The pandemic hit the on-premise sector hard, but Covid-19 was particularly devastating for Emporium Arcade Bar. For one thing, the concept combines arcade games with a full bar and live events, with guests interacting and crowding together — the opposite of social distancing.
What’s more, most Emporium Arcade Bar units do not serve food, so pivoting to takeout was not really an option. All five locations were shut down for more than a year, says Doug Marks, who founded Chicago-based Emporium Arcade Bar with his brother Danny 10 years ago. “Like everyone else we relied on the available support and managed to hold on until we could reopen.”
Emporium Arcade Bar did manage to survive the shutdowns, and its rebound is encouraging. “Since the Covid shutdowns subsided last summer, we saw an immediate increase in guests searching to reconnect with friends and family at our venues,” Marks says.
The company is also getting back into expansion mode, opening its first Las Vegas location in February 2021 and eyeing a New Orleans unit.
Games people play
Emporium Arcade Bars offer classic arcade games and pinball, with live shows, DJs, game tournaments and more, along with the full bar. “We offer dozens of two-player games, as well as some consoles that can host upwards of eight players,” Marks says. This makes Emporium Arcade Bar “a great place for a date, as well as the perfect hangout spot to catch up with a group of friends.”
The bars boast more than 50 different types of whiskey. “We have a vast portfolio of spirits, and whiskey makes up a large part of that,” says beverage director Mandy Marsh.”
Across all locations, whiskey brands such as Bulleit, Buffalo Trace, Maker’s Mark and Jameson sell briskly, Marsh says. Emporium is broadening its spirits focus “as we are constantly evolving based on trends at each location.”
Craft beer is also a key part of the concept, she notes, and supporting local breweries is a priority. “We are fortunate enough to be surrounded by a plethora of amazing beer makers,” Marsh says.
“There is a balanced selection of many styles from multiple different local breweries and cideries,” she adds. “We have a diverse clientele, and our beer menu has something for everyone.”
Aside from popular macro brans such as Pabst Blue Ribbon and Modelo, “we see different trends all the time,” Marsh says. “Our sour beer selection is always popular,” with brews like the Rainbow Sherbert from Prairie Artisan Ales in Krebs, OK, and Cherry Shortcut from Chicago’s Lo Rez Brewing. “Additionally, we always see Gumballhead from 3 Floyds and Son Of Juice from Maplewood do very well,” she notes.
Wine is not its biggest selling category, she notes, but Emporium does offer a red blend, a rosé and a pinot grigio from Crafters Union. “They are conveniently canned, making it a good fit for our target market.”
Spirit sales are on the rise with the help of Emporium’s cocktail selection; each location has a curated drink menu, says Marsh. Looking at the Chicago locations, the most popular cocktails at the Fulton Market include the Suzie Q (El Jimador Reposado tequila, Suze, Nixta elote liqueur and lemon, topped with yuzu soda) and Goldeneye (El Jimador Reposado tequila, Hine Cognac, apple spice, lemon, topped with spiced orange ginger soda). Both are priced at $13.
At Logan Square, the That’s My Jam, a spicy strawberry Margarita using Cazadores Blanco tequila, triple sec, strawberry, Ancho Reyes chile liqueur and lime juice, and the Sour Hour (both $10), with gin, amaretto liqueur, strawberry, lemon and lime juice, are top sellers.
The Side Hustle ($10), Emporium’s version of a Sidecar, with Hennessy Cognac, triple sec, ginger, peach and lemon juice, is a hit at the Wicker Park unit. So is Big City ($10), “our take on a Vegas bomb that can be used as a cocktail or a bomb using Jack Daniel’s Honey, Ketel One Peach & Orange Blossom vodka, peach liqueur and lemon juice,” Marsh says. “Make it a bomb by adding Red Bull!”
Frozen cocktails, added in June 2021, have been a success as well. Range in price from $10 to $14, “they are a fun addition to our beverage program.” Marsh says.
