A pioneer in the video game industry, Atari founder Nolan Bushnell, is blending high-tech entertainment with high-end cuisine in a new venture called uWink. Mike O'Sullivan reports, Bushnell hopes to bring computer consoles to corner restaurants throughout the United States and overseas.
Bushnell founded Atari games in the 1970s, then sold the company to Warner Communications for $28 million in 1976. Then, he concentrated on his chain of pizza restaurants, called Chuck E. Cheese's, which still operate under different management. The restaurants serve up pizza and games in a noisy environment custom-made for children.
Today, Bushnell is trying a modified concept for the adult market, with his first restaurant in suburban Los Angeles. At the center of each table is a touch-screen console on which patrons order their drinks and meals.
"What we want to do is to make, first of all, a very, very good restaurant - good food, good fun," said Nolan Bushnell. "But the automatic ordering makes it so that the fun actually starts when you are ordering your food. It is faster, it is easier, and it is actually more controllable than a waiter-waitress kind of a experience."
The computer console is also a labor-saving device. The electronic ordering system reduces the number of servers needed in the restaurant.
Patrons can play games as they wait for their food or after they finish eating, testing their knowledge of trivia, or taking a three-dimensional tour of the world's historic sites.
"You can see what it looks like to be standing in the middle of the Gaudi Park in Barcelona, or on a street scene in Portugal, or standing in the grand ballroom of the Vienna Opera House," he said.
The restaurant is aimed at patrons of all ages, and the games are intended to add to restaurant's party atmosphere. Bushnell says many who come are skeptics.
"A lot of people have come at the behest of their friends, or what have you," explained Nolan Bushnell. "And they thought, well OK, I'll do the ordering, but I'm not a game player. I would say that at least 20 or 30 percent of the people that come have not played a game for 20 years or 30 years. Zero percentage of the people leave without playing some games and having a great time."
He says games are part of the attraction, and food is the other part. His executive chef trained at high-end restaurants, including the well-known Spago. Bushnell says he makes American standards, sometimes with a twist, such as a hamburger topped with guava sauce.
"Hamburgers, pizza, pasta, some interesting fish and meat entrees, as well as some tremendous salads and soups," he said.
Bushnell plans to extend uWinks across the United States with both company-owned restaurants and a franchise operation, then move into Asia and Europe. He says customers seem to like the concept. In one recent week, 3,500 patrons dined on burgers, salads and pasta, and played 60,000 games.