How Board Game Restaurants are Winning Big with Customers
Board games are big. Sales of hobby games have increased every year for the last decade, and board game conventions sell out like Beyoncé concerts: The 2016 BoardGameGeek convention in Dallas sold out in two hours, all 3,000 tickets, and “Mad Men” actor Rich Sommer, who is a board game fan, was there to announce the door prize winners. This year’s event is scheduled for November 15–19, and tickets are $150.
And it’s not all Monopoly and Scrabble anymore: An estimated 3,900 new board games were published in 2016, with themes ranging from collecting sushi to Terraforming Mars. Games can last anywhere from one minute to three hours and up, and while most games are competitive, many are cooperative in nature, allowing players to work together toward a common goal.
People love to play games while noshing on their favorite snacks, so it’s no surprise that the foodservice industry has hopped onto the trend. Board game cafés and bars have been appearing in major cities, where guests can enjoy a game of Cards Against Humanity with their coffee or beer. In fact, as of this writing, Kickstarter lists 66 projects related to “board game cafés,” and nine for “board game bars.”
It was only a matter of time before the industry took it one step further and combined board games with full-service dining—so guests aren’t just grabbing a game of Exploding Kittens with their brew, but enjoying appetizers, main dishes, and desserts served right to their table while they settle in for a round of Settlers of Catan.
The owners of these restaurants, many of whom have little previous foodservice experience, are confronted with different challenges than their café and bar brethren—and much different challenges than nontheme restaurants. They’re experimenting with ways to turn a profit when they can’t turn tables quickly, how to keep expensive games from becoming casualties of spilled beer and slopped soup, and how to train waitstaff to be fluent in both food and games.
Here’s how full-service board game restaurants are making it work:
Making Money Without Turning Tables
The biggest conundrum board game restaurant owners face may be figuring out how to stay profitable when guests take up tables for hours at a time. For example, a game of Arkham Horror, a cooperative strategy game based on the works of H.P. Lovecraft, can last up to six hours. Some restaurants also feature video game lounges, which compounds the complexity of turning tables.
Owners are experimenting with various tactics to make up for potential lost revenue or encourage guests to purchase more food. At Pieces in St. Louis, Missouri, for example, each guest pays a $5 library fee, and that fee is reduced by one dollar for every food or drink item purchased. Tabletop, in Cleveland, Ohio, also levies a $5 fee for unlimited access to the game library, but offers an annual membership for $25. This entitles guests to five free play-all-day passes, and a discounted rate of $3.50 once they’ve used those up.
Happily, though, the owners we spoke with report that guests who play and don’t pay aren’t much of a problem. “Some pay their $5 fee and drink water, but that’s not par for the course,” says Laura Leister, owner and front-of-house manager at Pieces.
Andrea Zimmerman, co-owner of The Cloak & Blaster in Orlando, Florida, adds, “We don’t have a problem with it. It’s only 10 percent of the time that we have to think about it.” And Shiva Risner, co-owner of Tabletop, reports, on average, guests stay for two to two-and-a-half hours—and the longer they linger, the more they order.
There’s more to profitability than table turns: Events also bring in revenue. Many board game restaurants host bachelor and bachelorette parties, weddings, fundraisers, and corporate events like team-building meetings. At Tabletop, event pricing includes a dedicated game master who can teach games or moderate a tournament.
Some board game restaurants also cater specifically to the gamer audience with anime cosplay events where guests might dress up as Sailor Moon or Naruto. Or tournaments for games like Magic: The Gathering, a mega-popular collectible card game, or Harry Potter–themed feasts. Battle & Brew in Sandy Springs, Georgia, hosts weekly Geek Trivia nights, monthly cosplay nights, movie release parties, and TV show premiere parties.
So far, the novel concept, plus good food and fun events, are keeping these restaurants popular—and profitable. For example, Mox Boarding House, which has two locations in the Seattle area, serves 250 to 500 covers per day at each location, and Pieces has been bringing in $25,000 more per month than Leister originally projected. Risner reports that, in its second year, Tabletop almost exactly doubled what it had brought in the year before.
Sourcing Skilled Staff
Finding capable, reliable employees is a much-lamented issue for every restaurant. But board game restaurants need to find servers who can also suggest games, explain game rules, and referee arguments, like whether the game’s special effect takes place before or after a card is played.
Zimmerman says people who apply for positions at The Cloak & Blaster come in two types: Those who jump at the chance to work there because they love board games, but they don’t have much foodservice experience, and those who have hospitality experience but don’t know much about games. “It’s more important to have high-quality bartenders and servers,” Zimmerman says, so she tends to hire the experienced servers, and have them play games on their downtime so they learn a handful they can suggest and teach.
Other eateries employ “game masters” or “game navigators” who can teach games on request (though they may also need to help with serving in a pinch). At Tabletop, a game master is available on Friday and Saturday.
Rodelio Aglibot, chef consultant and principal at Pilot Light Hospitality in Los Angeles, worries that potential employees might be wary of joining the staff at an eatery where guests sit and play for hours at a time, fearing they’ll lose out on tips. However, Risner counters that her servers can take on more tables than if they worked at a regular restaurant. “Once a group has eaten, you don’t need to check in on them as often,” she says. “It kind of averages out. When I was a server, four to five tables were all I could take on a busy night. Here we have servers with eight or nine tables and service doesn’t suffer.”
