Interview with Scott O’Brien: Founder of The Dinner Detective

Legendary Hollywood writer and producer David E. Kelley (Boston Legal, Ally McBeal, LA Law) taught Scott O’Brien how to write. Now, O’Brien has created America’s largest murder mystery dinner theater interactive, bringing people closer together without pushing them apart (or cheesing them out). The Dinner Detective is true participatory theater – with an amazing script, to boot.

Home Business Magazine’s team attended a show in Minneapolis, owned by Karen Hokanson. With a background in acting, Hokanson started her franchise as a way to combine her skills of theater and business management. “I started because I was unhappy with the odd jobs I was doing while trying to survive as an artist,” she says. “I saw this as an opportunity that would challenge me and (hopefully) provide fulfillment. I wanted to feel like I was contributing more to the grand scheme of things. It’s been a great process because the franchise provides a lot of support in marketing and other services for franchisees, and all of the franchise owners collaborate with each other.”

Launching a franchise through The Dinner Detective can allow entrepreneurs to make an income in an enjoyable way while providing entertainment to a community. Founder O’Brien shares his story with Home Business Magazine about creating The Dinner Detective, how he brought the company together, and gives advice for small business owners.

HBM: Please share your background.

O’Brien: “I went to high school in Hawaii (Oahu) and went to college at Arizona State University.  I ended up graduating with honors in about three years with a BA in Communication and a minor in Business.  Like most kids growing up in the 80’s and 90’s, I was infatuated with everything Steven Spielberg and George Lucas made, but was also a big proponent of theater, especially alternative theater.  The summer prior to my final semester at ASU, I took an internship in Los Angeles and never looked back.  My first job was on the T.V. show “Party of Five” as a production assistant.  It was the worst and greatest job you can get in the industry.  It allowed me to have access to every department that is involved in creating a television show.  I got to work with the writers, the producers, the on-set crew, the actors, the directors, the post production staff as well as the network.  My job was to do everything everyone else didn’t want to do or didn’t have time to do.  It was glorified grunt work but looking back on it, it was a solid TV education packed into nine grinding months. From there I worked for various TV and film companies that produced both large and small TV shows as well as large motion pictures.  Development/writing quickly became the area I was most passionate about.  Once I realized the direction I wanted to go, I set off on a journey to work for the biggest (and arguably the greatest) writer (ever) on TV.  That was and is David E. Kelley.  Using the contacts I had made and with a little bit of luck, I got a job in his corporate office in 2000 working directly for him in development and production on Ally McBeal, Boston Public, The Practice as well as a few other short lived series.  A few years later I accepted a position in the writers department for The Practice.”

HBM: You were taught under legendary Hollywood writer and producer David E. Kelley. How did he influence the direction you took with your career?

O’Brien: “I had a lot of people who became major influences in my career but David certainly had the most impact from a creative aspect.  He led by example.  He was very confident in his obvious abilities and always followed through on his vision.  He was very good at delegating responsibility and had incredibly creative and talented people around him all the time.  I think one of the most important lessons I learned is knowing your limitations and accepting that you can’t be great at everything.  In order to succeed you must be able to trust your team around you.  I am a firm believer in the idea that all great leaders surround themselves with an even greater team and i definitely witnessed it first hand in his production office.”

HBM: What inspired you to launch The Dinner Detective?

O’Brien: “In early 2004, my wife (Kelly) dragged me to a murder mystery dinner show in Southern CA. I had a bad feeling about it from the start and by the end of the night, my intuition was correct. I had just spent over 3 hours sitting through a very campy and hokey show using “play” money to solve an illogical story line. The irony, though, was this company had been doing the same shtick for 20+ years and was still packing the house every weekend.  On the drive home, I couldn’t stop complaining about how it could have been so much better if this or that had happened.  At the time, Kelly and I were both working for David (she was one of his assistants)  and thought the genre of mystery dinner theater could definitely use a CSI type update.  She basically said if I thought it was so bad and terribly broken, then go fix it.  It was at that moment “The Dinner Detective” was born.”

HBM: What were some of the hurdles you encountered when striving to turn your idea into a reality?

