Barsness Brand of Family-Friendly Food & Fun Continues to Succeed
by Matt Harding
With more than four decades in the industry, Rick and Cheryl Barsness, owners of America’s Incredible Pizza Company (AIPC), know a thing or two about serving up slices. But it was the unorthodox idea to add games into the mix some 30 years ago that led to their success today.
Rick started off managing a Hardee’s fast food restaurant while he attended the University of North Dakota in his hometown of Grand Forks. He met and married Cheryl, and the couple moved to Austin, Texas, where Rick became the personnel manager at Mr. Gatti’s Pizza in 1974. When the buffet chain was sold to a group of investors, Rick and Cheryl became franchisees, opening their first location in Victoria, Texas, in 1975.
Over the next 25 years, they owned 12 stores from Amarillo to San Antonio. And during that time, a couple of things happened that led to their eventual founding of America’s Incredible Pizza Company.
While operating Mr. Gatti’s, Barsness also owned Captain’s Table in the early 1980s, which at the time was the largest nightclub in Texas. But he says when he and his wife accepted Christ into their lives, they decided to turn that nightclub into a church.
They had a new sign erected when the nightclub-turned-church first opened: “New Happy Hour 11 a.m. to 12 p.m. Every Sunday.”
“It was a change in my life going from one direction to another direction,” said Barsness, adding that he went from entertaining adults to focusing on families.
With that in mind, Barsness was attending the pizza trade show in Las Vegas when AMOA’s expo also happened to be in town. That’s how he got the idea to put game rooms behind his pizza restaurants.
Around 1985, Rick and Cheryl had a wall knocked down at a Mr. Gatti’s location and added 10 to 15 games. They added bumper cars, too. In their remaining 15 or so years as franchisees, they did this to half of their 12 restaurants.
But they always wanted to do more.
“I wanted to do much bigger game rooms,” Barsness said. “I wanted to do go-karts and laser tag and all kinds of fun things.”
Because of a non-compete clause with Mr. Gatti’s and a desire to get back to four-season weather, they moved to Springfield, Mo., and set out to open the first America’s Incredible Pizza Company there in 2001. It was a challenge to get a bank to agree to a loan, but with some persistence, Barsness made it happen.
“They all said, ‘You’re going to build a 40,000-square-foot pizza restaurant?’” he recalled. “I remember going around to nine different banks and all of them turning us down. Finally, one of the banks here said they’d do it.
“It was a huge success right off the bat,” Barsness said. They opened with go-karts, mini-golf, bumper cars and about 50 video and redemption games in a space of 40,000 square feet compared to 20,000 square feet at Mr. Gatti’s.
“My best store at Mr. Gatti’s in Amarillo was doing $2 million a year,” he said. Springfield, a town with similar demographics to Amarillo, opened up at $4 million a year and continues to make that. His location in Tulsa — one of six corporate locations for AIPC — does $8 million a year. The other locations are in St. Louis, San Antonio, Oklahoma City and Memphis, Tenn.
“We saw above and beyond our wildest imaginations.”
In their new fun center, they developed the vision of an idyllic, 1950s-style FEC with a focus on family, friends, food and fun.
“My wife and I both grew up in the ’50s and we love Leave It To Beaver, family-friendly fun,” Barsness said.
They started with a ’50s-style diner and similarly-themed dining rooms surrounding the buffet, which has a soup and salad bar, and serves favorites like mac and cheese, hot dogs, and — of course — pizza. Some of the rooms actually show TV programs from that era.
They built the Starlight Drive-In, too, which screens old family-friendly films. Since Route 66 runs through Springfield, they developed their mini-golf course in that theme.
America’s Incredible Pizza Company calls its game room the “Fairgrounds,” modeled after a classic carnival experience with modern games and attractions. “Now you can have the fair every day,” Barsness said. “It was a hit right from the beginning.”
A typical location today runs about 65,000 square feet, seats 1,000 people in the dining areas, and has roughly 120 employees. The sizable game rooms include around 135 video and redemption games — about half of each — and up to 11 attractions.
In the past five or so years with the arcade, Barsness has taken a more analytical approach. After seeing the movie Moneyball, starring Brad Pitt as real-life former Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane, he started keeping track of how much games were making per square foot based on their floor location.
To optimize success, the games are either moved within the store, rotated to another location or sold once they reach a certain plateau.
When the games are more financially successful, it means they’re in spots where families are enjoying them more.
