The timing couldn’t be better in Josh Rossmeisl’s view. Much of the restaurant sector remains in day-to-day survival. Perhaps none more so than eatertainment—a category built around the same social connections COVID-19 has stripped from peoples’ lives.
There’s a sentiment among legacy players, like Dave & Buster’s, that it will get worse before it gets better. The brand’s same-store sales plunged 75 percent in the first nine weeks of the fourth quarter, leading Dave & Buster’s to project revenues between $98 million and $102 million, or a 70 percent-plus decline compared to last year.
Nobody’s trying to decode the reason. All of the chain’s California and New York stores remain closed. U.S. COVID cases continue to exceed 1.5 million each week. Restaurants in general, given safety concerns tied to dining out, need coronavirus curbed to appreciate any viable long-term recovery. This is only accentuated for concepts that thrive on amusement offerings, like bowling, arcades, and other group activities, more than food.
Yet all that aside, that “better” on the backend is undeniably alluring. When customers feel ready to return and reconnect, eatertainment could find itself in a sweet spot unlike any restaurant group. A study by Harris Group found 72 percent of millennials would rather spend on experiences than material items. The “reactance theory” suggests this will only grow stronger when the pandemic eventually fades.
And that’s the luxury Rossmeisl has. “We’re looking at this through the post-COVID lens,” he says, “which is the advantage that we have in designing a brand-new concept.”
Rossmeisl is one the segment’s heavy hitters. He directed Kings Dining & Entertainment’s growth as COO and has spent more than two decades in the industry. Now, along with other former Kings executives, including Doug Warner, the chain’s former SVP of marketing and business development, he’s helming AMP Up1 Hospitality Group. The new conglomerate will oversee “The 3rd Spot,” a fresh, in-development concept Rossmeisl labels as “Eatertainment 2.0.”
COVID, he says, allowed AMP’s team, which totals over 200 years of hospitality experience, to hit the reset button on experiential dining.
“Let’s study the best, let’s look at what we’ve done,” Rossmeisl says. “Let’s look at where trends are emerging and what the post-COVID world looks like and really create the concept of the future.”
Before diving into specifics, Rossmeisl says The 3rd Spot expects to debut at the end of Q3 to Q4 of this year. He says they’re looking at 15 or so sites and have rapid growth drawn for the next five years. But what’s important to note here is, as mentioned before, the timing. Rossmeisl says developers and experiential lifestyle centers are clamoring for eatertainment, and will have big-box spaces to fill due to retail closures. And many of the sector’s established brands won’t be poised to grow quickly, Rossmeisl says, and “probably won’t be for quite some time.”
“A lot of them are going to be limping out of this,” Rossmeisl says. “So we’re at an extreme advantage and were seeing aggressive packages and landlords who are going above and beyond for us to bring what we’re bringing. We’re not Dave & Buster’s or Round One or Main Event … It’s more of the upscale boutique experiential dining experience, which we think is really the future in terms of this segment.”
The 3rd Spot’s vibe is geared more toward adults. It will be 21 and up at night. Younger guests will need a guardian during the day. It’s envisioned to fill 18,000 to 34,000 square feet of space and leaves no touchpoint or technology opportunity unturned.
Starting with the food, The 3rd Spot will serve tapas-style small plates, with an executive-chef driven, Latin, Asian fusion flair. This will capitalize on shared dining trends, allow for seasonal rotation, and quicken service, Rossmeisl says. No knife-and-fork items. Nothing with side dishes. It will also allow The 3rd Spot to keep its menu small and evolve as often as it wants. Bao will be a staple, Rossmeisl says. As will other traditional small bites, like sushi and flatbreads. There will probably be more than 20 items on the core menu, with a handful of desserts and a group menu option as well for larger parties.
F&B is one place Rossmeisl tried to learn from the field. He refers to dining rooms in a lot of other eatertainment chains as “waiting rooms.” Essentially, people don’t flock to eatertainment for the food. “No matter what anybody says,” Rossmeisl notes. “There’s maybe less than 10 percent, which means these places are literally designed for when they’re at capacity for people to sit in and wait while they’re waiting to play games. To me, it’s sort of ass backwards.”
So instead of dining rooms, The 3rd Spot created “Cabanas.” There will 10–16 of these in each location, complete with seating and small tables for four to 25 guests, much like VIP areas at a nightclub. They’re modular and allow for games to be brought directly to customers. Rossmeisl likens it to cabanas at a beach where people set up a base of sorts. They explore their surroundings and return when they need to, or just hang as long as they like and take in the scenery. “These are obviously [places people can reserve] and full service,” he says. “And something that we really believe through design is going to be a game-changer.”
“The entire design of the cabanas is built for people to move around and to network together, and not for it to feel like I’m pushing a couple of tables together for a big group that’s waiting to bowl or play games or play pool,” Rossmeisl adds. Guests will get a food, drink, and gaming menu, and have a server who works directly with them. They’ll also be able to push a button and have games brought over.
Given the older audience The 3rd Spot aims for, naturally, its beverage program was core and central to presenting a more upscale DNA. One thing in particular that’s going to differentiate the brand, Rossmeisl says, is a focus on CBD and cannabis-infused options. “And safely bringing to market what was once taboo but is going to become, I believe, as we start to see the laws change, very commonplace,” he says. “We believe we have an environment and vibe that will lend itself perfectly to the cannabis CBD experience, which we want to introduce and really be among one of the first places in this field that’s going to be introducing this safely.”
