Leftovers or Nouvelle Cuisine? Dinner Theatres Evolve

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dinner theatresHungry for a show? Several recent articles about mealtime entertainment whetted our appetite to sample this topic. Read on to satisfy your own craving: learn how a Minnesota dinner theatre successfully reinvented itself and how some restaurants around the world are spicing up their menus with performances. Finally, we’ll offer one theory behind these developments.

Midwestern Makeover. Chanhassen Dinner Theatres (CDT) located in the southwestern suburbs of Minneapolis, recorded its best financial performance in 25 years last year, triumphing over post-recession struggles when annual losses had ranged from $200K to $500K. The StarTribune newspaper chronicled the turnaround, crediting varied entertainment offerings, cost reductions and better facility utilization.

CDT reconfigured its facility to create spaces to add a comedy club, concert venue, events/weddings and pub. These changes, spurred by a new ownership team in 2010, diversified the revenue streams and helped attract new customers. Part of freshening up CDT’s image included a concert series of musical tributes to pop-music icons like Fleetwood Mac, the Beatles and the Carpenters.

Trend Spotting. It appears CDT is bucking the trend of dinner theatres dying out across the country. Founded in 1978, during the industry’s heyday, the National Dinner Theatre Association, today lists only 15 member theatres in 12 states – CDT isn’t even on the list. NDTA’s rolls are down from 32 members ten years ago and nearly 150 in 1976. (If you’re looking for dinner theatres, head to Pennsylvania – they have four.)

Taste for Flair. While traditional dinner theatres may be on the endangered list, a new species of dining-room entertainment has grabbed headlines, including in The Wall Street Journal. An article titled “Dining, Drinks, Drama” highlighted this trend, naming the events “culinary-performance mashups” and citing examples across the globe. In New York City, it’s an illusionist-restauranteur partnership; Spain has a three-ring dining circus developed with Cirque du Soleil; and Luxembourg will feature a former host of Spain’s version of the “Hell’s Kitchen” cooking show in a cabaret restaurant. For your sweet tooth, the Sensorium in New York City produced “Lickestra” – a musical composition created by licks to ice cream cones triggering embedded sensors.

Connecting the Dots. Is there a common thread between the developments outlined above…traditional dinner theatres on the wane, but new alternatives springing up? We have our Cable TV Theory. With the proliferation of entertainment options at home today, including the explosive growth in cable television channels (and now online streaming), it’s obviously harder for dinner theatres to compete for audiences. Chanhassen Dinner Theatres’ turnaround began when it fragmented its offering, akin to broadcasting additional “channels” of entertainment. In a related manner, the new wave of culinary-performance mashups is a logical extension of the ubiquitous cooking shows springing up everywhere. Viewers feast on sizzle and showmanship, watching food lavishly presented more as spectacle than sustenance. Our shorter attention spans today also likely play a role: Why go to dinner and a show, when the two can happen concurrently?

Your Own Recipe? Would you rather patronize a dinner theatre…or just eat a TV dinner on your couch? If you were tasked with inventing the next “big thing” in dining + entertainment, what concept would you try?


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