Spotlight: Drinking and gaming at Emporium Arcade Bar

[Every now and then, Dtoid shines its Spotlight on a games-related artist, event, or place we’d like to share with you guys. Basically, we think this is awesome. Do you think it’s awesome?]

Located in Wicker Park, one of Chicago’s highlight, nightlife neighborhoods for cool kids and old folk, lies the recently opened Emporium Arcade Bar. Having previously managed the popular Barcade in Brooklyn, NY, Emporium co-owner Danny Marks decided to venture back to Chicago to open up the city’s very first arcade bar with his brother Doug Marks.

Myself and fellow Flixist editor Liz Rugg were able to attend a special press opening and had a chance to talk to Doug about the ideas he and Danny have in mind for Emporium’s aesthetic, the inspiration for bringing an arcade bar to Chicago, and even a brief history lesson about arcades in the city. For more information on Emporium Arcade Bar, you can read Liz’s impressions or visit their website

What was the inspiration? 

Doug Marks: In reality, my brother managed a bar in New York.

You guys are brothers? 

Brothers, business partners, all that stuff. He managed a bar in New York that was very similar to this concept, and there’s actually a good number of them that are similar to this around the country, this sort of bar arcade concept. I guess the main inspiration would be that my brother worked in a bar that was very successful, and there was none like this in Chicago. W’’re from Chicago, so he was coming back here, and I joined on board.

And then you wanted to start one in Chicago.

Yeah, there wasn’t one here, and it’s a concept that’s been proven to work pretty much everywhere it’s been. If you look at Yelp reviews of these arcade bars, the main complaint is it’s too crowded. So we’re like, “That’s a good problem!”

Arcades were prohibited in Chicago, so until we started this project, they weren’t actually… no one could have done this. In the early 90s, a parent group got together because, in the 80s, [arcades were] where kids could go to be unsupervised and ditch school for storefront arcades. And so they became prohibited in the early 90s, unless you’re Dave & Buster’s where you’re part of a planned development or in a strip mall bigger than five acres.

We had no idea. That makes more sense.

We had to go with our alderman, Alderman Moreno, who’s been incredible the whole time for us. We had to actually go to City Hall and get them to alter that part of the code to allow arcades that are part of a special-used permit attached to a PPA (Public Place of Amusement) license in a tavern, is what it eventually was the whole compromise had to go through. A lot of the aldermen remember what it was like in the 80s and were hesitant to open the ordinance up wide again, so that was the compromise, which worked for us, because that’s what we were trying to do. We made it very narrow so people can’t just open one.

So is it still that people just can’t open an arcade then? But if it’s an arcade bar, it can get done?

It’d be difficult, because it’d have to be a tavern with a PPA. You’ll have to go through a lot of hoops to get it.

It’s good for you guys, then!

Yeah, it is. We just tried to leave it open, but it does work out really well for us.

Is the main focus for you guys the bar aspect or the arcade aspect?

Well, the arcade is what makes us unique. That’s definitely why people are interested in us. That’s definitely what makes us stand out versus every other bar that is there. Our thought, and the way we say it, is even if we didn’t have games, we wanted to be a good bar. We wanted to be a place where people were going to come back. The games are fun, the games are great, but people aren’t going to go to a bar all the time just to play games. After awhile, that’s not going to draw them, which is why we have 24 taps; we’re making a huge focus on beer.

We’re doing almost all craft beer, no cans, no bottles. We’re doing a big focus on Midwestern craft beer. We’re going to have a lot of whiskey, probably 50 or 60 whiskeys. [We’ll have] high-end, sort of decorative, nice, boutique whiskeys that we’ll probably have a handful of bottles of on-site. We will be able to tailor to a good whiskey crowd where, if people wanted good whiskey, we’re going to have good whiskey. If you want Jim Beam or Jack Daniel’s, we’ll have that too, but we are going to have a nice selection.

From a bar aspect, whiskey and beer is what we want to do well. If you came in on a Thursday night, the beer that’s on tap won’t be the same as the beer on a Saturday night. If you come in at 8 pm on a Saturday, we might have one IPA, but by the end of the night, it might be a completely different IPA. I guess a short answer to your question is we want it where it could be a standalone bar, even if we didn’t have the games. We want it to be a place that we think is really good quality where people can come, have a good time, and play games, but also come back because they like the bar.

With the focus on beers and whiskeys, will you guys have videogame-related drinks?

We’re still playing around with it. You know, it might not be the most creative mixed drinks in the world, but we’ll probably put some creative names to them. If we use a cinnamon whiskey for some sort of drink, maybe we’ll call it “The Double Dragon.” There will be some fun names, that’s for sure. We’ll have our signature cocktail kind of thing that we’ll have fun names that, if you ask what was in them, may not be the most exciting thing in the world, but the names will make you more excited than how other bars call them.

