The Rise of the Bar Arcade

From Pong’s first appearance in 1972, video games were immediately on an upward trajectory, with arcades making them available to the masses without home consoles. Less than 10 years later, arcades had grown to a $7 billion industry.

In that year, most towns had multiple arcades for quarter-laden kids to choose from, but the “golden age” of arcades was short-lived, with the rise of home computers and inflation leading to the video game crash of 1983. A huge number of arcades went out of business, though the boom in Japanese fighter games like Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat gave them another boost in the early 1990s. Still, the fading of the arcade had begun, and as parents became more reluctant to let their children wander freely and home consoles became more affordable, most arcades disappeared by the 2000s.

Grown-up Gamers

For the last 20 years, arcade game cabinets have mostly been found in family-friendly venues like bowling alleys, movie theaters, and certain pizza restaurant chains, but that is starting to change. The children of the 80s are now of drinking age, and the pull of nostalgia is strong. Arcade bars began springing up a few years ago to fill that gap in the market, and the concept seems to be taking off across the country.

Arcade bars have created unique spaces in their communities, providing places for both adults and children to play games and socialize, though some only allow children during certain hours. Bars, often stocked with local craft beers, serve as an additional motivator for adults, many of whom are already weak to resist the nostalgic pull of the video game cabinets they played as children.

“Our bar and arcade offers something for everyone,” says Kristen Maniscalco, marketing director of Boxcar Bar + Arcade, which currently has two locations in North Carolina. “Whether you’re young or young at heart, in the company of friends or visiting us for a few solo drinks and games, the social environment provides a welcoming vibe that we find truly unique to this concept. The concept resonates quite well with the community, as people seem eager to relive their childhood in an adult environment, with adult beverages.”

Boxcar Bar + Arcade opened first in Raleigh, N.C., in December of 2014, and experienced enough success to open a second location in Greensboro, N.C., in January of this year. Boxcar has plenty of vintage game cabinets, consoles, and pinball machines on location, as well as a bar stocked with local craft beers and cocktails. The food offered on-site is limited to popcorn and whatever food truck happens to be nearby, but that means Boxcar can offer another unique feature: Customers are allowed and even encouraged to bring along their furry friends, who can compete for the coveted title of “Pup of the Month.”

Playing in Expert Mode

Operating an arcade bar certainly adds some extra challenges to the already-difficult task of running a foodservice business. Finding the right balance of games can be difficult, and the age of some of the vintage machines means upkeep can be tricky.

“Vintage machines require constant maintenance,” says Maniscalco. “We have a staff of experienced game technicians that work hard to keep our games in healthy, working condition. We encourage our guests to notify our staff if there are any issues, lost tokens and so on, and we display a note on every machine that allows customers to notify our staff via mobile phone if one of our games is in need of attention. We aim to keep a variety of games on the floor at all times and we count on the feedback of our customers to tell us which games they’d most like to see added to our collection.”

The operators of Boxcar Bar + Arcade encountered an extra layer of difficulty when their plan to not have a kitchen clashed with a North Carolina state law that technically doesn’t allow traditional bars to exist. Establishments must make at least 30 percent of their sales in food or operate as members-only clubs.

“Being that we don’t have a kitchen at our Raleigh or Greensboro locations, customers must sign up for a membership before walking through our doors,” says Maniscalco. “However, the membership requires customers to provide only very basic information (such as name, birthdate, etc.), and applications can be filled out at the door or on our website prior to visiting. Only one person per group needs to be an official member to come in and membership is free. That being the case, besides some occasional misunderstandings on the reason for the requirement, we haven’t experienced any difficulties as a result of this law.”

Enter Player 2

Most bar arcades open now are small, local businesses with only one location, but their popularity may lead to that changing before long. Boxcar Bar + Arcade’s locations in two of North Carolina’s largest cities may be just the beginning, Maniscalco says.

“We’d aimed to expand from the beginning, and we hope to continue expanding to various markets in the Southeast,” she explains.

The short period of time in which arcades were a national pastime might eventually limit the nostalgia factor when it comes to drawing in the millennial demographic. Still, Maniscalco believes the social aspect of the concept will keep it relevant.

“The games of the 80s and 90s have a unique element in that they offer a shared experience, which provides entertainment value to both the players and onlookers, and ultimately brings people together. While the games might change over time, we’re confident that our concept – to offer great craft beer and a relaxed and social environment – will stay strong over time.”

Courtney Barkley
Courtney Barkley

Courtney Barkley has lived in nearly as many southeastern states as most Americans have probably visited, settling in East Tennessee in early 2013. She and her husband Thomas were married during ShadoCon 2012 – an anime, gaming, and comics convention – in a ceremony that featured a reading about dinosaurs in love from a friend dressed as Doctor Who. She spends her free time chasing her brilliant and imaginative son Nathan, hanging out with friends, binge-watching shows, playing video games, and keeping up with the characters of the Marvel Universe. And, any chance she gets, she sneaks off to Florida to visit friends and the happiest place on earth – Disney World.

Connect with Courtney Barkley on Google+