Today in Apple history: Cupertino salivates over the restaurant biz

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Apple Cafes were set to sweep the world. They didn't.
Photo: Apple/Mega Bytes International

November 12: Today in Apple history: Apple Cafes November 12, 1996: Apple lays out a wild plan to get into the restaurant business, saying it will open a chain of Apple Cafes.

A bit like Apple Stores without the computers and iPhones for sale, the restaurants would open in cities all around the world. The first, Apple says, will be a 15,000-square-foot restaurant in Los Angeles, opening in late 1997.

None of this winds up happening.

The geek’s Planet Hollywood

Apple partnered with London company Mega Bytes International BVI for its ill-fated restaurant endeavour. The idea was, essentially, to establish a chain of high-profile cybercafes. The concept held a lot of appeal at a time when only 23 percent of U.S. residents enjoyed internet at home. (Today, that figure stands north of 87 percent.)

At a time when theme restaurants like Planet Hollywood were going gangbusters, the concept of hooking up with a tech company — albeit an ailing one — to sell food seemed as serious as lots of dot-com era business plans.

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An inside glimpse of how the Apple Cafe might have looked.
Photo: Apple/Mega Bytes

The retro-styled Apple Cafes would boast seating for around 250 patrons. Customers would take advantage of internet connections, CD-ROM access and FaceTime-style videoconferencing between tables. Small shops within the restaurants would sell Apple merchandise and software. Alongside Los Angeles, Apple scouted potential locations in London, Paris, New York, Tokyo and Sydney.

While the Apple Cafe plan sounds wacky idea now, the idea of a computer company running a restaurant chain isn’t quite as obviously doomed to failure as it might sound.

Chuck E. Cheese’s, which originally built its name on combining food, animated entertainment, and an indoor video arcade, was founded in 1977 by Atari founder Nolan Bushnell — aka the person who gave Steve Jobs one of his first big breaks in the tech industry.

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Here’s how you would have ordered your food.
Photo: Apple/Mega Bytes

Apple changes course

Ultimately, however, the Apple Cafe concept sputtered to a halt. Like Apple’s attempts to launch a videogame console and a line of personal data assistants — or to license Mac OS to other companies or build a Macintosh that was also a TV — the Apple Cafe is now part of an era widely considered to be the “bad old days.”

The following year, Jobs came back to Apple. He wisely streamlined all the distracting side projects in favor of building products like the iMac G3.

On balance, we can’t say that’s totally the wrong idea. Even though we would totally have stopped by for a plate of tacOS and Jony Chive dip!

  • Jay

    I can see them doing this now, competing with starbucks..

    • CelestialTerrestrial

      If they had decent food and the place was big enough, they’d impact other restaurants in the local area. ;-)

      They could set a deal up with the companies that do the Apple food cafe at Corporate in Cupertino. I hear they have pretty decent food there. :-)

      I always thought Apple should sell clothing, coffee mugs, etc. at each of the stores as well. Basically mimic their corporate store.

    • Greg_the_Rugger

      Nope. Not going to happen. Coffee houses with wifi was very popular and made a great venue for meeting other singles. Today, we have unlimited cellular and every restaurant in has wifi. It’s a mature market.

      • Jay

        You underestimate Apple.

  • ducktails

    I can see them doing a small coffee type cafe in certain larger Apple Town Squares that they’re building. I think it would be nice to have a space people could just come and hang out, look at Apple products, perhaps talk about them, get them fixed, or just sit and talk with a friend in general.