Latitude 40 mixes Chuck E. Cheese's with Dave and Buster's, adds more frills
February 28, 2013 3:00 PM
John Heller / Post-Gazette
Patrons can eat and watch the Penguins game on big screens at the Sports Theater on the first floor.
John Heller / Post-Gazette
Pizza party birthday parties are popular in the bowling alleys.
John Heller / Post-Gazette
Billy Elmer, local comedian, performs in Latitude Live.
By Alex Zimmerman Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Imagine walking into Chuck E. Cheese's. Most probably recoil in horror at the thought. The kids are giddily shrieking. The cake, soda and pizza are flowing. And there is not nearly enough alcohol to make dancing rodents worthy entertainment for those beyond their tween years.
Now imagine Chuck E. Cheese's meets Dave & Buster's as a big-box store Russian nesting doll. That's Latitude 40 in The Pointe at North Fayette, down the road from Walmart.
The new behemoth 65,000-square-foot entertainment venue houses a full-service restaurant, bowling alley, sports bar, arcade and, soon, a dine-in movie theater.
The second floor, a 21-and-over experience on Fridays and Saturday after 8 p.m., contains a live performance theater, a second kitchen and bowling alley and a bar with a stage for live music and dancing.
Taking the Latitude Live stage on a recent Friday night, comedian Billy Elmer joked, "It's like Chuck E. Cheese on acid here."
His analysis isn't off by much. Latitude 40, which opened in November, is part of a national chain run by Latitude Global Inc. based in Jacksonville, Fla., that bills itself as the "future of family entertainment centers." Each is named for the lines used to mark how far north or south a place sits from the equator.
Latitude Global, whose founder and CEO Brent W. Brown is a 1987 Montour High School grad, opened its first concept venue in Jacksonville in 2011. In addition to Pittsburgh's, a new site has opened in Indianapolis (Latitude 39) and another will soon open in Chicago (Latitude 42).
Latitude 40 strives to give people a market-tested and consistent experience that is a little bit more exciting than what can be found at its middle-of-the-road competition.
"People compare us to Dave and Buster's," said general manager Bob Wolfinger, who oversees a staff of 200. "But we are ... for all ages."
Teresa Sanderbeck was drawn to Latitude 40 by a radio promotion, and decided to come in for Mr. Elmer's performance. She said she enjoyed Mr. Elmer's show, but will likely come back for their more family friendly activities.
"It's better than Chuck E. Cheese because the younger ones can bowl," Ms. Sanderbeck of Darlington said. "We will definitely consider coming back."
On a recent Saturday, about 3,000 people walked through the doors, Mr. Wolfinger said. Even that experience can be a bit, well trippy.
One is immediately confronted by a "greeter" in a bouncer's uniform. Having never been greeted by someone who looks like a member of the president's Secret Service detail, it took a few moments to realize I was being welcomed, not detained.
After making it past the first layer of security, there is an encased "water wall" that is constantly effervescing and changing color. A few people were glued to it, like unwitting mosquitoes waiting to be zapped.
The space feels as expansive as an IKEA -- the venue used to be a furniture store -- but isn't crowded by a confusing layout.
360 Grille, the restaurant around which Mr. Wolfinger wants the entire Latitude 40 experience to rest, is to the left. The hum of TVs and bowling alley equipment wafts in from the right and the arcade is straight ahead. There are few clocks or windows, which like a casino, become artifacts of a world in which those things matter.
On a Friday at 7 p.m. there are young professionals, a few families at the arcade and middle-aged couples coming for comedy and music.
There is nothing novel about the atomized experiences you could have by stopping in for only one thing at a time -- a quick bite to eat or for a Pens game. But Latitude 40 is banking on satisfying a little bit of everyone's tastes by building an ecosystem that is both pre-packaged and finely tuned. Plans are under way, for example, to introduce Zumba classes and open a cigar room.
Food is in integral part of the concept. The menu at 360 Grille features Cheesecake Factory-type options such as pizza, pulled pork, penne and prime rib french dip at about $10-$15 for most entrees. With a cocktail and an appetizer, expect to pay more than $20. It is possible to order food from virtually any seat or table in or outside the restaurant, including the bars and theaters.
The bars and bowling alleys are plastered with flat screen TVs, none of which is directly controlled by the bartenders or floor staff. The media throughout the venue is controlled by a dedicated pod of five audio/visual staff, who flit in and out of a high-tech broadcast room that is perched between the first and second floors.
With the flick of a finger across one of the three iPads in view, they can change the channel on any of the dozens of screens pumping out just about every sporting event imaginable.
Jeff Stasko, the broadcast manager, dons the unofficial title "captain remote" as he sits in front of a grid of TVs ready to make decisions about which TVs will be on which channels to best satisfy the masses.
It's a job he takes seriously, especially since he said people will come in if they know their favorite team will be on, even if it's out of the Pittsburgh market. Mr. Stasko said people come in expecting to watch their favorite obscure Division II team, and sometimes, the Harvard vs. Yale football game. Ensuring that they can meet these requests comes at a cost -- more than $40,000 per year in cable fees alone.
But they figure that if it brings people through the door, it is likely to pay dividends in the long run.
Just a flight of stairs above the broadcast room is a live performance theater. Comedian Elmer was performing and a $15 ticket got you in the door (a VIP ticket for preferred seating and a drink runs $25). Rough around the edges and a bit of a ham, Mr. Elmer cajoled the slightly older crowd with sexually explicit jokes.
None of the jokes was an instant classic, but they slid down and felt just like the restaurant's "boom boom shrimp": satisfying, if not extraordinary.
The crowd emptied out onto the second floor bar, which featured a band playing dad rock covers from Tom Petty to Aerosmith.
A young AV guy wandered around the room, checking levels on his iPad and most in the crowd seemed to be bobbing along to the music.
Most of the people I spoke to had been to Latitude 40 at least once before and appreciated the convenience.
"It's much needed on this side of town," one customer said while leaving Mr. Elmer's show. "We used to have to drive [to] Homestead."
It is tempting to say that Latitude 40 is repackaging an entertainment experience that already exists. But as a business model, that's its greatest strength. Sports bars, bowling, comedy and food aren't going out of style anytime soon.