“People love those redemption games and they want to bring home prizes,” Barsness said. Wizard of Oz and Monopoly have been a couple of recent favorites and Skee-Ball is a classic that keeps on giving. “Cranes have also been good for us for a long time,” he added.
As for attractions, the buffet is #1. It’s a focal point of the business and earns 50 percent of revenue. On weekends, guests are required to purchase a buffet meal since up to 2,000 people come through the doors. Once they eat, it’s off to the Fairgrounds!
While different locations have different attractions, there’s a little bit of everything at America’s Incredible Pizza Company. Go-karts, glow-in-the-dark mini-golf, bumper cars, laser tag, mini bowling, Frog Hopper, spinning tea cups, Scrambler and Drop Zone rides, and even a roller coaster are among the attractions.
Having so many attractions is what Barsness says sets them apart from other food-focused FECs.
“We are much more family-friendly to the 5- to 15-year-old age demographic,” he said. “That’s our target market. We found a really good niche in the marketplace that works for us.”
They used to have single-story laser tag arenas, but have since doubled the size — and the revenue. They have a cool space and underwater Atlantis themes designed by Creative Works to enhance the appeal and experience.
Virtual reality isn’t a part of his vast array of attractions yet, but he said he believes it’ll play a big role in the future of entertainment. “I will find a way to get VR into our operation one way or another,” he said.
With a winning formula, Barsness sees slow and steady growth as the key to his business’ success. He’s decided to stop taking applications from potential franchisees (there are currently four franchise locations — three in Mexico and one in Conroe, Texas; see the following story on the latter) and focus on corporate growth.
“Our goal is to open one new store every year,” he said. “We are looking in the Phoenix market and the Little Rock, Ark., market. Working on expansion and marketing are the two things I really have a passion for on a regular basis.”
Slow growth is important for Barsness, who sees the industry oversaturating itself in some places.
“There are certainly becoming a lot of players out there, and there’s going to be some weeding out,” he said. It’s tough to quickly recoup money on massive $20 million-plus investments, he noted.
“You’ve got to really do some big numbers to succeed,” Barsness said. “Without the alcohol, I don’t think they would survive. Yet we’re able to do our own thing and thrive without alcohol.”
Bringing their brand of family-oriented Christian values to communities is the primary goal for the Barsness family.
At one time or another all five of Rick and Cheryl’s children have worked at the Springfield location. Daughter Ashley McGuire currently works in that store plus with the corporate marketing team and has many other duties. Son Aaron Barsness does construction work for the company.
As for their other children: Amber Mattingly is working on her doctorate degree in divinity in Houston, Aimee Salinas manages a yoga studio in Phoenix and Allie Ramsey teaches autistic children in Springfield.
Their six grandchildren — Peyton, Taylor, Natalie, Jackson, Jerzie and Ethan — have all been around the business, too. Four of them live in the Springfield area and two are in Houston. Barsness said Peyton recently beat Nascar driver Ryan Newman around their go-kart track while he was there to promote a new virtual reality game he’s working on.
Giving back is a key part of America’s Incredible Pizza Company. They’re involved with the Convoy of Hope organization based in Springfield, which does outreach around the globe, St. Jude’s Hospital in Memphis, and many others.
“We’re very involved in our local communities,” Barsness said.
Their buffet and pizza might be the thing that gets people in the door, but it’s the great fun, family and friends that keeps them coming back time and time again.
Sidebar: Franchise Follows the Lead in Houston
Conroe’s Incredible Pizza Draws Diverse Crowds, Fosters Community
Opened in 2005 just off I-45 and about 40 miles north of Houston, Conroe’s Incredible Pizza Company puts an emphasis on the family in “family entertainment center.” And at Conroe’s, everybody is family.
It’s open 361 days a year (you’ll have to entertain yourself on Easter, Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day) and enjoys crowds of small children, teens, middle-aged folks and senior citizens at its indoor, 60,000-square-foot facility.
Owners Ed and Janette Blackburne, along with their business partner Mario Valadez, franchised with America’s Incredible Pizza Company because of its family values and mission to bring together friends and relatives. (It’s one of the brand’s four franchisees.)
“They wanted to invest in a good, clean, family entertainment center that they could take their 12 grandchildren to,” said Kim Valadez, Mario’s wife and director of sales and marketing at Conroe’s Incredible Pizza.
That mission has been at the center of the business since Day 1.
