From Atari To Antipasti

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Busnhell's uWink Combines Games, Food and Fun

Nolan Bushnell has been in the computer games industry since it was an industry. He is sometimes referred to as one of its founding fathers. Perhaps his most celebrated accomplishment was creating Atari, but many people don't know that he has also been into restaurants as well, and founded the well-known Chuck E. Cheese chain.

So combining a new restaurant chain with computer games might seem like a natural fit. But this is not the standard arcade with food model. The new uWink restaurants – starting up in California and then expanding across the country – are designed to be an extension of a person's digital life. All ordering is done via terminals at each table, and you can challenge other tables to games of skill, like trivia. Combine that with a festive atmosphere filled with DLP projectors all around, and you should have a unique dining experience for a few people or a big group of friends.

We asked Bushnell to dish about the new place, and to give us a sample of what treats visitors can expect when they shuffle into a shiny new uWink.

GiN: After working for years at Atari making games, what made you want to get back into the restaurant business? They would seem like completely separate areas.

Bushnell: Food and fun have always gone together. I perceive my skill at using technology for fun. Games are just one element.

GiN: Can you describe the type of experience you wanted to provide people when they come to eat at one of your places?

Bushnell: I want a new social game experience that cannot be had elsewhere.

GiN: Specifically, you order all your food from your table but also can play games there? Do the diners pay for the games they play as well, or is this a way to entertain them while they wait for the food to arrive?

Bushnell: We have both free and pay to play games. Some have prizes and some are just for fun.

GiN: There are game and food establishments now, such as Dave and Busters. But there you eat and then go and play. How important is it to bring the concept together in one place and at one table for that matter?

Bushnell: I think that the arcade business is somewhat out of date. The social fun with a group is the issue for which I am striving, not having some arcade with food thing.

GiN: How is the establishment organized? In other words, does a hostess seat people at the different tables and then the waiter only comes out to deliver the food?

Bushnell: You are seated and currently while we are new we have an Entertainment Director explain and teach our system. The food is brought by runners who also can answer questions.

GiN: What is the overall atmosphere of the restaurant or is the theme really what goes on at the tables itself?

Bushnell: Remember that the walls are washed with video projections. The atmosphere is very warm, hip, and interesting, and the table terminals just add to the fun.

GiN: Do you think the rise of the Internet culture where people chat, make friends and even conduct business without ever actually meeting makes a place like yours more feasible? I mean even in the 1980s something like this would have been a difficult concept for people to follow.

Bushnell: uWink is just a physical extension of your "private" digital life. Everyone's "digital life" is very robust, but it's very private – you do it 1:1 and at your home usually. uWink is very much about providing a physical space to digital life. People are expecting to have increased transactions using touch screens from ATM, Tickets, Hotel Rooms. The step was a natural one to move towards restaurants.

GiN: What kind of food does the restaurant specialize in? And what is an example of the price range?

Bushnell: We serve Modern Comfort Food with a no veto premise. Food should be simple but great. Food that everyone knows (comfort food favorites like Mac n' Cheese) but updated with flavors for today's tastes. We expect a lunch tab of $14 and dinner about $18 (per person).

GiN: What types of games can people expect to play while they are there, and what, if any, are the costs?

Bushnell: The games are simple and social from Trivia to card games to games of perception. Most of the games are free.

GiN: You have started your first restaurant and I hear others are pending. Where can people find one of these new places, and where are the planned expansions?

Bushnell: We'll start first in California, and then next year there is a good chance that there will be one near most large population centers.

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