Main Event

Main Event extended its hours to get into the late-night daypart.

In mid-October, the brand expanded hours of operations, introduced its first late-night menu, and debuted exclusive activations to expand into uncharted daypart territory.

Beddoe says this stemmed from consumers preferring experiences over “stuff.” It was giving guests a late-night experience that was safe and fun, and under control. That included everything from a silent disco to Jumbo Wings.

The brand started staying open until midnight Sunday through Thursday and until 2 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays.

“Nobody’s doing that,” Beddoe says. “What we’re able to do is kind of bring a new attraction to a new audience at a new daypart. That just really energizes and transitions our experience from the day to the night, which is fun.”

Toward the end of summer, Main Event exclusively debuted Beat Saber, a virtual reality game, systemwide during Labor Day weekend. The brand labeled it “Saber Day Weekend” and offered free plays to customers who signed up for its email program. Additionally, Main Event released a Beast Saber ICEE” flavor. It brought the brand’s VR platform to three titles with HOLOGATE and Virtual Rabbids: The Bid Ride. VR is something Dave & Buster’s garnered a lot of press for over the past two years, and it remains a traffic driver, Beddoe says, since it provides something beyond the couch-gaming options for most people.

Main Event has also stayed ahead of the convenience curve and multi-occasion setup. One issue that some eatertainment brands face is trying to cross the amusement and F&B gap. Are families willing to invest the time it takes for a sit-down meal and then go hit the arcade? How can you make sure children stop and eat when the VR is flashing in the background?

At Dave & Buster’s, for example, the chain’s walk-in comp sales fell 2 percent in Q2. F&B was down 3.2 percent. It’s tested a fast-casual tacos spot in Dallas as well as creating “wow walls”—nearly 50-foot-wide LED TV screens—to drive F&B attachment.

For Main Event, there are counter-service elements in all 43 centers where guests can grab a quick bite, from chicken tenders to pizza. That complements full-service dining rooms that tout a chef-inspired menu highlighting New American cuisine, like grilled sirloin steak, teriyaki salmon, and a strawberry fields salad.

Main Event

Unlike some brands in its space, Main Event tries to cater to adults and children instead of one or the other.

Main Event

Main Event's gravity ropes are another example of its multi-purpose and occasion model.

The chain pulses events throughout the week to encourage visits and interaction across these experience points, like kids eat free Tuesdays, $7.99 per activity all day long offers Sunday through Friday, and all-you-can play for $10.95 during “Monday Night Madness.”

There are group and company events, bowling leagues, birthday parties (adults and kid’s options), billiards, gravity ropes, karaoke, rock climbing, and mini golf.

“We allow our concept to flex to both ends of the spectrum,” Beddoe says of convenience and longer visits.

From a marketing perch, Beddoe says, Main Event knows it can’t approach communications in a sterile way. It put a twist on the “Storm Area 51,” social event by offering customers a chance to raid its Arena 51 laser tag courses instead. Using an “Arena 51,” promo code, they could get 51 percent off laser tag games on September 20.

In July, as the 50-year moon landing anniversary approached, Main Event offered free sessions of gravity ropes with the purchase of a like session. For National Have Fun at Work Day (which is a thing), Main Event promoted half-off team building packages for companies.

Centers hosted costume contests and zombie laser tag ahead of Halloween. It also created themed food and beverages, like a Graveyard Gelato dessert and Zombie Blood Bag drink. On Halloween, guests who showed up in costume received free $10 video game play cards. Candy stations were also on display so people could trick or treat throughout the day.

“That’s the kind of lens that we put on pop culture,” Beddoe says. “That’s the kind of lens we put on innovation. If it makes sense for our users than it makes sense for our brand.”

She says Main Event will continue to activate pop culture tie-ins moving forward because it allows families to congregate around timely events, not just spontaneous decisions to do something different.

“We have a lot of great stuff, innovation, news coming,” she says, “through experiences and through our dayparts. The future is bright for where we’re headed. And we’re just getting started.”