There was a scrawled sign stuck to a backstage wall at most American dinner theaters back in the 70s that read: "They're only here for the roast beef." Sadly, the self-deprecating joke was more true than not and must be considered by anyone interested in how to start and run a dinner theater in these tough economic times. Today, dinner theaters primarily exist in large tourist areas such as Branson, Missouri and Orlando, Florida or as part of already-existing theme parks. If, knowing this, you still want to start a dinner theater, the keys to success are these:
- Find a location with as much traffic as possible, preferably near large destinations like Disney World, Universal Studios or some other tourist attractions.
- Hire the best chef you can afford. There's a reason they call it "DINNER theater." Food is the key to success and even the worst play or musical can be saved by plenty of roast beef and excellent choices on the buffet line.
- Ideally, build or remodel your space with help from others who have done either dinner theater or cafeteria design. The key to success is getting the patron in and out with a minimum of hassle and providing comfortable seating, restrooms and a good view of the stage.
- The best seating setup possible is four to five levels of tables and chairs in a "C" formation with the stage in the center of the C.
- The tables and chairs must be moveable with room for servers to navigate among them even in the dark. Patrons will turn their chairs to face the stage so be prepared for that.
- Lighting is as important for the restaurant area as for the stage. There must be safety lighting at each step from one level to another and exits must be clearly marked so they can be seen with the house lights down.
- Ideally, entrance and egress should be at the top level of the seating area. Under no circumstances should it be near the stage or backstage area or the kitchen.
- In the old days of dinner theater the stage could be lowered from the ceiling into the center of the restaurant or thrust from the back of the auditorium into the eating area with pistons or stage hands. While it is possible to roll buffet carts into a central area and then clear them and set the area up as a stage, it is a major pain for both the director and the chef.
- The ideal, if possible, is to feed the audience in a regular restaurant setting and then move them into a dedicated theater for the show itself but that is not always cost-effective.
- You will probably want to consider getting talent from the cruise-line bookers who are used to putting flashy shows into small spaces with a minimum of expense.
- If your theater relies on tourists, you can get away with doing the same show for six months at a time. If your theater is local, the need to change shows every six weeks will probably require your hiring amateur actors and directors.
Starting a dinner theater can be a very difficult venture in this day and age but it is doable if you have the right location, an excellent chef and access to the necessary talent and facilities.