Feeding all the senses

Combining an immersive environment with high quality cuisine, a new wave of experiential dining that uses technology to create unique settings is having a moment, as Howard Riell outlines

The debut of Manhattan’s spectacular Journey 360 experience in January has spurred much thought among restaurateurs and entrepreneurs around the country.

Journey’s immersive experience is pure showbiz: executive producer Marc Routh is an award-winning Broadway producer of shows like Oklahoma!, Angels in America and Stomp. It features splashy floor-to-ceiling projections, a rainforest waterfall, a volcano, an underwater shipwreck, actors, 20-seat communal tables and most of all fine cuisine.

But will it inspire repeat business? And, importantly, will the dazzling, high-tech lightshow overshadow the food?

To attract diners at different price levels, Journey offers a quartet of experiences:

  • Journey 360, where the 360-degree projections engulf diners in several faraway locales during the prix fixe meal.
  • Journey Odyssey, where live and video performances utilize tabletops to present a comic adventure with a live Broadway cast.
  • Journey Lounge, offering a combination of live and recorded entertainment.
  • Journey À La Carte, in which meals are accompanied by augmented reality.

All told it is an impressive experience, but for many the question remains: is this a reproduceable business model with which others can be successful?

The right time

“There’s never been a better time to offer a personalized, immersive experience than now,” says Arlene Spiegel FCSI, founder and president of Arlene Spiegel & Associates in New York City. “People are hungry for adventures, luxuries, memory building and unique stories to share on social media. The addition of ‘exotic’ food and drinks adds to the sensuality of the experience regardless of the casual lounge, café, private dining, or total experience. Think Van Gogh exhibit in New York City with surround sound/sites.”

As for the business model, Spiegel says it can work. “Depending on the investors’ business plan and the organizations’ structure, a reasonable cash flow return would be expected by end of fiscal year two. However, the venue could be structured similarly to a major department store where each ‘brand’ contributes to the space it occupies in the operation and overhead, and shares in the profits proportionally. It could be complicated, but good business/entertainment attorneys know how to do this.”

Ann Roebuck, principal of Envision Strategies in Nashville, Tennessee, lauds Journey’s collection of different experience and price levels, which expand its customer base and gives diners additional ways to enjoy the facility. “If an initial experience is enjoyable there is an inherent curiosity to go back to experience another area to find the right amount on immersion/interaction that appeals to each person. It’s quite genius to set up the four different areas so that there are options for engagement.”

“Medieval Times or theater-presentation restaurants deliver specific experiences,” notes Marco Amatti FCSI, CEO of Mapa Assessoria in São Paulo, Brazil. “They can be highly successful if established in the right place and time. Journey’s concept goes in towards virtual reality for new generations, generating 3D and similar approaches. Right time. New York City? Right place.”

Amatti points to what he calls “an intangible ingredient: people pay for joy and pleasure. The high risk of being ephemerous makes this a niche concept, so there are heavy investment costs and payback needs to be quicker to justify the high prices.”

Alex Vanderbilt, a partner in Journey, agrees that “absolutely, yes,” there is a danger of overshadowing the food. “Especially if the food program is not strong enough. It is a balance of ensuring that the show is a part of the experience and enhancing it. The food remains the star with excellent execution.”

Food as theater

Undoubtedly, entertainment is at the core of the concept. Steve Konopelski, chef instructor, baking and pastry arts at the Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts in Austin, Texas, and Boulder, Colorado – and a graduate of the Royal Winnipeg Ballet who spent ten years performing in Broadway shows and regional productions – believes effects eclipsing cuisine should be a concern for the creative team.

“As long as they remain purposefully unified to provide a dining experience, then I don’t think the theatrics will overshadow the food but only enhance it,” Konopelski says. “Whether or not chefs want to admit it, fine dining has always been theatrics. There is a language and tone with which you are greeted, a specific ‘script’ chefs want their dishes described with, and even the choreographed flourish with which the food is presented. It has always been theater.”

“Guests will come hungry and certainly want to feel that there’s talent in the kitchen,” says Spiegel. “The added value is that the food itself, even at the bar, comes with the tangible visuals and storytelling that provide a narrative for the actual food and drink. With the collective culinary IQ on the team, there’s no chance of the food taking second stage.”

Better still, the concept may well prove more transplantable than some suspect. New York is “too busy a market for such a theme,” says Mahmood A. Khan, Ph.D., FAND, FMP, professor of hospitality and tourism management at Virginia Tech. “Metropolitan areas such as Washington, DC, with a variety of international folks, or Orlando/Las Vegas, will be appropriate market for this type of once-in-a-lifetime concept.”

“Major cities are a good place to launch the full-blown version, and then more curated versions may work in other smaller, but sophisticated, business hubs,” Spiegel suggests. “Partnering with major hotels in hotspots like Las Vegas is also a smart move.”

“It needs a large tourist population to support it,” Armand Iaia FCSI, the Chicago-based regional manager for Cini•Little International in Des Plaines, Illinois points out. “So, it is not something they will see in Wichita or Dubuque.”

As for fears of sticker shock over price – Journey’s prix fixe meal is $175 per-person – the consensus is that it should not be a problem. “This feels like an outright bargain, and should be at a higher price point,” notes Dan Follese, founder and chef at Food Trend Translator based in Tallahassee, Florida, “considering all of the effort and production that’s gone into creating the concept along with the menu.”

In short, the concept has legs.

Howard Riell

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