Customers inside a Cinergy movie theater.
Cinergy Entertainment Group

Cinergy Entertainment Group has nine locations across the U.S. in Texas, Illinois, North Carolina, and Oklahoma.

Cinergy Finds the Magic Formula for Movies, Gaming, and Dining

The brand builds $20–$25 million facilities that house movie theater screens, bowling, axe throwing, rope courses, escape rooms, arcade games, and virtual reality experiences.

Cinergy Entertainment Group was once named Top Family Entertainment Center of the World, and CEO and cofounder Jeff Benson has plenty of reasons why the moniker is deserving.

The first iterations are 90,000-square-foot behemoths, with movie theater screens, bowling, axe throwing, rope courses, escape rooms, arcade games, and virtual reality experiences. The kitchen alone is 4,000 square feet and responsible for serving as many as 800 people on a busy Friday or Saturday night.

Cinergy, headquartered in Dallas, was awarded the world title of Top Family Entertainment Center of the World in 2019 by the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions, the trade publication of family entertainment centers. Judges pore over pictures and the website, go secret shopping, and randomly schedule parties to experience the process. Cinergy finished top three in 2017 after submitting its inaugural location in Odessa, Texas. In 2019, its Amarillo, Texas, store was the application subject and the worldwide winner.

“We put a major focus on trying to win it,” Benson says. “We really did feel like we had the best of everything for family entertainment centers, and frankly, we’re one of very few family entertainment centers that actually incorporates the movie theater. It's becoming a much larger trend. There's a lot of copycats out there, but we were one of the first to do it. Being among the first to market, we felt like that made us really special back in 2019.”

Cinergy now has nine locations across the U.S., including four others in Texas, and ones in Charlotte, North Carolina; Tulsa, Oklahoma; and Wheeling, Illinois. The 10th is coming in Greenville, South Carolina.

Prior to Cinergy, Jeff and his wife Jamie in 2001 founded Movie Tavern, a chain of dine-in theaters. In 2005, the couple recapitalized the company and entered a joint venture with Lee Roy Mitchell, the leader of movie theater chain Cinemark. However, the partnership lasted just three years because Mitchell wanted to grow Movie Tavern faster than the Bensons were comfortable with. At that time, Movie Tavern had 98 screens across 12 locations in five states. The couple sold their shares and moved on to the next big venture—gaming.

Benson didn’t have much experience in this arena, but he knew people that did. While at Movie Tavern, he hired many former Dave & Buster’s employees—including the head of food and beverage and vice president of operations—who informed him on the eatertainment chain’s potential. Then in 2007, he met Main Event founding partner Neil Hupfauer, who eventually became a mentor. Hupfauer educated Benson on how to design a game room, integrate bowling, and the magic of merging a family entertainment center with a dine-in theater operation.

“We rethought the concept and said, ‘Hey, Movie Tavern’s great, but we believe that food and dining and beer and wine and liquor and a movie theater is the wave of the future, but we also like the gaming aspect,’” Benson says.

While Cinergy’s Odessa and Amarillo units have roughly 10 screens and nearly 20 bowling lanes, the brand is scaling back post-pandemic due to the rise of competing streaming services. Benson feels seven screens is the better number, and so is 10 bowling lanes. That would put the average square footage more so around 70,000 square feet—still a giant facility in its own right.

Cinergy Entertainment Group
Cinergy Entertainment Group
Cinergy Entertainment Group
Cinergy Entertainment Group
Cinergy Entertainment Group

Cinergy’s outlook is quite the turnaround from 2020.

When one walks inside a Cinergy complex, straight ahead is the gaming room, and off to the left is a large redemption store. Toward the back through the gaming room is the bowling alley. On the right side, there’s concession stands and the entryway into the movie theater. On that same side, there’s a bar with TVs and an outdoor patio.

Benson describes the menu as chef-inspired American favorites, similar to what one would find at Chili’s. Some food examples are fiesta tacos, brisket nachos, southwest salad, burgers, and pizza. As for beverages, there’s margaritas, blood Mary, beer, wine, old fashioned, and more. Some items are named in conjunction with movie releases, like the Kong Burger (Godzilla vs. Kong) and the Nope Blue Sky Chilton cocktail (Nope). The concession stand has the typical hot dogs, popcorn, and candy.

“When people come to Cinergy, they're really coming for cheat day. We offer salads, but they're not best-sellers,” Benson says. “We figured out pretty quickly that most people eat a burger, chicken tenders, or pizza. Those make up about 80 percent of our sales. There are other dine-in theater chains that try and have edamame or steaks and pastas and salmon and high-end entrées to eat in a dark movie theater. We could put that stuff on the menu, and I can guarantee you it would not sell.”

Plans for the Greeneville, South Carolina, location are almost finished, but there will be a minimum 90-day delay until construction can begin. Benson says the true number is likely six months. The project will take 14-17 months to complete, which is more than the usual 11-month timeline. The extension is due to the same reasons other concepts have faced—difficulties obtaining material, like rooftop air conditioning units and steel.

In terms of how Cinergy picks locations, Benson works closely with vice president of real estate Kade Pittman, who he hired 14 years ago at Movie Tavern. The brand primarily looks for underserved markets that don’t have a movie theater recliner presence. Benson says he has the management team to build nationwide, although he’d prefer areas that support direct flights from Dallas-Fort Worth.

Benson doubts Cinergy will ever franchise because of the complexity. It takes upward of 200 people to run a venue and costs $20 million to $25 million to build. Some have asked about licensing opportunities. Benson would consider it if the right person has experience with entertainment, movie theaters, and gaming, not to mention the financial wherewithal.

“I have to be honest, I think most of the FEC guys get scared away from our segment of the business because they don't know anything about the movie theater component,” Benson says. “Our Cinergy model, which I think is magical is certainly more complicated than even a Main Event or Stars and Strikes.”

Cinergy’s outlook is quite the turnaround from 2020, which Benson describes as a “dark period” for the brand. Customers stayed home and the Hollywood movie pipeline dried up. The company worked with banks and landlords and laid off employees. Cinergy had a location in downtown Kansas City under development at the start of COVID, and it still hasn’t restarted construction. The brand benefited from a Shuttered Venue Operator grant, but didn’t receive money until nine months after the bill was signed into law.

It was a year and a half of being “lean and mean” Benson says. And while Cinergy was unable to apply for the Top Family Entertainment Center of the World last year because it didn’t open any locations, Benson is still confident in the brand being one of the best in the industry.

“I'm just excited to be back from the pandemic, and have guests return with the smiles on their faces. We're just glad to be doing what we do again,” the cofounder says.