One popular frozen offering is the Rosita, with Reposado tequila, Campari, watermelon Red Bull, strawberry and lime juice. “We have two sides to our slushie machines, and Wicker Park uses a recipe where the two can be mixed to create our take on a Miami Vice.”
Depending on the location, the cocktail menu changes seasonally or week to week, Marsh says. “We also often collaborate with liquor brands for specific events that will have a featured cocktail.”
Emporium uses beer and shot combos to promote brands and recurring events every month such as Trivia nights, and DJ sets or parties. For instance, “Our Bombazo event at Wicker Park has been sponsored by Hornitos and Teremana Tequila,” Marsh says. “We have made many cocktails and slushies to promote their products.”
The brothers Marks opened the first Emporium Arcade Bar in Chicago in 2012. The concept’s vintage game collection, artistic ambiance and specialty cocktail and beverage menu earned it plenty of fans and repeat customers.
A second location in Chicago, Emporium Logan Square launched in 2014, and a third, Chicago Fulton Market, opened in 2017. Then it was time to head west.
Emporium Arcade Bar unveiled its San Francisco location in 2018, followed one in Oakland that opened in 2019. What drew the company to the Bay Area?
“A longtime friend from Chicago was living in San Francisco and encouraged us to look out there,” says Doug Marks. “It felt like San Francisco has the right mix of our target demographic, along with the tech corporate sector, that would make us a good fit.”
It also helped that they found a unique building — a 1926 movie theater — in a prime San Francisco location. The 12,000-sq. ft. space had been the historic Harding Theater, and also previously served as a concert hall and later a church.
Following the Covid pause to the business, the Las Vegas location opened this past February and a Emporium Arcade Bar in New Orleans is scheduled for some time this summer.
None of the locations, except Oakland, which has a rotating, pop-up kitchen, serve food. Why? “Not serving food and instead only serving drinks is a much simpler and easier to control business model,” says Marks.
“Food requires a lot of cost and labor to operate,” he adds. “We prefer to focus on just serving beer and liquor and allowing guests to bring in their own food, which allows us to support neighboring restaurants and focus on our strengths,” the bar and entertainment.
“We like to make the visitor experience easy and convenient, so we welcome guests to bring in any food of their choice, whether it’s for small groups or large parties, Marks says. “Our staff is happy to recommend neighboring restaurants that pair well with our beverage menus.”
Why does the Oakland unit offer food, then? The location previously housed a diner, “so we inherited a fully built-out kitchen,” Marks says. “Given that, we felt there was an opportunity to utilize that space to work with established operators to provide good food to our customers and to also use our combined reach to help promote the business.”
Coming out of Covid
After a 15-month pandemic shutdown, Emporium Arcade Bars opened to a different world, one with protocols such as masks, social distancing, and new hygiene standards. “Safety always has been and continues to be our number-one priority,” Marks says. “Each city we operate in has different Covid-19-related mandates, but we’ve prioritized making each venue as safe as possible for guests.”
For instance, at its three Chicago locations, he notes, “we required proof of vaccinations for entry before the city mandated it to ensure all of our guests felt safe and comfortable during their visit.”
While guests are starting to return, Emporium Arcade Bar has not completely rebounded from the pandemic. “There have been flashes where it seems like we are almost all the way back, and new variants have tapered that back,” says Marks. “The main area that has not rebounded are large parties and corporate parties.”
What has he learned in the past 10 years since opening the first Emporium? “Our family owned movie theatres and was in the entertainment business for a long time, so I was around it a lot of my life,” says Marks. “But actually owning and running the business is very different,” with the responsibility of managing the overall operations and the people — both the customers and the staff.
Owning an arcade bar does have some unique aspects that require quickly learning how to be a bit of a jack-of-all-trades, he notes. “For example, learning how to fix arcade games, fix a draft line when a keg isn’t pouring right, plumbing and electrical issues and all the other fun stuff that comes along with running an entertainment venue.”
But it’s worth it. “We are fortunate to have been successful and have expanded across the country, which creates new learning experiences and areas for growth on a daily basis.”