Written by Marla Hardee Milling | Photos by Anthony Harden
Asheville’s premiere board game café, Well Played, celebrates two years of making all the right moves and helping people connect in the non-digital world.
When three friends rolled the dice on a new concept of fun in the Asheville area, they could only imagine at that time how well the business would do.
Kevan Frazier, Cortland Mercer, and Steve Green fully examined and vetted their concept before opening the doors of Well Played, a board game café located at 58 Wall Street in downtown Asheville. Taking their time really paid off. They celebrated their second anniversary this past March and they’re looking forward to continued growth.
Capital at Play first introduced Well Played in our March 2017 issue as part of our feature on the Western North Carolina gaming industry (“Ready Player One”), just as the business was launching. Now that they are well into their third operational year, we decided to take a closer look at the trio of partners, how they met and funded the business, how they’ve built a successful model for curating fun, and how they’ve supported each other in the midst of immeasurable personal grief.
Getting the Concept Right
Here’s how Well Played works: Customers are invited to pay a $5 per person/per day cover charge at the door, which allows unlimited play while they choose from among close to 700 board games in their growing library. Their website claims it’s the largest board game library in North Carolina. Memberships offering unlimited play are available for $20 per person/per month.
Their clientele covers all ages, from young kids to grandparents, but Kevan also points out that Well Played is rare in its ability to give 18-, 19-, and 20-year-olds a late-night place to hang out, where most venues require an age of 21. “We are one of the few spots you can come to as a 19-year-old with your 23-year-old friend and both of you be well accommodated,” he says.
Gamemasters are on hand to help explain game rules, offer strategy tips, or answer questions, and they serve up a variety of nostalgic comfort food like “The Mac” (their signature mac ‘n’ cheese grilled cheese), flatbread pizzas, snacks, milkshakes, local draft beer, and well-loved snacks like Goldfish, Chex Mix, Animal Crackers, Gummies, and more.
If someone is just stopping in for a glass of wine or dessert after a show, there are free bar games they can play that don’t require the $5 entry fee.
“We wanted to make sure we got it right,” says Steve. “We would meet multiple times a week. It took about a year for us to really develop the idea. We got down into the weeds hard. We were discussing not only what we wanted on the menu, but the employee culture and things we thought would add to the experience of Well Played. It was vital to us to really examine that this is a great place to get a great grilled cheese and also a place to be entertained and make sure people have a smile on their faces. We knew that if we were trying to cultivate fun, we needed to make sure that as many of the elements that are conducive to fun are there.”
But even with the meticulous planning, they also experienced a learning curve once the idea became a reality. As Cortland admits, “You can have a great business plan, but you don’t know what you’re getting into until you open your doors. We, like any other new business, had to figure those things out. We’ve had our trials and tribulations along the way, but we’ve had the good problem of people wanting to be here and wanting to be in the space. We’re grateful that folks bought into the concept early on.”
Reconfiguring their up-fit budget to actually launch the business became challenging, as unexpected expenses continuously came into view as modifications were made. While Kevan won’t say how much they exceeded their original budget, he does say it was “a good chunk more,” and elaborates upon some of the surprises they had to contend with.
“As an example, this space had a bar in it originally. We were just going to do some modifications to the bar, but once they started getting into it [the contractors] said, ‘This is not going to be especially stable.’ We said, ‘Well, that’s not good. What will it cost to put a new bar in?’ That was a few grand we hadn’t planned on doing. And that would happen in the electrical stuff and some of the plumbing stuff. We looked at chairs and tables from other places, and once things started coming together in here, it wouldn’t be the right look. So, we ended up buying new chairs versus buying used chairs. That’s some of the things that added to our cost along the way.”
Continuing to Evolve
Lack of adequate storage space proved problematic as soon as they opened Well Played. On busy weekends Kevan and Cortland would often find themselves racing to the grocery store to stock up on depleted items to keep the menu orders filled. Inconvenient, to say the least, but also not cost effective.
“We didn’t have room to keep a week’s worth of food,” says Kevan. “Part of our lessons of experience learned is that there’s a real balance about when you order and how many times you order a week. There are certain vendors we only want to order once a week from, and that may be because of the cost of the delivery or because of their minimums—and we might be able to meet the minimum once a week, but we can’t meet it twice a week. So, that gets to be a bit of a balancing game there. We have 18 or 20 vendors and try to get local on everything that’s available and cost effective.”
