FECs Turn Up the Heat to Serve Patrons’ Favorite Foods

Families, even knee deep in a recession, know that they get more bang for the buck by combining a weekly night out to eat with inexpensive out-of-home entertainment at a family entertainment center. As reliable as these venues have become, for groups as well as family outings, so must the food they serve be reliably enticing and tasty, properly and quickly prepared using efficient equipment. Those essentials remain when experimenting with new menu items or offering refreshing selections just for the summer.
At Funtime America in Cliffwood, N.J., General Manager Luigi Falco has hit upon a menu that is easy to make and turns a fast profit. Among the items to satisfy diners at the Winner’s Cafe are churros, fries, top-selling funnel cake, stuffed cheese pretzels and chocolate chip cookies, and in healthier foods, salads, broccoli nuggets and shaped chicken nuggets. The funnel cakes, Falco said, “provides the carnival experience in the indoor amusement park.”
The equipment he relies on to turn out large quantities of these items quickly are the deep fryers, with easy temperature controls, pretzel machines and bake ovens. In a year, 150,000 visitors pack into the 38,000-square-foot building. In business for 15 years, Falco noted that he may schedule up to 80 weekly birthday parties, which are a specialty at Funtime.   
Salad specials were added to the East End Restaurant menu at Wow Zone in Mankato, Minn., just for the summer because, said Senior Manager Allison Thompson, that is what people are looking for in the summer season. The salads, created by the head chef for the restaurant, mostly revolve around fresh fruit and include chicken Waldorf, chicken wild rice, strawberry spinach and chicken salad stuffed cantaloupe, one for each day of the week. “People look for healthy and light meals. Also important is variety and repetitiveness, so on the same day each week they can come back for the meal they want. They’ve done very well.”
Throughout all seasons though, the restaurant presents other daily specials that can be served quickly. The most popular of these is a Thursday beef offering that consists of mashed potatoes, gravy and white bread topped with thin-cut beef and gravy. “It’s a good Minnesota comfort food,” Thompson said.
Among the snacks and “kid-friendly” family meals available at the 22,000-square-foot Giggles Play Station in Rockaway, N.J., the favorite item is pizza because patrons know they can always find it at Giggles Cafe, said General Manager Kat McCormick. And as to a best piece of equipment for reliability, McCormick favors the Autofry Fryer because, she said, “It’s automated so we can put the food in and it comes out without touching any grease.”
Dependable equipment and a consistent menu contribute to efficiency in the kitchen of Jeepers! in Elizabeth, N.J. “We can put as much food as we want into the Lincoln conveyor oven for pizza, and we don’t have to worry about it burning when it comes out,” said Lennyn Nina, general manager at the 25,000-square-foot amusement center.
The menu, which has been offered for the last year to Jeepers patrons, is easy to manage, Nina added. “Using the same ingredients for several items helps us to get food out fast.” Chicken pops up frequently on the menu as well as potatoes; Outrageous Potato Skins and the most-popular French fries are staples. “It’s a common food, found in most places so kids are used to them and it’s a good come-and-go item,” Nina said.
French fries are also the top seller at BB’s Cafe in the B B Grandslam, a 36,000-square-foot sports facility in South Plainfield, N.J., where patrons enjoy the types of food choices they would get at a baseball park. However, said owner, Parv Syed, they are offered two types of fries and the favored ones are a specific three-eighths-inch coated variety seasoned for extra taste punch. A built-in system, including a deep fryer and hot dog machine, handles cooking needs.
At the Martin Luther King Jr. Bowling & Skating Center in Chicago, Ill., General Manager Naomi Shine said the menu of pizza, hotdogs, and nachos has been stable and pizza is by far the hottest of the key items. “Cheese pizza is the food of preference of our summer groups and birthday parties,” she said. Also hot for the summer was the addition of the Icees available in a sports bottle as well as a regular Icee cup. “We added the bottle for the birthday party package and concession counter and discovered people are attracted to having a keepsake, something considered a souvenir but that they can use later. They pay the premium price for the sports bottle and know that they can come in and have it filled with their drink later.”   
Though space is limited in the 40,000-square-foot facility’s dining area, Shine looks forward to the future when an Autofry fryer could be installed to offer pizza puffs and cheese fries for kids, and hot wings for adults. Meanwhile the pizza oven has lasted eight years, running from the time the establishment opens to closing time, and on any given day, supplying pizza and hotdogs for up to 400 summer camp food packages or as many as 17 birthday parties on a Saturday.  
The “coolest” item at Jellybean Jungle in Marlton, N.J., and new last summer, has been the flavored water shaved ice. The feature that heightens its popularity for kids is watching the treat being made from scratch, actually with a hand shaver on a block of ice. Owner Mike Lausi said it has been so successful that he has been giving them away at the exit of the play area when the weather is blistering hot.
The summer heat has meant business is buzzing, said Lausi, and he decided to scrap the vacation themes of previous years. Each week the theme was different and related to various countries, and for example, the special for Italy week was spaghetti and meatballs, for China, Asian food, for Hawaii, pineapple, and for each the facility was decorated accordingly. “It required extra planning, the labor was more intensive than expected and the return on investment uncertain,” he said.
Plans for the next year revolve around expanding the now kid-friendly menu in the cafe, to attract the adult market. For the morning crowd, Lausi is considering a quality-brand iced coffee and/or perhaps a pastry such as a cappuccino brownie.
Currently, a broiler carries the weight of all the food heating needs in the limited space available in the 5,000-square-foot facility. It handles everything from the most popular item, the soft pretzels as a snack item, to the second most popular, macaroni and cheese and chicken nuggets as lunch items, and the third, pizza.
Making best use of space, equipment and food choices adds the value guests are looking for in an FEC all-in-one outing. The ability to project what guests want, and alter accordingly, keeps them coming back. –  
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