After bankruptcy, Chuck E. Cheese is doubling down on employee investment

Like so many organizations in the restaurant and entertainment industries, CEC Entertainment—the parent company of family brands Chuck E. Cheese and Peter Piper Pizza—was hit hard financially by the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. The company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy and by the start of 2021 had emerged as a new entity. But its commitment to food, family and fun—baked into its culture—hasn’t wavered, says Rudy Rodriguez, executive vice president, chief legal and HR officer, and corporate secretary.

The mission of the organization—simply, Rodriguez says, to provide a fun and exciting experience for families—is what brings the organizational culture to life and what has fueled so many employees to stay with the company for so long. CEC strives to maximize that potential by prizing internal mobility; nearly half of all managers have been promoted from within.

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“Most of our GMs and district managers started as cast members and worked their way up,” Rodriguez says. “When you get pizza sauce in your blood, it’s difficult to imagine another career. We’re glad to have so much tenure and experience in our organization because it makes it a richer place.”

That’s not to say, however, that the company isn’t experiencing the same talent challenges as most today. Given the current hiring climate, Rodriguez says, CEC is working to communicate to candidates and employees its longstanding commitment to employee experience—such as being an early adopter of access to earned wages—and strengthen where it can, including through new tuition assistance initiatives.

Rodriguez recently spoke with HRE about the rewarding work of supporting employees as they give kids their “best day.”

HRE: How do benefits like access to earned wages factor into the company’s strategy for confronting trends like the Great Resignation and “quiet quitting”?

Rudy Rodriguez, executive vice president, chief legal and HR officer, and corporate secretary CEC Entertainment Chuck E. Cheese
Rudy Rodriguez

Rodriguez: We are looking at every possible avenue to attract and retain our folks at Chuck E. Cheese and Peter Piper Pizza. We have been doing access to earned wages before some other places; we first signed up with PayActiv in 2018, and it has been very successful as a tool for our employees to enjoy the benefits of their work. We’ve been doing it so long that we have to remind ourselves to remind our employees it’s available, so that’s something we’re always working to do. We have to keep getting the word out that you can work today and get paid tomorrow. [Access to earned wages] is one of a host of things we’re doing to show that this is an attractive place to work but something we don’t have to work too hard at is the fun aspect of it. That’s inherent to our concept and is something we’re really proud of. And it’s a big reason why so many young people find this to be an absolute best place to work.

HRE: What was the impetus behind the education assistance program—and what has the response been like from employees so far?

Rodriguez: It’s something we’re very excited about but it’s very new. We completed a deal with the University of Arizona Global Campus earlier this year to provide a couple avenues for assistance to employees. Everyone who works at CEC has the opportunity pursue coursework or a degree plan from the University of Arizona with a 40% discount on tuition. It’s an online university and classes start all the time. Like everything else, information is key, so we work to make sure our teams know about these opportunities.

We also have a relationship with Google Career Certifications, where folks can take classes in a variety of areas, from data analytics to IT, while continuing to do their regular jobs and pursue careers here at CEC. We found this has been really attractive already, especially for people who are considering an internal move to a department they hadn’t considered before; now they have the skills and training and are able to jump into a new area.

We also give out a dozen or so scholarships throughout the system through the CEC Cares program, which is our charitable arm; CEC Entertainment has awarded nearly $50,000 in scholarships to employees over the last three years. When I took over the role in 2018, CEC Cares mostly focused on employee relief but we’ve expanded it to include scholarships and the UAGC [assistance], as well as charitable outreach to the community. We’re looking for every opportunity to make the employee experience as complete as possible and give our people as many opportunities as we can, both within the company and whatever they plan to do in their lives. And we hope that matches up for a good amount of time.

HRE: What impact has the pandemic had on company culture—for worse, and perhaps, for better?

Rodriguez: It’s been a difficult time throughout the pandemic. We were impacted about as much as anybody, if not more because we had a situation where, when the world shut down, at least the Chuck E. Side of the business had to create a carryout and delivery business from scratch. We did that over a few weeks to keep our managers, GMs and senior managers busy and earning a paycheck but the problem was that, at the time, there wasn’t much of a history of folks taking carryout from Chuck E. Cheese. So, we also built a new delivery-only ghost kitchen called Pasqually’s Pizza & Wings and ran that through third-party delivery services. That started to take hold during the pandemic.

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But it’s been no secret that our revenues were very much dependent on in-person experiences so we found we had to take Chapter 11 bankruptcy and we reorganized within a pretty quick amount of time, about six months or so. We emerged at the end of December 2020 as a new company, with a new corporate format and a new board of directors but the same commitment to fun and entertainment. If anything, it was a redoubled commitment. People had a need for that during the pandemic, and we’ve been thrilled to see the response.

Being an employee at a company like this—where really what you’re doing every day is giving children their best day—is something you can’t recreate anywhere else. I think, like me, our cast members and team members go home every night and are so gratified that they work for a company where little kids are thanking Mom or Dad or Grandma for giving them such a fun day. When you have that kind of thing as your driving force of what makes you a company, what your brand is, then work is easy.

HRE: How is CEC leveraging emerging technology to enhance the employee and candidate experience?

Rodriguez: We’re always looking for ways to leverage technology, including by enhancing the recruiting and onboarding experience for candidates and then the employee experience through Workday, which is the platform we use. In our restaurants, we use tablets for training and messaging and are now introducing table-side ordering, and our mobile app has gotten better and better in the last couple of years in terms of functionality. Even before the pandemic, we started moving away from tokens to the Play Pass for card-activated games and, during the pandemic, started putting points on cards as well instead of paper tickets. That itself makes the employee experience more seamless and it’s more guest-friendly.

[Additionally,] CEC Entertainment recently implemented a text platform to improve employee communications. The new system has helped reach younger cast members and increased overall employee engagement tremendously.

HRE: Outside of work, what are you passionate about?

Rodriguez: This job is an extension of my passion for kids, and of providing opportunities for kids. I’ve been on several nonprofit boards over the course of my career, including the Dallas Zoo board since 2005. It’s amazing how similar our missions are and that both organizations have the same sort of satisfaction for making kids happy every day. I was recently appointed to the Texas Trees Foundation board, which is looking for ways to put more trees in the Dallas/Fort Worth area and around the schools of Dallas. I was also just asked to join the University of Texas Southwestern President’s Advisory Council, and I’m very excited about that.

I’m also a founder and the president of Denton High Cares, whose mission is to provide financial assistance to members of the Denton High School family in times of crisis. We’ve given over $130,000 since we formed in 2014. Really, it’s about the most gratifying thing you can do when you’re able to help somebody, and I’m very grateful to be able to be involved in organizations like these that help people up when they need it.

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Jen Colletta
Jen Colletta is managing editor at HRE. She earned bachelor's and master's degrees in writing from La Salle University in Philadelphia and spent 10 years as a newspaper reporter and editor before joining HRE. She can be reached at [email protected].