IT HAS been 480 days and counting that the Chuck E Cheese franchise in Trinidad has remained closed as children under 12 are still not allowed in safe zones.
In October, the Government drafted a safe zone policy that does not allow children under 12 to enter restaurants and other places of leisure.
But this decision did not sit well with various sectors in the country as they said it posed several challenges, especially for families with children who fall within the age bracket.
The safe zones concept allows fully vaccinated people to access businesses in the leisure and entertainment sector such as cinemas, waterparks and gyms.
Chuck E Cheese opened its doors in 2014 at Brentwood, Chaguanas, and in C3 Centre in San Fernando in 2016.
YAY Entertainment director, Joanna Rostant who owns the right to Chuck E Cheese in Trinidad and Tobago, told the Express Business on Friday that while her establishment can reopen, it makes no sense as its clientele is 12 and under. Opening only for takeout makes no sense, because it’s a games and entertainment outlet.
“Today, we remain the ONLY Chuck E Cheese in the world to be closed due to the pandemic,” Rostant lamented.
The franchise owner explained that she has written to the Ministry of Health on six occasions, and to the Ministry of Finance twice, to outline the restaurant’s strict Covid-19 protocols.
“Chuck E Cheese is a US-based international franchise that follows strict guidelines on the safety of all guests, adults and children. With regard to Covid, we follow the guidelines of the Ministry of Health, World Health Organisation (WHO) and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and other governing bodies.
“We have reduced our capacity to 50 per cent by blocking off every other seating booth and have spaced out the games. These controls and the ability to manage them are absent in malls, beaches, rivers, places of worship and domestic travel, where children under 12 are currently allowed.”
While Rostant is pleased that beach hours have been extended and the rivers have been reopened, she believes there is a clear disconnect with Chuck E Cheese, where the protocols are strictly enforced and managed but children are still not allowed.
“In all of the safe zone states in the US where Chuck E Cheese operates, children are allowed with vaccinated parents. Parents feel extra safe and confident with our stricter than normal Covid protocols.
“In Trinidad and Tobago, child deaths are less than 0.3 per cent of all Covid deaths and 0.01 per cent of all Covid cases. In the US, according to the American Association of Pediatrics, child deaths are 0-0.27 per cent of all Covid deaths (as of 6 January 2022),” Rostant indicated.
Another contradictory move Rostant sees happening is that unvaccinated children are going to school with unvaccinated teachers, staff members and public transport drivers.
“Their education has been severely compromised for over two years as can be seen in the poor SEA, CSEC and CAPE results in 2020 and 2021. They are lacking social interaction, a key part of their development at their age,” she said.
The franchise owner indicated that in 2020, the company lost 35 per cent of its annual revenue. In 2021, the loss of revenue was 85 per cent and this year, they are currently trailing at zero, which cannot be sustained for a young company.
Asked about the future of the franchise in Trinidad, Chuck E Cheese’s entertainment chief operating officer and senior vice president International, Arun Barnes, said while the franchisor understands Trinidad’s closure, it causes somewhat of a force majeure situation.
“Yay Entertainment Ltd is also a master franchisee across other regions of the Caribbean and being closed, will effect that relationship, which requires a master franchisee to be terminated, due to its inability to qualify with basic sub franchise operational support systems—that are key for the brand’s success across Caribbean regions.
“A key issue highlighted by the franchisor to us as a master franchisee is the fact that we have had turnover of key functional support employees, due to uncertainty of allowing children 12 and under back into these spaces,” Barnes said.
Barnes who operates out of Chuck E Cheese’s main headquarters in Dallas, Texas, USA, said they have 541 entertainment centres and restaurants around the world.
Rostant said the franchise was due to build a third store in west Trinidad, but with the uncertainty over pre-teen children being allowed, they have shifted to another country and will be opening in Suriname in June, then in Guyana by early 2023 and hopefully Jamaica in 2023/24.
“Unfortunately, our growth had to shift beyond our shores. For me as a Trinbagonian entrepreneur, this was a hard but necessary decision for the future of the business. This means, though, that local suppliers, services, builders, staff, capability building are all lost and transferred to another country.”
She noted that since the inception of the company, she has transferred all of their key menu items from foreign imports to local suppliers including pizza dough, pizza sauce, meats, chicken and paper products.
“We now make signs locally and we have built architecture capabilities locally that, with technology, have opened accessibility to foreign markets for the service to be exported out of Trinidad and Tobago, as a net foreign exchange earner.”
Rostant highlighted, that Chuck E Cheese has brought millions of revenue dollars to local service providers and manufacturers over the years, which is the right strategy to keep the income flow and capacity build local.
Barnes also told Express Business in an e-mail that Rostant is a leading member of CEC Entertainment’s International Franchise Advisory Council, who in partnership with the franchisor has embarked upon several strategies to improve profitability for the entire franchise system.
“One such key initiative is regional suppliers. As shared above Trinidad’s locally developed suppliers are top contenders to be selected as regional suppliers—allowing them to obtain additional technical know-how to be compliant towards brand standards and be approved for a larger Central American market regional supply sourcing. That will bring in valuable foreign remittances to Trinidad and fuel local employment and tax dollars for Trinidad’s Government,” Barnes stated.
He further stated that this initiative has currently been placed on hold by the franchisor and Trinidad may lose being part of regional supplier development programmes, as the franchisor chooses to work with new suppliers across other Central and Latin American markets that have allowed Chuck E Cheese to trade.
Asked whether the filing of US bankruptcy by Chuck E Cheese’s parent company CEC Entertainment in 2020 would affect any of the 541 establishments across the world, Barnes said that move has not affected their business in any way as it was only relevant to the business in the US. Bankruptcy has helped the company restructure its debt, to provide a more stable financial platform on which to grow.
“The brand remains strong today and the growth strategy is exciting. Our expansion to the Caribbean, coupled with new signings in Europe and Middle East, triggered millions of hits online, signalling strong investor support for the company,” he added.