Written by Marla Hardee Milling | Photos by Anthony Harden
(following the main story, see our feature on the new Well Played venue and the resurgence of board games)
It may sound like just another retro craze, but people are taking vintage pinball and arcade games seriously and turning them into successful businesses.
T.C. DiBella spotted a Black Hole pinball machine—his all time favorite— for sale on Craigslist a few years ago and knew he had to have it. He successfully convinced his wife, Brandy, to let him buy it as a birthday present for himself. That purchase quickly led to two more pinball machine acquisitions, and that spiraled into an idea for a brand
DiBella was teaching middle school at the time and his wife was working at Asheville Pizza & Brewing, which offers a popular game room at its Merrimon Avenue location. He told owner Mike Rangel his idea of opening a pinball museum, operating on a flat fee model for people to come in and play pinball and arcade games.
“I told him it sounded like a great idea, but I didn’t think it would ever be a business,” says Rangel. “I said, ‘My advice is don’t do it.’ I’m so glad he didn’t listen to me.”
Not only has Asheville Pinball Museum thrived with multitudes of repeat players routinely driving in from Knoxville, Charlotte, Raleigh, and Greenville, South Carolina, as well as those in the Western North Carolina area, the game room at Asheville Pizza & Brewing has also evolved to contain more arcade games. Plus, Asheville Retrocade celebrated its grand opening in January. It’s located beside Odd’s Café on Haywood Road in West Asheville in the space formerly occupied by Pour Taproom. Then there are places like Asheville’s Fun Depot, bowling alleys, and other select venues in the region that offer a smattering of arcade games.
The resurgence of interest in arcade and pinball games is an interesting phenomenon in an age where many have a smart phone and access to a variety of games to play at a moment’s notice. If you’re of a certain generation, you’ll remember playing the landmark games of the late ‘70s and ‘80s. Space Invaders came on the scene in 1978, followed by a host of other games including the most successful game ever: Pac-Man, in 1980. Arcade games were such a draw in the early ‘80s that Time Magazine published a cover story on them in January 1982. Time noted that at the peak of the fad, there were around 13,000 arcades in the United States—at the time, popular machines were being loaded with $400 worth of quarters a week.
In addition to the pull of nostalgia, the state of tension in the country may also be another reason why arcade businesses are seeing a steady flow of customers. Places like Asheville Pinball Museum and Asheville Retrocade are a time capsule of sorts where one can experience the illusion of stepping back into the 1980s. A time that, by comparison to 2017, seems simpler, safer, and much less stressful.
Bankrolling a Dream
After acquiring his first three pinball machines purely for his own interests, T.C. and his wife had a party and one of the guests told him about the Seattle Pinball Museum and said it might be a great idea for Asheville. T.C. loved the idea and quickly set a plan in motion to launch his business. He teamed up with John French, a tech who had worked on the pinball machines he bought. French became a part owner and continues to serve as the tech who maintains and repairs the games.
The DiBellas then dug deep to come up with the capital to start the business. “We maxed out our credit cards,” he says. “I had a ’67 Cougar and I sold that.” He also had an extensive collection of hockey jerseys and some of those were also sold. He had so many that he would tell his middle school students that he’d wear a different jersey to school every Friday and they’d never see the same one twice. Some of the ones he held on to now decorate the walls of his business.
He acquired more pinball machines and found a choice location on the bottom floor of the Battery Park Hotel, right across from the Grove Arcade. When he opened the doors on August 20, 2013, he was beginning his 15th year teaching at Enka Middle School. In all, he taught school for 22 years. “We started school on a Wednesday and I opened that Friday.”
Pinball Museum clientele often skews to people in their 40s and 50s who are reliving the days when they popped quarters into the machines for a play. No quarters are needed here. It’s a flat fee of $15 to come in and play any or all of the machines you want, $12 for kids ten and under. It’s a fair price, T.C. believes, saying “You can go into a place like Fun Depot and leave $50 lighter for one kid.”
“We started turning a profit the second month, but I didn’t have employees then, and I wasn’t taking a salary. I was still employed as a teacher,” he says.