Within a few years, Rossmeisl imagines it will be “as common as ordering a Tito’s and Soda at the bar.” The 3rd Spot is working with a few industry experts on mainstreaming options in an approachable way.
During the day, Rossmeisl says The 3rd Spot will have the capacity to serve as a co-working space. “We’ll be able to create the vibe and have the complimentary items, from coffee items to great WiFi to a really cool atmosphere to a music program that allow people to work together creatively,” he says. “The Starbucks of the world, I think, are getting to the point where they’re at capacity at a regular basis. People are looking for places to get together and be creative. And this is something that is really part of our program and something that we are going to be offering as an amenity in our facility that allows us to fill our facility during off-peak times strategically.”
A built-in café will feature nitro cold brew on tap, matcha infused drinks, and even CBD-infused coffee.
With the entertainment itself, Rossmeisl sees demand for “low-tech” games after COVID. A resurgence of “analog” options that promote genuine human interaction. Picture Jenga, for instance. There will also be bowling lanes and private bowling suites, billiards, shuffleboard, and table tennis, along with dozens of retro, interactive arcade games and head-to-head options such as “Pop-a-Shot.”
“Most of our games are curated toward an older adult. If you can’t play a game with a beer in your hand or after you’ve had a couple of beers I don’t even put it on the list,” Rossmeisl says.
“Some of my competitors like to fancy themselves a restaurant first,” he continues. “I don’t think there’s a single human being that’s going into a Punch Bowl Social, for example, to dine first. They’re going there for the activities. I believe the food should be fantastic. It should be the icing on the cake. It should be complementary. But we realized that the activities and the entertainment are really what the guest is looking for.”
Technology is going to play a critical role in The 3rd Spot’s development. Firstly, there will be a recurring membership program designed to open access to members who want to use the brand’s amenities on demand. It will include an exclusive booking platform for members to reserve space.
Rossmeisl says this will unlock corporate and social events and really move past the nickel and diming of some other setups. The 3rd Spot will charge a “low monthly price” and believes it can get to 10,000 memberships per location. It could help counter low-frequency challenges often seen in the eatertainment space, too.
Additionally, the company created a trademarked “Kenektions” platform that uses proprietary software to match members’ gaming, food, and beverage interests, along with personality traits and preferences. Once connected, members can chat, optimize schedules, and secure a reservation with one click, “making for a uniquely seamless meetup experience that marries the traditional digital world with the analog,” the company says.
It could help members network professionally, socially, and find groups with similar interests, and even connect romantically.
“We think that is going to be a key differentiator and something that’s going to drive a lot of connections in our business,” Rossmeisl says.
The 3rd Spot’s app also allows users to fill out a “Bucket list,” which tracks priorities and automatically queues waitlists in response.
“We think the one-size-fits-all experience at these experiential dining places is sort of a mistake,” Rossmeisl says. “Meaning on peak days everybody gets corralled through the same experience and they assume everyone is coming in for the bowling. What [the Bucket List] does is allow people to explore different gaming options right at their fingertips and to prioritize with their Ke’nekter [server] what they want their experience to be.”
What it offers The 3rd Spot, Rossmeisl adds, is a non-invasive way to predict what people’s goals are before they even come in. The Bucket List customizes experience and allows people to maximize time.
Basically, guests can avoid the stress of trying to figure out what they can do and what’s available, which is often a pain point in busy boxes like eatertainment. They’ll be able to plan out and see what’s free without asking anybody. It gives them responses and information curated toward their visit.
Next up on Rossmeisl’s checklist was to address one of the segment’s other historic concerns. On good-weather days, do people want to be cooped up inside? It’s one reason they might choose a brewery, for example, instead.
And so The 3rd Spot developed an indoor/outdoor activity-centric beer garden dubbed “The unCommons,” anchored by a “The 3rd Spot Kornhole arena.” The experience will boast multiple touchscreen scoring and LED lit boards. There will be pour-your-own craft beer stations and other lawn-game inspired activities. Importantly, an indoor greenspace will connect to the venue’s outdoor patio, which will open up through garage doors to another 2,000 to 3,000 square feet of adult playground.
“We can’t compete with Mother Nature,” Rossmeisl says. “We can’t rely on rainy days or snow days or go into markets that have inclement weather that drive business inside. So if you can’t beat them, join them.”
The 3rd Spot wants to do for corn hole what Flight Club did for darts, Rossmeisl says. Or SPIN for table tennis. And Kings for bowling.
He imagines DJs and live music and different activities, as well as a brunch experience on weekends. “Really gearing that more toward the millennial crowd that is looking for these types of experience,” Rossmeisl says.
The 3rd Spot is already creating waves. The brand has received over half a million impressions on social despite the fact it hasn’t opened yet. It plans to lead with culture and community ideals as it materializes, Rossmeisl says. It will offer a sharing through membership program where guests can give back to a charity of their choice each month.
“We are very culture driven,” Rossmeisl says. “We believe in foundation first and people. The majority of our team, a lot of our team has come up through the ranks and we sort of peppered in some really great talent over the years. But we are unequivocally a culture-driven, purpose-driven organization.”