Tip pooling also helps: At Pieces, while each table has a primary server, everyone watches over the whole floor. If one server has a section where tables aren’t turning, they’ll still earn as long as everyone on the team pulls their weight.
Managing the Food + Game Mix
If you’re friends with any serious board gamers, you know they don’t like people eating messy food near their costly games. (Board games these days can cost upward of $60 to $100.) Buttered popcorn? Never. Tacos? Horrors!
Some restaurants simplify the gaming/eating combo by offering only finger foods and small plates, and serving them in a way that reduces mess. Pieces doesn’t have a fryer because grease and games don’t mix, and it doesn’t use peanut products, since they can contaminate games played by peanut-allergic kids. Pieces also serves every item in a lipped bowl—even omelets—so food stays in the bowl and off the games. At Mox Boarding House, every drink must have a coaster, and pasta is a no-no, because it’s too sloppy to eat around expensive board games.
But no matter the precautions, stuff happens. What you have to understand when bringing board games and diners together, Zimmerman says, “is that no matter what you put on the table, they will spill it. It doesn’t matter if it’s finger food or in a closed container, they’ll find a way to get some portion of that product onto the game.” Her solution: She built game replacement costs into The Cloak & Blaster’s business plan.
Then there’s the issue of providing enough room for both board games and food. At Vigilante Bar in Austin, Texas, the owners shrank the size of the physical menus so they wouldn’t take up as much room on the table. And Zimmerman discovered that silverware and condiments just get in the way, so servers provide these items only if the dishes guests order require them.
Some restaurants have purchased custom-designed tables that are more accommodating to games. “Instead of making guests put food in awkward places, we made the tables bigger,” says Damon Morris, co-owner of Mox Boarding House. “Even so, we’re still putting things in smaller dishes. It might not give that perception that they have more food, but it’s better for them that it’s not in the way.” Vigilante Bar had tables made that include flyouts to hold food—where it’s out of the way but still within easy reach.
While owners are concerned with keeping games clean and providing enough space for people to play—and those considerations factor into the types of dishes they offer—they’re not compromising on the quality or taste of the food. Menus include items like panini, sushi, eggplant fries, and teriyaki stir-fry. “Everyone thought we would have Cheetos and Hot Pockets,” says Morris. “But we offer salads, soups, and nice sandwiches. At the Bellevue location we have steak and other high-end dinners, like curries.” At The Cloak & Blaster, you’ll find dishes with nerd-friendly nomenclature, like The Lannister, a burger topped with peanut butter, bacon, and cheddar, and Sauron’s Tower, a “spire of beer-battered onion rings.”
On top of the concerns of what foods to serve and how to serve them, board game restaurant owners need to consider how servers can be attentive and timely without bothering guests every few minutes when they’re in the middle of a complex game of Puerto Rico. At Vigilante Bar, tables are set up with a call button so servers don’t need to keep stopping by the table, which has the fortunate side-effect of decreasing staffing costs.
Most owners, though, simply train their staff in how to read tables, just as with any other type of restaurant. If someone has a beer glass with only an inch of brew left, a server can offer a refill. “But if they’re in the middle of an epic battle in Dungeons and Dragons and the DM [Dungeon Master] is into it, hold off for a break,” Zimmerman advises. “It’s the same as waiting for a conversation break when waiting tables.”
Fighting the Stereotypes
Let’s be honest: When we think of serious gamers, we often think of 20-something men who eschew their daily shower to get in just one more game—not the best look for a restaurant. But the truth is, this is a stereotype. “Nerds come in all shapes and sizes,” Zimmerman says. The owners we spoke with reported their restaurants attract men and women of all ages, and even families who come in to play Candy Land with the kids.
The onus is on the restaurants to dispel the negative stereotype many people hold of board gamers. At Vigilante Bar, they elevated the concept with warmly hued wooden walls, custom-made tables, and attractive bathrooms. “We did surveys on SurveyMonkey,” says marketing manager Zack Daschofsky. “We heard that it’s important to female patrons that the bathroom be very nice, so we put extra [effort] into it: The bathroom has a lounge, and the wallpaper is an inversion of the purple wallpaper in the front.”
Occasionally, guests will walk in off the street seeking a meal and not know what to do, bewildered by all the gaming going on—but staff members at these restaurants are trained to make everyone feel at home. A host, server, or game master will explain the concept and offer to help select a game if the guest is interested. But in general, Zimmerman says, even the most reserved guests will embrace the culture. “Maybe because nerd culture is becoming mainstream, it’s easier, but this wouldn’t have been the case 15 years ago,” she says.
So far, board game restaurants are proving to be a successful concept. Whether that will change when the novelty wears off is still an open question.
Leister says since opening Pieces in December 2016, she’s gotten over 50 calls from people asking how they can do the same, and Zimmerman reports that diners often express how fun it would be to open a board game restaurant of their own. If the early eateries continue to be profitable, a board game restaurant trend is in the cards.