In The COVID Era, What's The Next Move For Board Game Cafes?
Saturday afternoons are typically a busy time at Game Haus, Glendale's premier board game cafe, but on this day in early March the crowd was light. The cafe only had one table of customers and they had all arrived in masks. Although Southern California officials hadn't yet issued a proclamation on The Virus, the cafe's owners, Terry Chiu and Robert Cron, realized they would have to shut down. They had been waiting for the government to drop the hammer, but they decided it was time. Later that day, Saturday, March 14, Game Haus closed its doors, and that's how they've remained.
When L.A. County officials announced on May 29 that restaurants and cafes could reopen for dine-in service, Chiu and Cron faced a new wrinkle. The long list of health department guidelines explicitly prohibited board games, the heart and soul of their business. "They wrote those guidelines thinking Cheesecake Factory and not Game Haus," Cron says.
Plenty has been said about eating and drinking in public, but there's a lot less information out there about the swapping of cards and moving of pieces, the rolling of dice and positioning of miniatures in a table-top gaming room.
So Chiu and Cron have been working with local officials, trying to flesh out a potential plan that would allow them to reopen — shorter time limits for guests, a reservation system to avoid overcrowding, constant cleaning and sanitizing, extra PPE — but they've had a hard time getting a response. They submitted their proposal to the Los Angeles County Health Department on June 12 but never received feedback, and they've had trouble even getting the right person on the phone. That, they say, is the most frustrating aspect of the situation.
"No one wants to take responsibility," Cron says.
The two Game Haus owners have been bounced from agency to agency, getting input from all of them but answers from no one, hearing vaguely encouraging words from the state health department and city councilmembers but no actionable verdicts. When they do get some info, it often ends up conflicting with what they've heard elsewhere. For Cron, it's a confusing and heartbreaking position to be in, "like the kid in the divorce, where mom says one thing and dad says another."
They know Game Haus is an odd duck — few businesses serve food and rely on interactive gameplay — but they feel more like an ugly duckling.
Chiu and Cron have considered other options, such as serving food for takeout or selling retail games, but decided they weren't viable. The best they could do with takeout, they figured, was break even, and the prospects for retail are worse. They'd need a pile of cash to acquire games and the space to store them. Even then, they didn't think they could compete with Amazon.
"If you can wait two days to get it on Prime and have it 30% off, no brick and mortar can beat that," Cron says. But that doesn't mean board game cafes can't try.
Geeky Teas in Burbank, in addition to offering in-house gaming, has always sold board games alongside imported British snacks and fandom and fantasy-focused loose leaf teas. Over the last few months, they've ramped up retail sales and local delivery, with a few twists Jeff Bezos' goliath would never dare replicate. Customers might receive a delivery from Marvel's Hela, Disney's Kim Possible, or Community's Greendale Human Being (among others) — or at least a reasonable facsimile of those characters. Geeky Teas owners Donna Ricci and Erik Eikmeier are putting their cosplay habit to good use for pickups and deliveries.
Their on-site game room, tea service and cat rescue center will remain closed for the foreseeable future, but they're still trucking, smack dab at the center of their Venn diagram of geekdom.
About five minutes northwest on Victory Boulevard in Burbank, the games and esports-focused pub Guildhall has chosen another path to survival — takeout food and drinks. In the old world, its two locations (the other is in Whittier) were nerd-friendly bars and restaurants, with esports on screen and a library of tabletop games. Because Guildhall was, first and foremost, a pub, it was in a better position to transition to takeout, but it took some serious doing. Margins are lower, people order fewer drinks and they've lost the atmosphere they worked so hard to cultivate.
The change has been difficult, financially and psychologically, for owner Spencer Cox, who says he has been riding a rollercoaster of emotions from shock to confidence to locking himself in his office with his head in his hands. He even wondered if he should return to school. Ultimately, he loves Guildhall, his staff and his regulars too much to do anything but tweak his business model, adapt to changing health protocols and try to survive on takeout.
When restaurants and bars were briefly allowed to reopen for dine-in service at the end of May, he spent 10 days figuring out the safest way to bring guests back and transforming Guildhall's space with sanitizing stations and appropriately distanced tables.
"I employ a lot of nerds, and I'm a nerd," Cox says. He had plenty of people who had been closely tracking data and best-practice reports from multiple sources, which bolstered his confidence. "I feel like my staff sometimes is better equipped to find all this information than some government officials."
Like Chiu and Cron, for whom he expressed great admiration — he was a regular at Game Haus and sought their input before opening Guildhall — Cox has been frustrated with the mixed messaging and lack of advance notice from L.A. County's health department. The sudden plunges and twists of the COVID-19 carnival ride have a way of inducing whiplash.
"I've been on the edge of my seat every morning, wondering if there's a new thing they're gonna tell me to do," Cox says. Guildhall bent over backwards to switch to takeout, then back to dine-in, then back to takeout all over again when Governor Gavin Newsom announced that bars would, once again, have to close. Each shift was devastating in its own way.
Cox has returned to the takeout model, rearranging shifts and changing his ordering patterns, taking one more spin on the old tilt-a-whirl, hoping he doesn't lose his lunch.
For a while, no settlers will tame the island of Catan, no amateur investigator will discover who killed who in what room with which weapon, no Battleships will sink, no alien species will force a Cosmic Encounter. Like many small businesses, local board game cafes will do their best to stay afloat however they can, surviving on takeout dinners and loose-leaf tea, holding on as hard as possible with fingers crossed for the coronavirus pandemic to wind down. When it does, they'll be ready to welcome us back in for a beer, pizza and another race to Terraform Mars.
As Chiu of Game Haus says, "In the short time that they've been around, [board game cafes] have come to represent communal activity and gathering and having contact with your friends. All of those things, in a very short time, have become taboo, things you shouldn't do. So when it does come back, the hope is that board game cafes will also symbolize an age of recovery, a way for us to say that we've gotten over this."
Hopefully, his business will still be around to enjoy it.