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Summary:

Nolan Bushnell, the founder of Atari, Chuck E Cheese, and more than a dozen other game-related ventures (including many lovable duds like AG the Talking Bear) plans to open the first of his game-themed restaurant outlets called uWink Bistro in Woodland Hills, California this morning. Bushnell […]

Nolan Bushnell, the founder of Atari, Chuck E Cheese, and more than a dozen other game-related ventures (including many lovable duds like AG the Talking Bear) plans to open the first of his game-themed restaurant outlets called uWink Bistro in Woodland Hills, California this morning.

Bushnell spent $10 million over 4 years on building the chain and technology, which is a group of restaurants where customers play games and order food from touch-screen tables, which are all connected over a network. It sounds a little too Max Headroom 80′s-style for me, but what would you expect from the guy who created Pong — and who could have predicted huge mechanical rats could sell so much pizza?

Bushnell no longer owns any part of the publicly-traded Chuck E Cheese — he left when it was in bankruptcy – and now is a profitable restaurant chain traded on the New York Stock Exchange. Perhaps this is his way to get in on the missed action. I interviewed Bushnell earlier this year for Red Herring and he said uWink emerged out of his belief that games can ease social interaction. He thinks games are such a cure-all he plans to open game-themed schools in low-income areas (really, no joke).

He’s also one of my favorite entrepreneur interviews ever — he has one crazy idea after the next, his ideas are completely nontraditional and unfundable by VCs, and yet he has had a few large successes. He sold Atari to Warner Communications in 1976 for $28 million. Though he also told me he regrets selling Atari too early and seems to miss out on the pay outs of the really big wins. I have a feeling uWink won’t be one of those massive hits, but if anyone in the area has a chance to check it out, send us your thoughts and photos.

  1. Hmmm…I live nearby. My wife and I will have to try that place out.

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  2. “Bushnell no longer owns any part of the publicly-traded Chuck E Cheese — he left when it was in bankruptcy and now is a profitable restaurant chain traded on the New York Stock Exchange.”

    Wow, Bushnell is being traded on NYSE?

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  3. So basically it’s going to be another Dave & Busters or GameWorks?

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  4. Jesse Kopelman Tuesday, October 17, 2006

    I think the “game-themed schools” is the more intriguing concept. How about an article on that?

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  5. The concept makes sense. Bushnell has a proven track record. The early feedback from the new venture is very positive. Long term UWNK should be a good investment.

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  6. I worked for Nolan at Atari and Axlon (AG Bear..Petster) He understood my love for robotics and he has been one of my heros ever since.

    Nolan… Go for it man!

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  7. I went to uWink for lunch and was underwhelemed. The short story is generic casual dining with computer menus instead of waitresses.

    As a restaurant it was average mall food, bland and overpriced. Getting a seat took a couple minutes for the hostess to deal with her computer to configure my user card. The card was used when ordering to validate who was ordering the food. I stil had to visit the counter to pay my bill. The terminal would not take my credit card. Aside from technical trouble the service was friendly.

    As a technology showcase it was a giant missed opportunity. The terminals on the tables took my order and summed up my tab. Besides a few lame games like memory or trivia that was it.

    If they went to the trouble of installing the computers there was so much more they could have done. For example, create a survey and rank dishes by popoularity or take customer comments for each menu item. There was no internet access. I wanted to scan the news while I waited for my burger. It also lacked any kind of social networking application to meet and connect with others in the restaurant. Like signing on with a personal message of some sort, and then allow patrons to view who is ‘logged in’ at the restaurant.

    Another troubling thing was the empty patio. The neighbor restaurants all had full patios with people enjoying the Southern California climate. uWink had no outdoor tables.

    I’d say they need some more work on their concept before it’s ready to expand. Maybe some software updates and patio friendly computers. Good food wouldn’t hurt, but doesn’t seem to be required at the mall.

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  8. Michael Parker Monday, October 30, 2006

    We ate at Uwink on its third day of being open. I thought the food was GREAT. In fact the restaurant could stand on its food alone. The games were quant and it was fun to play some of the old stuff again. They are adding new games every day, and in the end I think they have a winner.

    I know that getting the first iteriation out there is very important in order to get user feedback, and get the kinks worked out. Think of this first restaurant as the alpha of a great concept that will go far – just give it time.

    BTW – there was not a bad crowd for having 0 advertising except for reviews here and there.

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  9. Just ate there last night. The previous comment is right, consider this beta. They are still working out a lot of kinks. There was a team of 3 programmers there I’m guessing to debug the software and add new features. When I was there there was a link to the TV feed that was inactive, that should be coming soon. There is a lot more that could be done for social interaction among people in the restaurant, it seems like there should be a chat feature, although typing on a touch screen isn’t ideal. I expect the restaurant to be 100% better one year from now. I’d say the food was equivalent to Chili’s with better presentation.

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  10. Dismal. The Woodland Hills restaurant has a poor ambience. A high school cafeteria is more cheerful. Hell, a prison cafeteria is more cheerful. The walls are grey and grimy, the furniture black and damaged. The food is poor – about $20 for a halibut that was dry and not in the least fresh. This fish reeked. They say the games are free but you actually have to pay to play some of them – not right. Considering how “high tech” games are nowadays, you’d expect something more cutting edge. The games at uWink harken back to the Founder’s days at Atari – nothing more complicated than PONG. Service is below par – the servers don’t even know what’s on the menu or how a group of 4 can play interactively. You actually miss having interaction with a waiter. All these guys do is deliver your food. Nothing more. And then when you check out to close your tab, the bill defaults to a 15% tip. 15% for what? The servers hardly even speak to you – and they are all about 17 years old so they speak “valspeak.” Do you tip the guy at the McDonald’s counter? I will not waste my hard earned money here again.

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