Themed restaurants have been touted for their striking interior designs, entertainment elements and destination appeal. But they also have been criticized for lacking the most critical factor in the restaurant business: good food.

"One of the problems with themed restaurants is the failure to attract repeat visitors," says Lee Zaben, CFO of Kahunaville, a restaurant, bar and arcade concept from Wilmington, Del.-based Adventure Dining Inc. "Often, people go once to see it but are dissatisfied (with the food)."

At Kahunaville, "we think the food is one of our strengths," he continues. Designed as a tropical oasis, the restaurant serves a variety of cuisines ranging from Jamaican jerk pork to grilled salmon and angel hair pomodoro. Many of the menu selections, priced between $9.99 and $16.99, have Caribbean and Cajun influences.

"It's not only quality food in large portions, but the presentation is tremendous," Zaben says. The food complemented by the entertaining atmosphere is what attracts repeat visitors.

At approximately 24,000 sq. ft., Kahunaville is divided into three areas: the restaurant, a bar and a midway. A disc jockey engages customers with trivia questions and song requests in the bar area. The midway features the most up-to-date arcade games.

Employees, also referred to as cast members, add to the experience at Kahunaville. At certain times during meals, they sing and dance, encouraging guests to participate. "Our staff is trained to 'wow' the guest," Zaben says. "This means they will do everything the guest expects, plus more."

For example, he continues, if a customer orders bottled water and the restaurant is out of bottled water, it's not unusual for the server to go to another store in the mall to find it.

The first Kahunaville opened in Wilmington in 1996, next to the Big Kahuna Surf night club, after night club guests requested a place that was family-friendly. Each successive Kahunaville location has been an evolution of that original concept.

Kahunaville focuses on an equation for success: quality cast experience + quality guest experience + quality business practices = success. The company follows a philosophy that if its employees are happy, they will take care of the guests, and in turn, the guests will be happy, Zaben says.

Kahunaville targets a wide range of customers. The restaurant attracts families, while the bar brings in more single customers.

"When you're there you feel like you're in a tropical paradise," Zaben says, adding that the restaurant's environment features animatronics, waterfalls and talking tikis. "A musical element includes everything from birds chirping to the sounds of the sea. It is a visual, auditory and sensual experience."

With five locations currently open, Kahunaville plans to open two more restaurants this year, four next year and five to six in 2001. Existing stores are in Wilmington; Langhorne, Pa.; Niles, Ohio; Syracuse, N.Y.; and Holyoke, Mass. The next two restaurants will open in Buffalo, N.Y., in August, and in Grand Rapids, Mich., in November.

The company is focusing on mid-sized markets rather than large cities and expects its future sites to average about 20,000 sq. ft., Zaben says.

Banking on its entertainment value as well as its food, Zaben expects the concept to continue to appeal to shopping center owners. "We believe there's a synergy between shopping malls and us," Zaben says. "They are bringing in a lot more entertainment, and we feel we can offer that."