Chuck E. Cheese Needs to Take Fisticuffs Off The Menu

A 20-person brawl at a Chuck E. Cheese outlet in Wisconsin is just the latest episode of violence at the fast-food chain that caters to kids.

Earlier this week a dad and his young son both had to be treated for injuries after an attempted robbery outside of a Chuck E. Cheese outlet in New Hampshire, Manchester police said, per CBS Boston.

And earlier this month, a patron of a Long Island, New York Chuck E. Cheese was caught on camera taking a swing at another customer (while clutching a baby in her arms).

You know your brand is in trouble when all of the information associated with it starts to resemble a criminal court docket.

The restaurant chain has responded to myriad incidents with the following statement (abridged).

Despite our corporate and in-store staffs’ efforts to facilitate a friendly atmosphere, unfortunately an occasional altercation occurs with a very small percentage of those who visit our restaurants. And like kids’ soccer and baseball games across our country, typically the incidents are not with the kids—but regrettably the parents. For us, even one altercation is too many. In light of this, we will continue to test and evaluate additional measures for the benefit of our guests—such as increased security camera presence and awareness, re-examining our facility seating arrangements and our party parameters as well as working closely with local authorities—with the goal of deterring future incidences. Maintaining a wholesome, safe, family experience that sets a standard across our more than 560 locations is of utmost importance to Chuck E. Cheese’s.

To Chuck E. Cheese's credit, the statement takes pains to tackle some of the problems plaguing the restaurant chain.

But when your brand becomes synonymous with bad behavior—particularly when there are children involved—it’s time to take a much more proactive approach to cauterizing the wounds and protecting the integrity of your company.

Chuck E. Cheese needs to communicate what the company is doing to prevent any fisticuffs  (or worse) from taking place at its outlets. How, exactly, is the company working with local authorities to stem the fighting? And is the company working with academics  and/or psychologists to find ways to nip any fighting in the bud and change the store environment?

The fast-food chain also may need to reevaluate its prize-exchange programs. (The incident in Wisconsin reportedly started after a child was taking too long to exchange his tickets for prizes.)

Putting out a press statement in response to such incidents also leaves the company’s C-level executives off the hook.

Even if we weren’t in the throes of a social media age, wouldn’t it behoove Chuck E. Cheese CEO Michael H Magusiak to communicate to the public in no uncertain terms that fighting at his restaurants is totally unacceptable behavior? PR 101: Never let a crisis go to waste.

Perhaps the company is betting that these incidents will soon be forgotten. The country’s short attention span has always played into companies taking the path of least resistance in response to negative publicity.

Still, we are fast entering an era in which companies need to “own” their mistakes or bear the consequences (read: fewer and fewer customers and even fewer prospects).

Chuck E. Cheese, which dates back to 1977, is likely to weather the latest PR storm. But what happens if another brawl breaks out at one of its outlets and a customer is seriously hurt? Will the restaurant company continue to shift the blame to unruly customers or take more responsibility for why these ugly incidents continue to happen on its premises?

At that point, consumers may not be ready to forgive and forget like they usually do.

Matthew Schwartz: @mpsjourno1