One of the things that I’m really curious about is how you guys feel about the history of arcades in the Midwest. You talked a little bit about how it was prohibited for awhile, but even in the 80s with Iowa being a really big deal with the Twin Galaxies… like how this bar would maybe expand on that, in a sense. It’s the first one in a long time in this area.

Yeah, and even just from being in Chicago is cool, because almost all of these games were made in Chicago, like Bally, Gottlieb, Midway, they were all here. There’s actually a funny point in NARC, I think it’s the second level of NARC, you’re in the California Blue Line stop. In Rampage, it doesn’t look anything like it, but all of a sudden, the first level of Rampage is Joliet, IL.

I’m not exactly familiar with the Twin Galaxies in Iowa, but there’s definitely sort of like… the cool thing about these games is that they’re all like 30 years old, so they’ve all been in different arcades, and they all still have their license stickers on them, and so you see some of our games were in Texas at one point. They all have their own stories to them, which is kind of cool. They were all somehow built in Chicago, one of them made it down to Texas at one point, and now it’s somehow completed its life cycle and made its way back here.

Even going back, our family, for decades, owned movie theaters and roller rinks and bowling alleys, and so they had a lot of arcades in there. It’s a cliche way of saying it’s in our blood. Growing up, we did have arcade games in our house, like we had a couple of them. We had a bubble hockey in our house, so we had that stuff. It’s been something that our family has done for awhile.

Going off of that, is Emporium related to some of these bars your family owns at all, or is it completely its own thing?

Our family never owned any arcade bars. But no, this is a very independent business that my brother and I started.

Did you guys personally buy these arcades or did you inherit them?

No, we bought them all. We bought them all within the last year. Pretty much 80-85% of them came from three places. We really just started off of Craigslist. People list them. You’d be surprised how many arcade games are listed on Craigslist. One of them was a guy who owned five or six arcades, and he closed four of them and was basically looking to retire and get rid of his excess games. So we went in, went around, and looked through his list and were like, “Alright, we’ll take these eight.”

There’s also this sort of niche gaming community out there where some of these people are electricians by trade, that’s what they do during the day, but their hobby and their secondary source of income is they collect these games, fix them up, and generally the people they mainly sell them to are for basements, for their kids, or for their man cave. And every once in awhile, people like us snatch up seven or eight of their games, but it was really like they listed a few, we call them up and like, “What games do you have?” And they’re like, “Just come out, it’s too hard to describe. We have some that are being fixed right now, we have others that are on the floor, others that are coming in.”

And then once we built these relationships, we would give them a list [and say], “These are the 50 games we hope to have in our bar. We don’t have room for 50, but if we can get most of those with stars by 15 of them. Certain ones like Super Mario Bros.”

You guys obviously have a pretty decent selection right now. Do you have games that you want to get in the future that you don’t have yet?

There are so many games we could have. These people have our list. There’s one main guy who, every couple of weeks, would call me and say — and this is how we got Rampage because he knew we wanted Rampage, we wanted the three-player Rampage, so we were waiting for that — “Guess what? We got the Rampage.” And this was the point where we had 30 games, and we didn’t really, until today when we finally put the games in their spots and had the shelves installed and everything, now we realize we have room for two more games that may or may not be taken care of in the next couple of days.

We know there are a few out there — there’s a Frogger that we know of that we might snatch up. Frogger‘s one where we feel we’re missing. There’s certain ones we wanted to get. Other ones we saw randomly when we bought a bunch of games from one person. We saw Circus Charlie and we’re like, “That game’s funny and it’s got nice colors and it wasn’t so expensive.” We were like, “Well, we’re already buying this many from you, you’re delivering them anyways, we’ll take that.” We probably had a list of 10 or 15 that we had to have, and I think we pretty much got all of those, and all the rest were sort of additions.

We try to stay as true as we could to that “golden era”of arcades. The newest game we have is Marvel vs. Capcom, which was [1998], and that’s the newest game we have, then it’s NBA Jam, then it’s Terminator 2, and I don’t think we have any other games from the 90s.

How did you guys determine what kind of era you guys wanted? You wanted the golden age of gaming. Is that just because that’s what you grew up with, and that’s what this generation’s really interested in?

Yeah, that’s pretty much what most of these arcade bars do. They get these vintage games because you look at the people who go to bars and are willing to spend money on good beer and good whiskey aren’t necessarily 21-year-olds as much as they are 30-year-olds, which 21-year-olds are more than welcome to come and we want them here, but they didn’t grow up with arcade games. Like, I’m right on the border of… I had Nintendo more than I had arcade games.

