The first Chuck E. Cheese restaurant opened in San Jose 45 years ago
By Brandon Yip, Senior Columnist
The chain was originally called Coyote Pizza and Nolan Bushnell and his team believed that a coyote would be a great mascot. Unfortunately, a mistake would be made by letting Bushnell order the costume.
For a child, having the freedom to play outside and run around at a playground is one of the rewards of pre-adulthood. Video games are another form of pleasure for young children. But imagine combining those pleasures into a restaurant setting where kids can wander, eat and play video games all day! That was the impetus for creating Chuck E. Cheese.
This year marks 45 years since the first Chuck E. Cheese restaurant opened in San Jose, California on May 17, 1977. It was called Chuck E. Cheese’s Pizza Time Theatre. The creator and owner of this kids’ pleasure palace are Nolan Bushnell, along with his partner, Gene Landum. Bushnell is also the co-founder of Atari—and known as the father of electronic gaming. In 1980, three years after Chuck E. Cheese opened, Bushnell would introduce the now famous mascot rat named Chuck E. Cheese (formal name is Charles Entertainment Cheese).
Bushnell believed it was important to have the mascot visible to children in his restaurants—adding to the overall joyful experience for families. “Kids may go to Disneyland every other year or once in five years, but there aren’t really any cartoon times with Mickey Mouse,” Bushnell said in 1980 as reported by sfgate.com. “I know there are an awful lot of kids who…identify with Chuck E. Cheese because they can go to a Pizza Time Theatre every few weeks.” In addition, Bushnell, on the official Chuck E. Cheese franchise website, stated why there was a need for a restaurant concept like his: “There’s a vanishingly small number of places where parents and children can have a fun night.”
Notably, after the first Chuck E. Cheese opened in 1977, the franchise would open stores across the US. In November 2021, The Detroit News reported that Chuck E. Cheese’s parent company went public in 1988. And later by 2005, the restaurant chain had increased to 500 locations. Interestingly, according to a July 2016 CNBC.com article, the original concept for the Chuck E. Cheese restaurant had a different name. The chain was originally called Coyote Pizza and Nolan Bushnell and his team believed that a coyote would be a great mascot. Unfortunately, a mistake would be made by letting Bushnell order the costume—as he recalled in a separate interview: “I purchased what I thought was a coyote costume from an amusement park costume vendor and had it shipped to the company. When it got here, it was obvious to everyone but me that it was a rat costume. Rather than get another costume, we decided that we would use a big rat as the mascot. Marketing didn’t like Rick Rats Pizza and came up with Chuck E. Cheese’s—as they called it a three-smile name.”
However, during the early 2010s, sales had declined—leading to the company revising the Chuck E. Cheese character in 2012. The changes made were the removal of his 1990s fingerless gloves, sporty shorts and backwards hat. Chuck E. Cheese now had a rocker appearance with an electric guitar and jeans. The Detroit News also reported the rebranding of the most famous rat in children’s history generated some publicity—next to another famous rodent, Mickey Mouse—it did not solve the chain’s problems: “In 2014, CEC Entertainment was acquired by private equity firm Apollo Global Management in a leveraged buyout. The firm invested in an effort to make its 577 restaurants more palatable.”
Furthermore, the COVID-19 pandemic also affected Chuck E. Cheese. Since March 2020, when the pandemic began, many restaurants were closed for months. As well, there was a permanent closure of over 30 locations. In June 2020, the Associated Press reported Chuck E. Cheese had filed for bankruptcy protection. “The Chapter 11 process will allow us to strengthen our financial structure as we recover from what has undoubtedly been the most challenging event in our company’s history,” said David McKillips, chief executive of Chuck E. Cheese’s parent company, CEC Entertainment in a prepared statement.
But Chuck E. Cheese has adapted and survived. McKillips told The Detroit News in November 2021, that he credits the company’s longevity being due to its willingness to embrace and adapt to ever-changing technology. “We keep embracing innovation decade after decade,” he said. “We don’t have ball pits anymore. But we have the greatest video games and arcade games and interactive dance parties.”
Bushnell has received numerous awards and accolades for his contributions to the video game industry. A March 2022 article on businessofbusiness.com reported Bushnell was inducted into the Video Game Hall of Fame and the Consumer Electronics Association Hall of Fame. He later received a GDC (Game Developers Choice) Pioneer award. But the award was later revoked in January 2018, after allegations had surfaced accusing Bushnell of inappropriate behaviour towards female employees when he worked at Atari. The allegations against Bushnell occurred during the #MeToo movement. Bushnell addressed the allegations and issued an apology as reported by the same article on businessofbusiness.com: “I applaud the GDC for ensuring that their institution reflects what is right, specifically with regards to how people should be treated in the workplace. And if that means an award is the price I [must] pay personally so the whole industry may be more aware and sensitive to these issues, I applaud that, too. If my personal actions of anyone who ever worked with me offended or caused pain to anyone at our companies, then I apologize without reservation.”
Chuck E. Cheese has one restaurant in BC, located in Langley. Before that location, there was the extremely popular Chuck E. Cheese restaurant in Burnaby—situated west of North Road—between Austin Avenue and Lougheed Highway (south of The City of Lougheed Shopping Centre). The address was 9898 Government Place (the street no longer exists). In December 1983, an ad promoting the restaurant’s opening was featured in the Vancouver Sun. The restaurant closed in the 1990s.
Lastly, Chuck E. Cheese continues to be a place for families and children to gather for birthday parties and other celebrations. For those who remember going to birthday parties at Chuck E. Cheese as a child, the memories are everlasting. Katie Dowd, the managing editor for sfgate.com, who grew up in Fairfield, California, offers the best insight and perspective into what it was like being at Chuck E. Cheese as a kid: “…[Most] kids I went to school with couldn’t afford big, fancy parties. So it was really splashing out when you got an invite to Chuck E. Cheese. This was the big time. Pizza, ball pits, arcade games I didn’t know how to play. And my god, it was chaos. Screaming kids pounding across dark carpet that was simultaneously hard and sticky. The world’s greasiest pizza coating everything with an oily film. And every few minutes, the walls [opened] and an array of confusing animatronic singing animals would emerge. For an anxious kid like me, it was an uncomfortable, pepperoni-scented sensory overload.”