Aside from the everyday fun, Conroe’s hosts senior citizen card groups, defensive driving events and church functions, as well as civic and social engagements.
They’ve worked hard to be a part of the community since opening their doors, including partnering with the Conroe YMCA’s Leap of Faith program, which provides equine therapy to children and adults with special needs.
But, of course, the fun and food are what brings friends and family together. With numerous attractions and buffet-style eating, the 2,000-person capacity fun center caters to a lot of guests, especially on weekends when birthday parties are in full swing.
The fun might start with the large arcade and its roughly 170 games. About 55 percent of revenue comes from games and attractions. Go-karts and laser tag are the top two earners, but games are the FEC’s anchor. Conroe’s owns its own games, which are about 70 percent redemption units to 30 percent video games.
“We gravitated toward redemption games because they fit our clientele,” Valadez said. “The game selections are neater and cooler these days, but we still want a balance with video games.”
Ticket Time by Smart, Big Bass Wheel by Bay Tek and Slam-A-Winner by Benchmark are among their most popular.
The FEC’s redemption counter got a facelift in early May, opening up the counter space and adding neon LED lights. “It’s easier to service more guests with the longer counter,” Valadez noted. “It just looks more modern.”
Prizes range from tiny trinkets and plush toys to themed logo merchandise and electronics.
As an entrance policy, guests are required to either buy a game card, which is good for all attractions, or get the buffet. About 10 percent get only a game card, while the majority head for the buffet first.
While the redemption counter upgrade is the most recent, it’s only one of many improvements that Conroe’s has made in the last few years.
Two years ago, its popular go-kart track was refurbished, and they switched to the all-electric ThunderVolt system from Amusement Products, which they found at IAAPA.
“We originally had a product that was from overseas and it was hard to get parts,” Valadez said. “We found a better product and now have them serviced more easily.”
A multi-level, 4,000-square-foot laser tag arena was added to the space — formerly a Kmart building — in 2007.
“It’s on the list for an upgrade or renovation this year or next,” she said. Currently, it has a space theme designed by Creative Works.
Valadez said the laser tag arena caters to all age groups — with everything from high school lock-ins to corporate team-building events hosted at the venue.
The newest feature at Conroe’s is its Hologate virtual reality attraction, installed in June. It was another IAAPA find.
“We really enjoyed playing Hologate and didn’t have the dizzy feeling often associated with VR,” Valadez said. “We know VR is the new trend and it’s always our goal to stay current with games and attractions.”
A 12-unit bumper car arena, mini-golf, mini-bowling and a soft play area for the little ones round out the attractions at Conroe’s Incredible Pizza.
It’s in the name, so you probably guessed that the buffet has some incredible pizza. What’s more, Conroe’s has four themed dining rooms that seat a total of 600 people. Much of the dining space is 1950s themed and that vibe begins when you walk in the front doors to be greeted by a candy apple red ’57 Chevy.
The buffet’s first dining room is the family room. While it will be getting a bit of a facelift this fall, Valadez says this is the space that “resembles your grandmother’s living room.” The dining room plays old sitcoms like I Love Lucy and Gilligan’s Island.
Another dining room, the Starlight Drive-In, plays old movies like Mary Poppins and Breakfast at Tiffany’s. There’s also a gymnasium dining room that plays cartoons and animated movies.
Finally, the FEC has a typical, 1950s-style diner, complete with red neon lighting and black and white checkerboard flooring.
Since food is a big focus, Conroe’s does it well. Aside from pizza, popular items include chicken pot pies and lasagna from scratch. Homemade cookies and cobblers, cinnamon rolls and root beer floats for dessert are also a hit with customers.
“We try to condition ourselves as a restaurant first and games second,” Valadez said. “We’re a buffet first because our buffet is at the front of the building.
“Our selling point up against almost every bit of our competition is we have more attractions to offer and a great buffet.”
With fun, food and family coming first, it’s also no surprise that Conroe’s has seven popular party rooms, including two glow-in-the-dark rooms.
“We do a huge party business,” Kim said, which makes up about 30 percent of revenue. “We opened with five party rooms, but we couldn’t keep up. Most Saturdays, they’re filled up.”
Keeping it all together are the company’s roughly 150 employees, about 35 of them full-timers. Of course, at Conroe’s everybody’s more like family.
“We’re very community-oriented,” Valadez said, “and we try to present our values everywhere we go in the community and here at Conroe’s.”