Every single person who comes in here, even our inspectors when they came in here, they would just be like, “I remember that game!” When we had one of our hearings at City Hall, at one of the zoning hearings, the first thing the [zoner] said, his first question to us in this whole big City Hall room with all the aldermen and people waiting for their hearing goes, “My first question for you guys is, ‘Are you going to have Donkey Kong?'”

There is this nostalgic feel that will draw certain people in, but it’s also like… in my opinion, once they started moving towards Dance Dance Revolution and stuff, it sort of took a turn that isn’t as appealing and is more appealing to younger people than it is to people who want to come to a bar. There was definitely that conscious effort to stay as true to what is known as the “golden era” of videogames as possible.

A part of that is the fact that a lot of these arcades have their own tokens, and that was one of the very first things I asked. How hard was it to get your own tokens?

There’s about two or three companies left that still make tokens, so it wasn’t hard. It’s actually kind of funny, because when we were buying the games, we would tell these people, “We want the machines to be this size token.” They’re coming from the minds of the people who have owned arcades. They’re like, “That might be a bad idea. Look,” he reaches into the machine, “this is like five different arcades’ tokens.” So we look at him and we go, “I think you’re thinking of a different mentality.”

There aren’t many people who are over the age of 21 that have a stockpile of tokens in their house from other arcades they’ve been to. There are a lot of reasons we did tokens. (A) It’s cool. It’s a lot cooler to have your own tokens. (B) It makes it easier to also do party packages and stuff. We can say, “We’ll give you guys 20 tokens,” as opposed to saying, “We’ll give you guys five dollars of quarters.” It’s basically giving them money, which I’m not sure is legal. Then also, they’re cheaper than quarters, which is also nice. It’s also if somebody walks out at the end of the night with two of our tokens in their pocket, as opposed to quarters, they’re going to come back here as opposed to using the quarters for their laundry.

It’s a very smart business decision.

In reality, it also is the same reaction we get from everyone when it’s tokens, because we could have done them without our logo on it and just gotten those generic tokens and saved a couple cents per token, and that does add up over the number of tokens we have to have on site, but in reality, when it came down to it, it’s a lot cooler and we can go around to businesses or street fairs and have a little thing and give tokens out to people and drive them to us, because we’re pretty much the only place anywhere remotely nearby, because there are other arcades — there’s Galloping Ghost in Brookfield where you pay and play whatever you want, and Dave & Buster’s has cards.

Would you guys be doing a rotation of games?

There will probably be some rotating. We have Galaga and Galaxian; we really don’t need them both. Galaga is, in my opinion, better than Galaxian, and so that will probably be one of the first ones to leave the floor. There are also a lot of these games that are older than I am, so they’re going to break. We have three or four right now that are currently not in service, but we have tech heads coming over to fix them. It won’t be quite like the beers where every night where there’s going to be a different game, but we’re constantly getting emails from people that are like, “Get this game! Get that game!” It’s ranging from more obvious ones like Frogger or Joust or something like that to really obscure — there seems to be this very dedicated, enthusiastic, and small fighting game community out there.

Oh yeah, especially in Chicago.

They’re like, “Get Street Fighter 3 Super Special Fighter Turbo Edition! And yes, I know it costs $15,000, but if you’ll get it, I’ll be there every day giving all my quarters! We know a lot of places that would put a PlayStation 3 in there and put in a cabinet.” We’re like, “We get it, but this isn’t that place.” There are so many games that we don’t have that came out in the 80s. We think we’ve gotten most of the classics. You have to have a Pac-Man, you have to have these Nintendo games, Rampage, things like that. I think the most obvious one, at least from my opinion, that we don’t have is Frogger. Because we trickle into the 90s, we get the X-Men four-player and the [Teenage Mutant Ninja] Turtles four-player that a lot of people request. We actually know of a Turtles in Time that is the second year Ninja Turtles game that we are very much considering to fill one of our two open slots right now.

That would actually be a very good decision.

I would say Turtles and X-Men are the two that we get the most requested. I don’t think we’ll ever have three between The SimpsonsX-Men, and Turtles. Having two of the three gives them variety. In reality, in my opinion, besides the characters and the background, they’re pretty much the same game. But, you know, it’s to keep people happy. It’s also something cool where people will get excited when we introduce new games. It will probably be every six months without really setting a time period. You could expect to see one or two new games with a couple off the floor where one will break or one will go down or one will constantly be breaking and fixing. Or we might decide we want more pinball or something.

Can you talk about some of your ideas about party packages, or if there are going to be certain packages that you can buy on a night where you can play as much as you want?

It’ll probably be, in the beginning, a case-by-case basis because we don’t have a party space yet. We have the ability to expand next door, actually, and we have lots and lots of ground plans for what it’s going to be. One will definitely be some sort of party room because we think this place is ideal for parties, whether it’s a bachelor parties or it’s a corporate, tech startup company. This place is a lot cooler to have your party at than wherever else you would have it. It’s a good place for [as an example] the end of a date, you could come here and have a drink and play games and it’s much more low key.

