Where business, entertainment are 'incredible'
Saturday, September 12, 2009 7:00 AM
A couple of golden agers munched salad, green beans, barbecued chicken and skin-on mashed potatoes with a wall of stars as a backdrop and a black light for atmosphere. A business card glowed in the dark; Bob Hope and Bing Crosby cavorted across not-so-deep space in "The Road to Hong Kong."
Welcome to the Starlight Drive-In dining room and what could become a standard business lunch in the age of America's Incredible Pizza Co.
The Missouri-based company opened one of its '50s-themed family entertainment centers in July in what had been an abandoned grocery store at 86th Street and Douglas Avenue in Urbandale.
Including the Urbandale store, Incredible Pizza has seven company-owned stores and 10 franchise operations in the United States and one location in Mexico, where it hopes to expand operations.
Forget the name; this place is about much more than pizza.
Launched in 2002, Incredible Pizza - everything is "Incredible," from the abbreviated name to the company's "Incredible" employees - last year made Inc.com's list of fastest-growing businesses, boasting revenue growth of 693 percent between 2004 and 2007.
A company spokesman said revenues were between $88 million and $100 million last year and should stay in that range this year.
All of that money is generated by parents and grandparents who escort their preschool to teenage charges to one big game room; called the Fairgrounds, it is located just beyond buffet lines and four themed dining rooms: the Starlight Drive-In, the Gymnasium, the Diner and the Family Room.
Founder Rick Barsness has been quoted as saying, "People come for the food and stay for the games." Maybe the games are an afterthought, but they take center stage.
On a recent day, a young mother stuffed a snake's nest of tickets into a redemption machine after her young son had "spent all day" winning at games that range from Guitar Player to Dance Heads to Trophy Bass.
The tickets were in tangled piles around her ankles and stuffed into a handbag. They would be redeemed later for prizes. Little was mentioned about lunch.
However, the cost of a meal is the price of admission at Incredible Pizza. The fare is family-oriented, with all-you-can-eat buffets offering pizza and hot dogs, mix-your-own pasta dishes, and spaghetti and meatballs at a cost ranging from no charge for children under age 3 to $8.99 for ages 12 and older. Golden agers, defined as age 55 and older, can eat for $4.99 on weekdays and $5.99 on weekends. There is a lunch special for other age groups that costs $5.99.
A separate game card provides access to games, bumper cars, go-carts, a Route 66-themed miniature golf course and mini-bowling. The game cards are purchased at whatever amount a parent, presumably, wants to spend on entertainment.
In Urbandale, a partnership with Fat Brain Toys LLC provides an area removed from the sensory overload of the midway-like game room where children ages 2 to 6 can play with interactive games and toys, such as Lego construction sets.
The site of the Urbandale Incredible Pizza was not selected by chance. In fact, little the company does is left to happenstance, said Chris Brewer, executive vice president for marketing and public relations.
The company looks for abandoned big-box stores or supermarkets that provide up to 70,000 square feet of space, preferably in high-traffic areas in cities with at least 50,000 population.
The Urbandale location is on the small side, at 48,000 square feet, said Andrew McCurdy, a transplanted Texan who is the general manager in Urbandale.
In addition, the company wants to know that customers will make a brief drive to the location.
Brewer cited an example at a location "somewhat close to your area" where Barsness visited, anticipating that he would sign a lease on a building for a future Incredible Pizza.
While in that city, he visited a mall and asked shoppers whether they would drive five minutes across town to patronize his business, Brewer said. The answer boiled down to "nobody drives from here to there."
As a result, Barsness telephoned Brewer and ordered a telephone survey of the market area, completed by the next day.
The results aren't in on that survey, but Brewer said it demonstrates a couple of things about the company. One is that Barsness isn't afraid to change his mind on what at first blush appears to be a sure thing, and the other is that the company is not bogged down by corporate bureaucracy.
"Rick is a guy that when he has gathered all the facts and is ready to move forward, you better be on the bus and have your seat belt buckled, because the bus is leaving fast," Brewer said.
That desire to leave in a hurry put Barsness and his wife, Cheryl, in a bit of legal bind earlier this decade when he decided to launch Incredible Pizza after being the largest franchise holder of Mr. Gatti's Pizza shops in Texas.
Barsness had plans to improve on the business, provide better-quality food and focus on family entertainment.
"Our goal was to have great food," Brewer said. "You can have a million-dollar game room, but if the food stinks, no one is going to come back."
Mr. Gatti's filed a lawsuit against Barsness, who was so anxious to get out from under his franchise agreement that he paid Mr. Gatti's a $1 million settlement and agreed to return 1 percent of Incredible Pizza's net sales for a decade. The agreement expires in 2010.
"That will be a great relief to the company," Brewer said.
Barsness was the largest Mr. Gatti's franchisee, operating 11 stores in Texas when he decided to launch Incredible Pizza.
He wanted to open an entertainment center that would cater to families and provide quality food - there is an ample mix of fruits and vegetables, not to mention starches and bite- or kid-size brownies on the menu. The Urbandale store has family-friendly hours, closing at 8 p.m. on weekdays and 9 p.m. on weekends.
Those hours are designed in part to give employees a chance to get home before their children go to bed, said McCurdy.
Incredible Pizza also can open for special hours. It stayed open around the clock for a QuikTrip company outing in order to accommodate workers who staff the convenience stores around the clock. Incredible Pizza also will go into lockdown mode for after-prom parties, and it will open early for special occasions, such as a business breakfast or meeting.
The Urbandale store is set up to display video presentations on the large screen in the Starlight Drive-In dining room, McCurdy said.
Brewer said one of the reasons for the discount lunch menus is to attract a business lunch crowd.
Incredible Pizza also takes a unique approach to hiring, with an online application process that tests potential employees' reading, math and language skills. It also asks questions designed to reveal how they will relate to customers. The responses are rated as weak to moderate to strong, and form the basis for follow-up questions during in-person interviews.
"Obviously, the human element comes into play," Brewer said, but the online application can provide an early indication of whether someone is a strong candidate for employment.
And though Incredible Pizza wants its employees to enjoy family time, it also has high expectations of its executive staff, including a minimum 55-hour workweek that can be arranged around family events.
"Those 55 hours generally evolve into 60 hours or maybe 70 hours," said Brewer, who returned a Business Record telephone call at 6:30 a.m. because he had missed a couple of days of work due to an illness.
Brewer, sounding fresh and rested during that pre-dawn interview, had the attitude of true believer in the company's mission.
The company turns some its profits over to charities, supporting among other things, an orphanage in Mexico, autism causes and Christian missionary work.
McCurdy pointed out that Incredible Pizza is a Christian-based business.
The company also tries to get a feel for the needs of the communities where it is located before getting involved in local charitable efforts. In addition, it has an "edutainment" program in which teachers can give Incredible Pizza game cards to students who perform or behave well in class.
The company has experienced something of a slowdown in sales during the recession, with sales dropping 10 to 15 percent in some cases, and it has cut back in staffing and made other adjustments to remain profitable. Sales are expected to pick up again in the fourth quarter, Brewer said.
Nonetheless, it is fixed on growth and the ability to respond quickly to market changes.
The golden agers who arrived for lunch at the Starlight Drive-In had a different thought in mind when they stepped into the sunlight of a September afternoon.
"Our kids would have had a blast here," the woman said. "And we would have dropped a bundle," her husband added.