“If you look over there,” Cortland says, while pointing to their bar area, “you’ll see that our only back of the house space is that little dish pit and some storage on top. About a year ago, we got some storage next door. It’s an added monthly cost, but at the same time it allows us to have more of a consistent product. It allows us to have more flexibility with our menu and continue to grow and evolve it. Another thing we’re getting ready to roll out is a really fun cocktail menu. That never would have been possible before because we need storage with cages.”
“Our biggest single challenge is our very small kitchen production space,” agrees Kevan. “The main bar is our kitchen. We don’t have a hidden kitchen somewhere. There are certain limitations. We don’t have a deep-fat fryer, but at the same time, most of the things you can cook with a deep-fat fryer we don’t want to serve because we don’t want greasy hands touching the games.”
They’ve tweaked the menu along the way with what sold and didn’t sell, while remaining true to their original vision to offer up comfort food and snacks like you’d find at grandma’s house. They continually seek out the best ingredients and vendors with the freshest products.
They’ve added salads along the way, nixed the idea of offering Hot Pockets, and changed the type of bread used on the flatbread pizzas. Their biggest seller, hands down, was an original idea.
“We knew we wanted to do grilled cheeses,” says Kevan. “The three of us were thinking about our favorite cheesy things, and I said, ‘How about a mac ‘n’ cheese grilled cheese?’ We all looked at each other and said, ‘YES!’ We could do that.”
“We’re not going to compete with Cúrate in terms of fine dining,” says Cortland, “but we want to provide good quality food for what we do and still deliver that mac ‘n’ cheese homey goodness. It’s all about nostalgia and fun here, and if our food program doesn’t back that up then we would fail on that side of the house.”
Kevan points proudly to the health inspection notice on their wall that recently graded Well Played a sanitation score of 100. “We’ve always been in the upper 90s, but just recently received a 100, and that’s the result of the whole team making that happen.”
They have around 15 employees, most of whom work on a part-time basis. “There’s a pretty high turnover rate around town for staff in the restaurant industry, but we have a handful of folks who’ve been with us since we opened the doors two years ago and, we feel good about that,” says Cortland.
The three owners are tied together through a connection to UNC-Asheville. Kevan and Steve have been friends for around 28 years since their days as classmates at the school. They later connected with Cortland, who served as Student Body President at UNCA during the 2009-10 school year and graduated in 2011.
Kevan and Cortland first tossed around the idea of a board game café together, and then invited Steve to breakfast one morning to consider the possibility of a three-way business partnership. The idea immediately appealed to Steve and brought back memories from his youth. His dad was in the military and his family moved every 12 to 18 months. “We didn’t have a lot of money,” he says, “but I had a Monopoly game. One of the last things we packed was the board game and one of the first things we unpacked was the board game. That was our entertainment.”
Steve adds that the idea also intrigued him because he thought it would be neat to be part of something where you can unplug, unwind, and actually have a conversation with someone: “We decided we were not going to have TVs, we’re not going to offer Wifi, and we’re not going to have a lot of hoopla. It’s almost like you can tell when people have that moment here when they’re like, ‘You know what? I haven’t touched my cell phone in fifteen minutes and I’m okay. I’ve made it.”
The three men structured the business as a partnership LLC with each one having an equal share. “We each made a cash contribution into the business, and then we also took a loan through the Carolina Small Business Development Fund,” says Kevan. “So that was our funding mechanism to put the business together. We didn’t operate on a shoestring, but we tried to be really savvy about what we put money into. We spent some time with the folks at SCORE—they helped us out. Knowing other restauranteurs in Asheville like Charlie Hodge, who owns Sovereign Remedies, was a giant help.”
Each partner brings his own skill sets to the table and is a perfect match to complement the others. “Steve does HR and finance and his wife, Kathrine, is our accountant. Cortland is responsible for media, marketing, and special events, and I am responsible for operations,” says Kevan.
Now here’s the tricky part, time-wise. Each partner has a full-time job outside of the work required to establish and maintain Well Played. Kevan serves as the executive director for Western Carolina University’s programs in Asheville, which is based in Biltmore Park. Cortland works in strategic communications, consulting as director at High Lantern Group. And Steve is employed in economic development.
