Whatever you do, just don’t call it junk food. For many fun centers around the country that specialize in go-kart racing and mini golf, fast food is among the most popular options for kids of all ages. That doesn’t mean you’ll find McDonald’s or other giant chains at these venues. Instead, hard-working kitchens are producing plenty of old favorites, like pizza and chicken wings, as well as keeping up with new demands from families looking for healthy options.
Everything from food allergies to dietary trends is influencing what these centers serve. And even though guests may be showing up to take spins on the track or make a coveted hole in one, the food keeps them coming back and their energy up for more fun throughout the year.
In New York City, the Randall’s Island Golf Center not only offers mini golf, batting cages and pro-style greens in the charming neighborhood of Inwood on Manhattan’s northern-most tip, but the center also features an outdoor beer garden and grill. Here, guests can kick back after putting a bucket of balls with beer, wine and a food menu that kicks off the season each spring.
In fact, appealing to both kids and adults has been a trend at many of these indoor and outdoor centers around the country.
In Philadelphia, Franklin Square has become a bastion for fair weather fun thanks to an old-fashioned carousel and mini-golf course. One of the city’s leading restaurateurs – Stephen Starr – also provides food at the hip, family-friendly SquareBurger.
The restaurant serves sophisticated twists on burgers (including veggie burgers) and hot dogs, as well as fresh salads, ice cream sundaes and famous shakes.
“Burgers are definitely the most popular item,” says Cari Bender Feiler, a spokesperson for the Square. “I love the Cake Shakes.”
The cake shakes are mixed with iconic-to-Philadelphia TastyKake Butterscotch Krimpets and butterscotch syrup blended with creamy vanilla ice cream. SquareBurger’s been introducing a Shake of the Month through the summer months when the destination is at its peak.
Last year more than 750,000 guests visited the park and golf course. The Square’s proximity to other attractions, like Independence Hall, Old City and the National Constitution Center, means that capturing visitors with the most appealing food can be profitable. But there are also many other dining destinations in the area, so Starr’s addition to this venue is especially appealing for tourists and locals who may be familiar with his other famous restaurants in Philadelphia and New York City.
Randi Sirkin, the new director of creative services for Starr Restaurants, said that the chefs at SquareBurger keep busy using a rotation of a flat grill, custard machine, milkshake mixers, fryers and a soda machine.
SquareBurger is also introducing a few new menu items this season, including frozen custard and crinkle fries, Sirkin said.
Catering and Chef’s Specials
At Arnold’s Family Fun Center in Oaks, Pa., a few miles from the King of Prussia mall, a shopping mecca just outside of Philadelphia, change is in the air. Not only is the center adding a new restaurant and bar to the property, which attracts thousands of school-age children and their families each year, but the food being offered is also becoming more sophisticated.
“We have all-you-can-eat pizza and salad bar buffets,” explained Nancy Roggio, the director of sales at Arnold’s. She says the buffets are available Friday through Sunday during the school year and every day of the week during summer break.
And while she admitted that the most popular food currently on the menu is pizza, she said the chef also offers a hot item of the day, anything from mac and cheese and meatloaf to lasagna, tacos and chili.
Because the center also provides on-site catering for groups of 20 and more, the kitchen facility is more like a full-service restaurant, with everything from pizza ovens and fryers to grills and refrigeration systems to keep vegetables crisp for the salad bar.
“We’re also in the process of building a bistro restaurant and bar,” said Roggio. “We hope to get that up and running at the end of April or early May. That will serve more American foods and popular items like cheese steaks and chicken fingers.”
The center also has a license to serve alcohol through waitress service in the bowling area. But no alcohol is permitted in the fun center, which is kid-friendly.
“All the food’s made on site,” said Roggio. “Most everything is made fresh daily. We may use frozen pizzas and put them into an oven, but everything else, and all the sauces, are prepared fresh daily. We have an excellent chef.”
Health Trends and Homemade Appeal
Every morning, the smell of fresh baked bread wafts through the Happy Tymes Fun Center in Warrington, Pa. “We use bread ovens and bake fresh bread every day,” said John McHutchison, manager.
He said more and more visitors are interested in healthy food options, which is why the majority of the menu is prepared on site at the center. McHutchison said the kitchen uses the hot grill and deep fryer the most, but the menu now also includes many made-to-order alternatives, like fresh hoagies with vegetables and tuna rather than cheese steaks, though both sell well.
“People are looking for more healthy foods,” he said, even though the staple at the fun center still seems to be pizza. “What we’re trying to do is come up with more options, especially for kids, like apple slices instead of fries. And bottled water and milk instead of soda.”
He said parents are also looking for salads and seafood, foods that McHutchison described as “not as bad for you.” He admitted that to attract customers who want to stay for lunch or dinner, he must keep the menu evolving to meet their tastes, as well as address concerns about food allergies, health and even taste trends.
That’s a lot to consider. He estimated that a quarter of a million visitors are entertained at Happy Tymes each year. And for the food service side of the business, this often means finding new ways to use the same equipment to make even healthier, more creative dishes.
Simple Snacks Between Games
Not all fun centers focus as much on the food as they do gaming. David Robison, owner of Go Kart Racer in Burlingame, Calif., admitted that he serves food less for profit and more to keep visitors on site between competitive races.
“We sell pizza, nachos and hot dogs,” said Robison, who admitted most visitors come specifically to hit the track.
Less emphasis on the food means the kitchen area is streamlined. “We have pizza ovens,” he said, that fit a single pizza or several hot dogs and pretzels. “It doesn’t take up a lot of space.” But he admitted it is the most commonly used item in the kitchen where frozen foods are cooked and warmed.
Robison estimated that between 50,000 and 60,000 visitors come to the center each year to race go karts. “Our main thing is people come and race,” he said. “They don’t come to eat. We have the food to keep them here longer so they can race again.” –