He moved the business in April 2015 to the opposite corner of the Battery Park Hotel, a 2500-sq.-ft. space that had been occupied by Havana Comida Latina Restaurant. The new space is much larger than the first, accommodating more machines and more players. He’s always looking for new machines to buy—classic arcade game The Phoenix is on his short list of games to find—and he has machines in rotation. Some are pulled for repairs. Others are moved out and stored to make way for newer models. One pinball machine that can’t be moved is the gargantuan Hercules pinball machine that’s in a fixed spot in the far right corner of the business. In addition, they have games to sell if anyone is looking to start or expand their own collection. Tuesday is the only day they close, and they devote that day to repairs and maintenance.
It’s customary to have a line at the door when they open for business. They also have a waiting list of people wanting a chance to play. “We have not had a Saturday with less than 120 people,” T.C. says. Pretty amazing since he has never bought any type of advertising. The growth of his business has totally been based on word-of-mouth. They currently let in 75 people at a time—that’s the number of available machines.
The atmosphere is punctuated by the pinball flippers smacking the silver balls, bells, beeps, dings, and the frenetic music of unmistakable games like Pac-Man. The whole space boasts an eclectic mixture of arcade games, pinball, multicade tables, a wild assortment of toys and action figures behind the bar area, and an alcove with an Atari Star Wars X-wing cockpit (T.C. describes it as the “holy grail of video games”) with audio from the movie. It’s surrounded by cardboard cut-outs of the characters. T.C. has also suspended stars, planets, and a mini Death Star from the ceiling. The bathrooms are equally appealing, with action figures bolted to the top of the stall in the men’s room, along with Star Wars and action heroes posters; the women’s bathroom focuses on Wonder Woman posters and an assortment of other amusing and delightful wall décor. Standing outside the two restroom doors—bright Ms. Pac-Man Pink for the girls and bright blue for the boys—T.C. says, “My restrooms are the coolest restrooms in Western North Carolina. People will ask, ‘Who does the decorating?’ And I say, ‘That’s me.’”
T.C. has three full-time employees now, but he says he’s also in almost every day. He does admit it’s tempting to play the games, but he doesn’t always have time. “Every once in a while I get a chance to play. I’ll peek at the high score and try to beat it. For instance, if I see the top score on Asteroids over 10,000, I’ll do it as a challenge.” It provides a flashback to his youth growing up in Coats, a small town south of Raleigh. “There were two traffic lights and a small main street. There were two arcades there, separated by one building. I would go around and collect bottles to turn in for cash.” He’d convert the money into quarters for arcade play.
Will he expand to other locations of the Asheville Pinball Museum? “This is it,” he says, “but I’m confident we could expand.” He says he routinely fields inquiries from others about setting up similar enterprises in nearby cities. He encourages others to open their own place if they’re interested, but he’s not inclined to open more locations saying, “I don’t want to work myself to death.” As to the future of the business, he says it will at least be around until the lease runs out in three and a half years, but he wants to carry it through his twin sons’ college days. They are currently eighth graders at Reynolds Middle School. Whether they’ll want to continue the business is only a guess at this point. “They like coming in here, but they don’t come to play,” says T.C.
As he walks around the separate rooms (it takes some people awhile to realize there are more rooms past the main pinball area in front), T.C. points out a framed autograph of Ernest Cline, author of the novel Ready Player One. He says Cline was quick to recognize that DiBella had lined up four classic video games—Pac-Man, Galaga, Tempest, and Joust. “I see what you did there,” he told him.
“I wanted to create a place for people to come and enjoy,” he continued. “I know there are some people hesitant to come into downtown Asheville. We’re a reason to come downtown, and we’re in one of the safest places to come to.”
In the mood to play some pinball? Pac-Man? Asteroids?
Foosball, even? Whether you’re a noob or a veteran, you’ve
come to the right place! There are opportunities throughout
Western North Carolina, with some places offering small
arcade rooms to offset their primary attraction (like bowling
alleys), while other venues like Fun Depot in Asheville and
The Factory in Franklin put arcade games more in the
spotlight. And then of course there are a handful of locations
that literally devote their entire floor space to nothing but
the games. Note: All of them cater to families, but be aware
that beer and wine are also available for the 21-and-up
crowd at many of them.
AMF STAR LANES (Asheville)
Offers small game room with select arcades.
ASHEVILLE PINBALL MUSEUM (Asheville)
Large range of pinball machines and arcade games, located in downtown Asheville at Battery Park Hotel. Flat-fee admission; games set to free play.
Admission $15; $12 for ages 10 and under.