The trio has worked out the logistics, though. As Kevan explains, “We don’t have to be directly in here a great deal of the time. We have a great team that manages that part of it. We’re all in at least once a week, and of course that’s typically for us at lunchtime, evenings, or weekends. We each do work from home in the evenings, and on weekends and we talk.”
“If any one of us owned Well Played, we couldn’t do that,” he continues. “It’s taken all three of us. None of us had a background in running a restaurant. We had to learn the ropes in that, but Steve and I came in with a lot of large-scale event management, and that often has a food service component in it.”
“The three of us work really well together,” adds Cortland. “I think most business folks get in with partners and they want to tear each other’s throats out by week two, but we’re all still good buddies.”
In terms of profit, Kevan says, “We were in the black our first year and we were in the black last year, so that’s really great. We had made some decisions early on that, because the three of us were still working full-time, we could choose not to take any money out for the owners until our goal was in the third year. We’re now in the third year, so that’s part of our plan. You don’t put money into a business without an expectation that you’ll get a return on it.”
“I should also say that I’m really fortunate that my employer, WCU, is really supportive of this,” Kevan adds. “They know I’ll get my primary work done and get well more than 40 hours from me; but also, it’s a great way to be connected in small business, and hospitality, and tourism, which are two really important areas for us as an institution. Sometimes I refer to Well Played as my graduate internship in entrepreneurship.”
Finding Light Amid the Darkness
Portions of the ceiling at Well Played remain jet black. At one time, blackness immersed the whole space—ceiling, walls, and floor— conducive to a nightclub vibe back when it operated as The National. Green notes that when the Well Played partners took over the building, they would try to hold meetings in the darkened tomb with only one hanging light bulb to illuminate their surroundings.
“This was just not a positive place to meet,” he says. “I love showing people the ceiling and try to help them envision the whole thing—floor to ceiling—just black.”
It’s a bit hard to imagine the void amid the cheerful colors of the space today. They transformed the ebony interior with light making it a place that’s ideal simply for hanging out, with tables and booths up front, along with a bar area, and a back-room space filled with more tables and chairs. They have seats for 82 people. Linking the two gathering areas together is a massive game library in the middle, as well as restrooms.
The three partners worked hard to transform the space, with hues evoking feelings of calm, relaxation, and fun, as well as designs to provoke thought and serve as a backdrop for stimulating conversations and good-natured competitions. “We’re pretty happy with the transformation,” says Steve.
Steve’s awareness of the contrast between the black ceiling and the happy colors in this space becomes all the more relevant upon learning how the businessman’s life recently plunged into the kind of bleakness that seemingly offered little hope of a reprieve. But Steve and his wife, Kathrine, have an arsenal of powerful weapons in their battle against the darkness: They’re keeping light flowing in with their love, hope, and fierce dedication to their four children. They have two boys, ages 13 and 11, and two girls, ages 5 and 3.
The personal darkness appeared suddenly when Steve discovered the older daughter limp in her bedroom, her flesh appearing blue, in June of 2018. As a former EMS medic, he quickly began life-saving efforts and stayed with his daughter in the ambulance as it raced her to Mission Hospital. From there, they went on to Chapel Hill for further testing.
Doctors gave grim news for then 4-year-old Camden (Cami). “She was diagnosed with five high-grade glioblastoma tumors,” says Steve. “Zero percent chance, three to six months to live.”
The news rocked them to their core, left Steve crying for two months, and tested the bonds of his business partnership with Kevan and Cortland. He says one of the reasons he feels comfortable sharing such acutely personal information is because it gives him an avenue to praise Kevan and Cortland for their understanding, friendship, and support as he focused on his family.
“If it had been just me, Well Played would have shut down last June,” says Steve.
He admits that in the early business planning stages, although he was intrigued with the idea, he was also apprehensive about having partners because, as he says, “Partners can cause a delay in action; you might have some condensing; you might have to listen to opinions.” But his apprehension faded as the three worked closely in planning out the concept and building stronger bonds together.
“I couldn’t have asked for better partners,” he continues. “In my case, I couldn’t have continued the operation without partners.”