But to answer your specific question, we don’t have any specific ideas yet about what exactly it’ll be, but we have the ability to be like, “Well, if you’re going to have 20 people, we can set four of our tables aside, put ‘Reserved’ on there. That’s yours.” We can do a wristband deal, anything we can legally do, we can do because I know there are weird happy hour laws in Chicago where you can’t have set discounted drinks for certain hours.

Pretty much one of the key things we think, and from the number of emails we get from people, is that this is the kind of place that people want to hold their parties. This is the kind of place that people want to come to for their bar crawls and all those things, and they are looking for whatever deals or whatever packages they can get. Over time, we’ll probably establish something based on what makes sense, but since right now we’re not positive of how much we’re going to make every night, it’s hard to say.

Have you been getting a lot of support from the community? Are people excited about it?

From what we’ve learned and what we know is the city hasn’t been more ridiculous for us than they have been for anyone else. It’s just that it seems ridiculous when, all of a sudden, you’re moving along, then it gets stuck in some department somewhere, and you’re just waiting and there’s nothing you can do. They have a stack of papers on their desk everyday and they’re only going to work at a certain speed and we’re not getting priority. You kind of hit a black hole, but like I said, when it comes to the alderman, like I said who’s been awesome, and the neighborhood association from the first day my brother ever met with them, they were like, “This is awesome! This is great!” When we go to the zoning committee, we have a letter from the alderman, we have a letter from the Chamber of Commerce, we have a letter from the neighborhood association; everyone’s like, “We’re on board.”

If we ever go outside to make a phone call or do whatever and we’re standing out front, a few people would come up to us and ask, “When are you opening?!” We have 1200 Facebook friends, and my big surprise is I’m common friends with 30 of them, so I’ve never sent it out to a single person, saying, “Like this page.” It all just happened in the way social media happens, it just spreads out. Yeah, there’s a bureaucratic sense, but when it comes to the local, elected officials, if they’re on board and they’re actually there — this was a vacant storefront. He wants the vacant storefronts gone. He thinks our concept’s good, it’s good for the neighborhood. From day one, he was like, “Yeah, tell me what you need and I’ll do it.” Alderman Moreno has been awesome.

Did you specifically target Wicker Park?

Yeah, we looked at other places, but this seems to fit the niche pretty well. It borders on that hipster cool. I think if we did the bordering between Lincoln Park and Wrigleyville, it would still kind of work, but this is definitely the right place to do the first one. If we wanted to do anything in the future, the name would be known, and we could do it. This was the place that makes perfect sense.

And it’s right between two Blue Line [train station] stops too, so that’s perfect.

I think what sort of works for us is people don’t like going to areas that are the “cool” place to go, like Six Corners (Damen, North, and Milwaukee) where it’s always crowded. But we’re right between North Ave. and Division St., so the foot traffic is enticing, but we’re also not in an area where there are eight bars all next to each other. We want more bars and more restaurants here, we do want that. If we had our perfect world, that furniture store [nearby] would not be there. Wicker Park, I think, was the right place to go.

Can you talk about leaderboards a little bit and how that may lead towards competitions or anything like that?

There will be things along those lines, probably more a chalkboard that will literally be “High Score” and the first time someone sets the high score in Pac-Man, they can tell us, we’ll write it up, then the next person can beat it. From what my brother experienced in the bar in Brooklyn he managed, there’s a handful of world record holders who take a great point of pride of going around and setting these records at as many places as they can.

Eventually, there’ll probably be two or three people that hold pretty much every single high score, and they’re going to be one hundred times higher than anyone will ever come close to scoring, so I think after awhile, it won’t be so competitive and fun where these are the kinds of people playing Galaga that would build up so many free lives that they’d go to the bathroom and come back ten minutes later and their game is still going. It’ll pretty much just be a board posted somewhere with all of the high scores, and that moment you get your name up there, you’ll probably be really excited, but eventually, someone’s going to come in and destroy you and ruin your night the next time you come in here.

Can you tell us any of the rejected names for Emporium?

I’m trying to think. It was honestly a long time ago. Honestly, I can’t even think of them right now. One was like “Drinking Games” and that was sort of cheesy. That was one. We thought, at one point, calling it “Marks’ Bar” because that was our last name. One we came really close to was just calling it “Ourcade Bar” spelled O-U-R.

There were a lot more creative, better names that I just can’t think of anymore. We had a list that has long since been thrown away. Emporium was the original name we played with. We spent a month trying to think of other names, and this was the only name where nobody was like, “This is stupid.” And it was the only name that we said enough times and liked it. We realized after awhile that we were never going to have that moment where we’re like, “That’s it!”

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Geoff Henao
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