ASHEVILLE PIZZA & BREWING (Asheville)
Game room at the Merrimon Avenue location only. Geared to kids and adults with classics like Galaga. Operates on token system. Five tokens for $1. Each game takes one token.
ASHEVILLE RETROCADE (West Asheville)
Newly opened on Haywood Road in West Asheville in January 2017, flat fee $10 admission with games set to free play.
CHEROKEE FUN PARK (Cherokee)
Offers a selection of arcade games as well as mini-golf, go-karts and other fun.
CHUCK E. CHEESE’S (Asheville)
Arcade games, food and Wi-Fi. Popular place for birthday parties for the kiddy crowd.
THE FACTORY (Franklin)
Boasts more than 100 arcade games—everything from shooting games, driving skill, dancing, trivia, jamming on the guitar and more. No admission. To play, customers use a re-loadable Fun Card—the cost of each game is debited from the card.
FAMOUS BRICK OVEN PIZZERIA (Beech Mountain)
Family-friendly restaurant with arcade games and pool tables.
FUN DEPOT (Asheville)
No set admission – put the amount of money you want to spend on a game card and then swipe the card at each game you play, which will deduct the amount for the game. Tickets/prizes on some of the games. Arcade games, bumper cars, lazer tag, go-karts, mini golf.
FUN ‘N’ WHEELS (Boone)
Primarily an outdoor go-kart raceway open May-September, they also have a gyro, bumper cars, and some arcade games.
SK8T DEPOT (Hendersonville)
The owners of SK8T Depot are always looking for new games to add to their offering of arcade games. Win tickets and earn prizes.
SKY LANES (West Asheville)
Family-friendly bowling center with 24 lanes, pool, air hockey, video games—and, from 9PM to 12AM, karaoke!
SMOKY MOUNTAIN SK8WY & FUN ZONE (Waynesville)
Offering 40 arcade games plus roller skating, climbing wall, snack bar and more.
GAMERS HAUNT (Asheville)
As with our sidebar about Well Played, this business features board games, typically the dice-rolling, role-playing type. They advertise “magic and gaming accessories, tournaments & events.”
Blast from the Past
“Every game in here has a story,” says owner Michael Penland, as he makes a sweeping motion with his hand in the direction of the pinball machines and arcade games lined up at Asheville Retrocade.
A story that came to mind involves how he acquired his favorite pinball machine, Demolition Man. “You have to travel all over to buy these games,” says Michael. “I went to Tennessee and in a guy’s garage, under a pile of trash, I could see just a piece of it and I says, ‘Is that a Demolition Man pinball machine?’ The guy says, ‘Yeah, but it doesn’t work.’ I told him I didn’t care. I bought it for $400. Now it’s worth $4000 to $4400, but I won’t ever sell it. When that game retires, it’s going to my house.”
He also has some rare machines including a Japanese soccer game that’s one of only three in America. Word got out that he was looking for one, and a man in Atlanta called and told him he had the game imported from Japan for his son. He no longer used it and it was sitting idle in his home. “I paid $250 for that game, but I had to move it out of his basement,” he says.
Michael has engaged in many different businesses over the years, but his love of arcades began about seven years ago when someone brought a Mortal Kombat 2 to his business and he put it out front. He says people played it constantly, and he saw what a money maker the games could be. He collected so many quarters that he has developed a talent for picking up a bucket of the coins and predicting the total within a few dollars.
No quarters are needed at Asheville Retrocade. It operates on the same model as the Asheville Pinball Museum: a flat fee to enter, with games set to free play. At Asheville Retrocade, the price is $10 to play, and there’s more variety than initially meets the eye. “Including our emulators, we’re at over 5,000 games,” he says. “I’m building one now that will have 12,000 games. Some of the hardcore players don’t care for emulators, but literally, there are some games on there that are extinct.”
He enjoyed the excitement when a man came in recently with his young daughter. He told Penland he had searched everywhere for a place that had his favorite arcade game from his teens—Side Arms—but he had never found it. Michael checked the emulator and told him they had it available. “He played and played that game.” It’s also satisfying for him to see parents come in and teach their young kids how to play pinball or a favorite arcade game. “It happens every day,” he says.
“There’s definitely something for everyone here,” says manager Cari Woodfield. In addition to the arcade games, the space includes a pool table and bar on the main floor and Skee-Ball, as well as other games downstairs. Michael has decorated the walls with vintage beer signs, some going back to the 1930s, to further enhance the retro atmosphere. If there’s a lull in business, Cari will take time to play a game—something that’s highly encouraged by Michael. If work is caught up, he wants his employees to become knowledgeable about the games so they can better assist customers.