O’Brien: “One of the biggest hurdles we faced was changing our target audiences perception about what interactive dinner theater was and what it could be. This genre is almost 40 years old and hadn’t really evolved at all during the first 25 years. Therefore, when we started (and still to this day) there is a negative stigma attached to murder mystery dinner shows.  We had to rely on word of mouth to get the message out that our production is not campy, the script is not hokey, the jokes and pop culture references are modern day references and the improv actors are amazing.  Once we overcame those hurdles, word of mouth got out and guests started to book more tickets and corporations started to book private events.  Since the proof of concept had already been established it wasnt a complete uphill battle.  We wrote down all the scenarios and situations we didnt like and brainstormed on ways we felt we could improve them.  Essentially we had to do the opposite of what everyone else was doing in this area of theater (generational gapped period noir settings, play money, obvious actors, clip art clues, hokey scripts, stilted dialogue, community theater quality engagement, bad food, poor service, etc). Once we figured all of those line items out then we had to build a business plan and a creative team around us.  Ultimately we came up with the idea to set all of our shows in present day and based all of the scenarios on a mix of various crimes and cold cases.  We used ideas we had from our current jobs and hired very talented improv trained performers from the top improv houses in Los Angeles (iO west, Second City and Upright Citizens Brigade).  We asked that they dress just like everyone else, thus leaving all of the guests to suspect who is a part of the show and who is not. Because the actors are “hidden” or dressed like everyone else, the guests are often seated with the performers and don’t even realize it, until they die (…the performers, not the guests:)  About 50% of our shows are improvised based on what the audience gives us in the moment.  That in and of itself was/is something that wasnt being explored in dinner theater and is the foundation of our shows.”

HBM: How did you pull all the different facets of the business together? Did you have a team at the start?

O’Brien: “In the beginning it was just my wife and I for the most part.  We had a few friends helping out in the casting department, but we put together the entire business model from scratch and all of its components from scratch.  We came from the TV world, so we did have an idea about what we needed in order to put the production together.  My father ran his own company and therefore I had an idea as to what was needed from a business standpoint.  My father and father-in-law have been executives their entire lives and they gave us a lot of insight in the beginning. To be honest though, we just followed our hearts and took what we felt was the right path to take.  We made A LOT of mistakes, but we made sure they were lessons learned.  I took every step possible to limit the damage potential of every avenue we pursued and so far it has paid off.  We started with incredibly talented actors and we quickly realized that the modern day story lines and this incredible cast were the reason people were coming to see the show. So we decided at that point to focus on the talent and the interaction more than anything.  The venues are not as important as we had thought, but they do play a role.  No one wants to walk into a venue that is dirty, smells strange, feels unsafe, etc, but we assured ourselves that the guests were coming to these venues to see the Dinner Detective and not the other way around.  We could move if things didn’t work out and they would follow.  Most of our partnerships at this time are with hotels due to the consistency of their service, staff, food, cleanliness, etc.  It also provides all of our corporate clients with a one stop shop should they want to host a meeting, block rooms, etc after or before our event with them.”

HBM: What are some of the greatest achievements your venture has accomplished?

O’Brien: “1. Securing more than 50 locations nationwide (and still growing). 2. Revenue topping 7 million. 3. Seeing double digit growth during the Great Recession.”

HBM: Where do you see The Dinner Detective in five years?

O’Brien: “1. Expanding overseas. 2. Entering/having partnerships with cruise lines and/or theme parks. 3. Passing the 100 locations marker.”

HBM: How does The Dinner Detective help bring small business teams together?

O’Brien: “One of the greatest assets about our team building formula is that it allows people to interact with their coworkers in a very social type setting while at the same time working on solving riddles and crimes together. Most if not all team building experiences out there do not include food or drink nor do they include theatrical interactive entertainment. By incorporating these features we are able to put the small business teams in an arena that will allow them to focus on their communication skills as well as problem solving skills more efficiently.  Most social interaction with adults involves food and drink, so why not make it a part of a team building experience.  We also seat everyone at round banquet style tables so everybody feels that they are a part of the conversation.  This seating arrangement also allows all of them to share information and ideas with each other at the same time. Another feature we have is our alias name tag table. Upon check-in everybody is told that they need to make up a code name for the evening. There are two rules: the name can’t be boring and it can’t be their own name. They are encouraged to use celebrity names, comic book heroes/villains, sports figures, serial killers, you name it.  By doing this, it allows the introverts to feel that they can play along just like everyone else. One of the best things we hear after most of our corporate events is for how long people continue to call each other by their code names for weeks after the event. It really creates a camaraderie effect and breaks down nonsocial walls especially when someone decides to call themselves a funny name.  We had a show recently where the President of the company put “Captain Underpants” on his name tag.  The staff was completely in shock but then immediately loosened up when they realized he was humanizing himself to the staff and was just like them.  They continued to joke around with the name for days to follow.  It creates a tremendous uplift in social morale when everybody is laughing together as opposed to trying to build something the fastest or complete a race in first place, as is the case with many team-building events.”

HBM: What advice do you have for business owners when looking to foster good communication and morale in the office space?

O’Brien: “Come to The Dinner Detective :-)….At the end of the day, all of the employees in an office have to be able to trust each other to do great work and in order to do that you have to get to know one another. We believe through the experience they have with The Dinner Detective, we can foster positive communication within their teamwork and they can have a truly enjoyable interactive experience that they can’t get anywhere else.”

HBM: Do you have any future projects or business ideas in the works?

O’Brien: “Yes. :)”