The Chuck E. Cheese's in Amherst got its game room license renewed this week, but only after the Amherst Town Board raised serious concerns about security at the Harlem Road business and imposed a set of conditions on its operators.
Following an April brawl, the Town Board delayed a decision on the license renewal until members could hear from the facility's management. That happened at Monday's Town Board work session.
The Town Board later Monday gave its approval but directed Chuck E. Cheese's to hire another security guard, to make sure guards are prominently positioned inside and outside the facility and to make sure the company puts in place its proposed safety improvements.
"There a lot of places with game room licenses that don't require this level of scrutiny," Amherst Supervisor Brian J. Kulpa told CEC Entertainment representatives Monday.
A top official with CEC Entertainment said the the facility operator already has made a series of changes to improve security and the customer experience. Those measures include updated surveillance cameras, fewer birthday parties at any one time and prominent display of the customer code of conduct, said Chris Kelly, CEC's regional vice president.
"We pride ourselves on being a safe place for family and fun," Kelly said at the work session. "We will continue to make the necessary strides to ensure the Amherst restaurant remains a place where a kid can be a kid."
But board members said Chuck E. Cheese's officials have made similar assurances in the past and the venue continues to generate problems. They indicated they would not accept another serious incident at the facility.
Amherst police are regularly called to the venue at 4994 Harlem Road, at Sheridan Drive. Over the three-year period between June 5, 2015, and Tuesday, town police responded to 123 calls from that address, according to Assistant Police Chief Charles Cohen. Some calls could stem from other businesses in the same retail plaza, Cohen said, but most stores there have distinct addresses.
Two events in the last 15 months have focused renewed attention on the Chuck E. Cheese's.
In March 2017, a family dispute inside the venue turned ugly when a woman was slashed in the face in the parking lot by a relative, according to the lawsuit she filed against the corporation, the town and the Amherst Police Department. A 28-year-old Buffalo woman pleaded guilty to assault and was sentenced to two years in jail.
And in April of this year, a heated argument escalated into a physical melee involving about a half-dozen young adults, most of whom appeared to be teenage girls who are seen in a social media video repeatedly pummeling each other and pulling hair. Amherst police later arrested a 20-year-old Buffalo woman on an assault charge.
That prompted the Town Board to call in CEC officials for questioning.
The Chuck E. Cheese's has more than 30 employees and can hold 1,080 people, although staffing depends on expected crowd size and Kelly said the venue never fills to that capacity.
It's a popular space for birthday parties for children, primarily toddlers up to age 8, with the peak season running during the cold-weather months of January to April, Kelly said.
Kelly began his appearance Monday by recounting the changes he said CEC has made. He said the company typically employs an armed security guard on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays during peak business months. The company is extending that presence through the end of this year.
CEC also has upgraded the surveillance camera system and relocated those cameras for the best coverage. And three, new 55-inch TV monitors set up inside show patrons footage from those cameras to impress upon them that they're being watched, Kelly said.
The company has repositioned games to ensure a good line of sight for employees, and it has reduced the number of seats available for parties – from 290 to 190 – to avoid overcrowding.
The company also is putting all of its employees through enhanced safety training and has put up new, larger posters that detail the code of conduct for patrons.
"CEC is committed to being a good partner in the community and believes our most recent efforts to ensure safety to our guests who visit our restaurant have been effective and apparent," Kelly said.
Town Board members remained skeptical, however, and sought additional measures.
Jacqualine G. Berger said Chuck E. Cheese's representatives in 2009 filed an enhanced security plan, "which obviously was not followed." She said she wanted updates, every six or 12 months, to show whether the company has completed its latest initiatives and is maintaining them into the future.
Kulpa and Police Chief John Askey wondered if Chuck E. Cheese's could do more to control, or keep track of, who is allowed inside the venue and whether a guest knows there is potential for conflict with any relatives. Other businesses that serve children in the town, such as Bounce Magic, require guests to fill out a form before entering. Kelly said Chuck E. Cheese's doesn't operate that way and can't limit who is allowed in because it is open to the public.
Kulpa also said he thought one security guard wasn't enough to handle the largest crowds at the facility.
Kulpa expressed surprise when told the venue serves beer and wine. Observers have linked the number of incidents that happen nationally at Chuck E. Cheese's to the combination of alcohol consumption, pre-existing family disputes and parents' need to aggressively defend any perceived slight of their children.
CEC Entertainment's liquor license was renewed in 2017 and expires next spring.
In the end, the Town Board followed the recommendation of the town’s Building and Police Departments in renewing the game room license.
The board required the company to maintain one security guard on weekends through the rest of this year, to hire a second security guard for weekends between January and April, to station guards near the entrance and to have them include the parking lot as part of their coverage.