“As long as I don’t have to repair the games, I’m fine,” Cari quips. She points at Michael saying, “This is our repair guy too.”
Michael, a Western North Carolina native, grew up in Candler and headed to Western Carolina University after graduating from Enka High School. He first thought he’d go after an MBA, but then he read that at the time MBA grads were earning salaries around 50k. He was working as a DJ and already hitting that mark, so he changed his path.
“I didn’t know anything about these games. I have a degree in computer science, but that doesn’t do any good with these games,” he says. “When I started, I knew nothing about voltage or wiring. The first game I tried to repair, I fried it.”
Through trial and error, he’s become adept at repairing games as well as creating new ones. Parts can be difficult to find, but he’s tapped in to an underground network of sorts that provides connections with people all over the world who can source the parts he needs. “For the older classics like Ms. Pac-Man, I keep the old tube monitors. For the newer games, when the tubes blow I convert to LED,” he says. “I’m always building something. I don’t get a lot of sleep at night. I’ll get caught up in a project and lose track of time.”
Losing track of time is something he hopes his customers will experience. If he had his way, people would shut down their cell phones at the door in order to fully immerse themselves in the experience of going back to the flavor of an old school arcade. You won’t find TVs broadcasting sports or news, and he keeps a fresh playlist of ‘70s and ‘80s tunes playing. “That’s all we play,” he says. “It’s always going to be this music. We’ve thought of doing themed nights like rock or disco. All it would take is a quick trip to Goodwill to get a leisure suit. Everyone we talk to is excited about the costumes.”
Cari says customers are coming in and saying it’s great to have a place to hang out on Haywood Road. “It’s a bar, but it’s not part of the bar scene,” she says. “It’s a fun scene.” They don’t serve food, but they do serve snacks along with the beverages. It’s a family-friendly place until 9PM when entrance requires customers to be 21 or older. They are open from noon to 2AM seven days a week. Capacity is 99, but Penland caps it at 80 to ensure that it doesn’t get jam-packed. Customers can come and go with the use of a wristband, but in high-volume times, they may have to wait to get back in.
Michael expects to rent out the basement for private parties. “They’d have the full run of the place, but we’d keep the top open to the public,” he says. Right before opening, he surprised his nieces and nephews (ages five to 11) with their own private party. “They played for four hours,” he says. “I’m the cool uncle.”
An Evolving Game Room
Mike Rangel remembers saving up money mowing lawns to play arcade games back in the day. He also remembers how quickly those games could end, and it would require another quarter to keep playing. The game room at Asheville Pizza & Brewing has evolved quite a bit over the years and has had everything from arcade games to Skee-Ball to air hockey to basketball to a crane machine where kids try to snag a stuffed animal. There were pitfalls. Basketballs would sometimes fly out of bounds and hit someone’s pizza; kids would take skee- balls to the top of the ramp that leads to the game room and let them fly, which created havoc and some near misses; the air hockey table was loud and intrusive for those wanting to enjoy their meal. And then there was the incident with the crane machine.
Mike says it was about five years ago. He had just left for the evening when he got a text from an employee that says: “Kid stuck in claw game. Story at 11.” He turned his car around and headed back as fast as he could. Meanwhile, the manager had phoned 911, and ultimately firefighters at the station on Merrimon Avenue sprinted down to help, bringing the “jaws of life” with them.
“A kid got inside the machine and got stuck,” says Rangel. “He was around seven years old. He had gotten his full body in. His hips got stuck and he was screaming. They busted out the plexiglass to rescue him. He’ll never do that again.”
Today, after a lot of trial and error, the game room has evolved to contain just arcade games and one pinball machine, with another on the way. There’s nothing for anyone to get stuck inside, no loose balls, and no cause for alarm.
When Mike and his former wife, Leigh Oder, first opened Asheville Pizza & Brewing on Merrimon Avenue they envisioned the space that’s now the game room as a hip place for live music and cocktails. Then Leigh became pregnant with their son, Simon, who is now a junior at Asheville High School.
“We realized that people with kids need a place to go and drink a beer,” says Mike, and that drove their decision to create a play space with games; and the big screen and other TVs in that area, showing kid-friendly cartoons and other shows. In the beginning, most of the games were of the “kiddy” variety. The game room would slow down at 7PM. “As a brewery that tries to be family friendly, we can get too kid friendly,” he says.