Fortunately, Kevan and Cortland were able to take on extra day-to-day tasks to keep Well Played operational whenever Steve had to be absent, but Steve and his wife also maintained their share of responsibilities.
“I am very blessed that my wife is a CPA who is brilliant,” says Steve. “We are able, when we are in Memphis at St. Jude’s Hospital, to do payroll and all the other necessary functions. We carry our laptops and do payroll every two weeks, and do all the HR and regulatory and the legal and the insurance. It’s pretty amazing that I have partners who are so supportive and are able to carry on a lot of the business without me being physically present. It’s a blessing.”
As they desperately searched for treatment for their daughter, St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital stepped in at the 11th hour with an experimental drug. Cami has responded extremely well, with Steve saying, “We went from five brain tumors to two in two months, and the other two tumors might not be tumors at all. We may have already had the miracle of miracles.
“Her doctors say she is revolutionizing cancer for patients around the world. There are technically five patients on this drug, but Cami is the only person in the world who hasn’t had some other treatment. She hasn’t had radiation. She hasn’t had another kind of chemo.”
This allows doctors the benefit of truly seeing the result of this drug without influence from other means of treatment.
Even in the midst of scary treatments and an unknown future, Steve tries to preserve moments of fun for Cami. She used to become very anxious when medical staff would access her port, so Steve has created a special ritual of comfort and reassurance for his daughter.
“She had a pen in her hand one time,” he says. “She was anxious and grabbed my arm and started drawing on my arm. She immediately relaxed. So, we did it again and again and again. Turns out that’s all she needs to relax. It’s become our special bond. She draws all over my arms.”
He shows off the scribbles on his left arm. “She’s learning letters and one day she was putting letters together. We decided to see what a funny word would sound like, so we were trying to pronounce all these things.”
Then he rolls up his sleeve and shows off a tattoo that covers the lower portion of his right arm. The design looks like a zentangle of sorts with lots of open spaces in and around the designs. “I got this so she could color it,” he says. “I put some of her favorite things on here like a lightning bug and the sun and a rainbow.”
The tattoo serves as a visible testament of Steve’s love for his daughter and the length he will go to support her and, hopefully, create opportunities to smile and laugh amid the scary uncertainty.
He scrolls through his cell phone to find a photo of himself and Cami, their faces alive with laughter. “We had our first giggle in 10 months about two to three weeks ago. I was really excited. We were at an iHop and I know everyone around us thought we were being silly, but it was a wonderful moment.”
In March, Cami defied the prediction that she would not live to see another birthday. She celebrated her fifth birthday in grand style, along with her younger sister, Cora. Their birthdays are days apart.
“When you’re not expecting to have a good Thanksgiving or a good Christmas or a good New Years, to make it to a birthday you’re not expecting, it’s very special,” Steve says, his eyes flooding with tears. “We had a huge birthday party. We asked for one Disney princess to show up and 14 came. I didn’t even know there were 14 princesses.”
Will Well Played expand to other locations? That’s a question the trio currently ponders. They also field a lot of calls from people across the country who want advice on opening a similar business or those who want Well Played to come to their communities.
“Growth is definitely on our minds. It’s an exploration, but we don’t have plans in hand at this moment for how we’d like to do that,” says Kevan. “We don’t necessarily think that means another location in Asheville. My main office is in south Asheville. The number of repeats we have in south Asheville from Biscuit Head to White Duck and all of those, they do well, but I don’t know if that would be for us.
One thing is for sure—they want to keep creating smiles and give folks an avenue for discussion, learning strategic moves, and problem-solving.
“The more you are connected to the news and what’s going on in the world, things are just crazy and nutty. We’ve lost our ability to talk and to chat and to figure out problems,” says Steve. “There’s a lot space between the extremes, where a lot of people can meet and greet and gather and have a cerebral conversation on how to solve problems, and that’s what board games do. You come together and a lot of times along the way, hopefully, you’re having a lot of fun and either mutually or exclusively find a way to solve a problem. That’s another thing I like about modern board games—a lot of times you’re on the same team as you navigate this thing, so you’re doing teamwork exercises as well.”
“We’ve really built a niche, and people have responded,” summarizes Cortland. “It’s a fun place where you can go and spend time with your friends or family. We found a way to make that work.”
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