They added the interactive games and for the reasons mentioned above, they ultimately moved toward the mixture of arcade games they have now. “This last change is something I’ve wanted to do for four or five years. Fifty percent of the time now, the parent blows past the kid to get to the games. Parents say, ‘Ohmigosh you have Galaga,’” says Mike. “The kids still play, but it’s very nostalgic for the adults.”
Machines at the business take tokens and they dole out five for a dollar. They’re thinking of offering specials at times where they’ll hand out a certain number of tokens based on the size of pizza ordered.
Keeping the games in working order is the greatest challenge. “You have to get good at creative electricship,” he says. Plus, Mike has sought help from T.C. DiBella and his crew, and so has Michael Penland. Penland says he doesn’t see the other businesses as competition. “If anything, we should be partnering,” he says. “I called the Pinball Museum, and they came over. T.C. and I hit it off. They came in and played some games. I call their repair guy when I don’t know how to do something on the pinball machines.”
ROLLING THE DICE
Arcade games aren’t the only games that are becoming popular; board games are seeing a resurgence, too! Well Played aims to tap into the recent board game revival.
You won’t hear any beeps and bells of pinball or arcade games, but you might hear cards being shuffled, dice being rolled, and the occasional shout of someone who has solved a challenge or won a game. In March Kevan Frazier and Cortland Mercer unveiled their new board game café in downtown Asheville. It’s called Well Played and is located at 58 Wall Street.
Kevan and Cortland met through UNC-Asheville. Kevan was teaching and Cortland was a student and eventually became student body president. Last year, Cortland read an article in the New York Times about the growing phenomenon of board game cafes. He called Kevan—who has many other roles, including serving as executive director of Western Carolina University programs at Biltmore Park, owner of Asheville By The Foot Tours, historian, speaker, and author—and says, “This would be my dream job.” (They also brought in a third partner for the business, Steve Green.)
That conversation led to a search for more information, as well as travel to cities, like Toronto, where the board game cafés are thriving. They started writing a business plan, and Kevan says, “The more we crunched the numbers, they looked good.” That launched them into a search for a location and securing capital to turn the dream into reality.
They believed the concept would fit the vibe of downtown Asheville, with its proliferation of exquisite restaurants and craft breweries. They believed opening a place to engage with others over a game board instead of a screen of an electronic device would be a great complement to the Asheville scene. But coming up with an adequate location proved challenging. They searched downtown, as well as considering West Asheville, the River Arts District, and the south end of Merrimon Avenue, but they eventually landed on Wall Street. They laugh, pointing out that Wall Street also has what is, in effect, a giant Monopoly piece—the flat iron—marking the way. Their space accommodates the bar, game library, restrooms, and seats/tables for 90 people.
“Remember going over to your best friend’s house and having their mom take care of you while you played games?” asks Kevan. “That’s the same experience we want to provide here.” They’ll serve up craft beer, wine, La Croix, and other beverages, along with snack foods, things like grilled cheese, empanadas, meat and cheese board done in the style of lunchables, and various desserts. They’ll have floating table service to give that feeling of mom making sure that you have everything you need.
Customers will pay a $5 gaming fee to play and they’ll find a wide range of choices in the gaming library, with games color coded and divided into category, skill level, and required number of players. They’ll also have what they refer to as “breadstick” games and those are offered for free. “We have hundreds and hundreds of titles,” says Cortland. “We want people to not be afraid of games they haven’t seen before.” Staff will be well versed in how to play the games to help customers if they need instructions.
While they are gaming focused, they realize it may also be a venue to just share a drink and a conversation. “I think about my wife, Stephanie. She is more interested in it for the social space,” says Cortland. “We want it to be a very comfortable, easy, breezy place.”
Of course, there’s wide opportunity to combine socializing and meeting new people with playing the games. They plan to be a venue for board game meet-ups and will have cards available that people can put on their table inviting others to join in a game. They also plan to have events such as singles’ night or “Meet the Maker” night (where people can meet board game designers), host after-school programs, and offer space for private parties. “It’s a great community gathering space,” he says.
They’ll have eight to 10 employees to keep the place running, but Cortland says, “We’ll be in on a daily basis making sure that people are having a great experience. We’ll be in the role of fun ambassadors.”
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