Board game cafes are on the rise. And it's not a new story, either. Since the sudden surge of popularity of board games in the last decade, these delightful avenues have been popping up all around the world providing a safe haven for us to enjoy the dangerous yet perfect combination of food and games. But what is the reality like for those who have to clean up after us?
Hey Robert, thank you for making your time! First up, could you tell us a bit about yourself?
After graduating from university, I worked in film and TV costume departments for over fifteen years on all sorts of projects. My partner (Terry Chiu) had been working in DVD and BluRay menu design and implementation for various companies in the Los Angeles area for years.
It seems quite commonplace that people in the board game industry come from very unexpected backgrounds. Could you share what led up to the decision to open up a board game cafe?
Terry and I had both been working in these different aspects of the entertainment industry, and we both wanted a change. Strangely enough, we both had the idea individually and separately at about the same time. We had heard of the first major board game cafe to open in North America, Snakes & Lattes, so we were aware of the concept. So a few months later, Terry had been mussing around with preliminary numbers and business plan stuff, and he said, “hey, what do you think about this idea?” So we put our heads together and started comparing notes and figuring it all out in February of 2012, and here we are today.
What was your main resource in figuring out all of the ins and outs of a board game cafe? Did you contact any of the well established cafes at the time (i.e. Snakes & Lattes) and what was the most valuable advice to this day?
When we were planning it all out, there really was only one example – Snakes & Lattes. We did a trip up to Toronto in the early planning stages, to see it for ourselves and to get a sense of things – what they were doing, how they did it, why they did it, etc. I do remember speaking with the owner one morning we were there, and it was interesting hearing his thoughts about it all. Apart from that, the vast majority of the research was dealing with the food aspect of it all – how do you create and build a food-service establishment? How do you run a coffeehouse or cafe? So we started researching all that, talking to SCORE and taking seminars there on things like cash flow projections and business planning and how to interview and hire people and labor laws and all sorts of legal/business things that no one ever thinks about until they’re starting a business. I still remember a two-night course on the basics of accounting for non-accountants, and I use that a good deal of that info to this day.
(Editor's note: SCORE offers business mentoring and education for entrepreneurs).
Before GameHaus Cafe came around, there were no other board game cafes in Southern California. How confident were you that there would be enough of a demand?
We knew there would be a demand – Los Angeles is huge with a “ven diagram” of different groups, so the demographics were good. Plus the population is large to begin with – this isn’t Smalltown, USA or Grover’s Corners. I remember that we sat down with a SCORE business adviser who reviewed our business plan and went through a bunch of stuff with us, and he said that we had probably one of the most prepared plans he had ever seen, so that gave us the confidence that the research and planning we had done (as well as our approach to it all) was solid. So we were prepared for every single possibility.
How was the launch day/week and what was the biggest surprise or any unexpected events that you encountered? Any big complaints or praises from customers?
I think the thing that struck us most early on, and not only in the first months, but the first weekend we were open, was that we had such a good amount of repeat business. I remember one couple that came on our first Friday night, and they were back two days later on that Sunday afternoon – and I still see them at the cafe even today, six years later. We saw people that first weekend who were back the next weekend. We see this a lot when we do events, like our Tabletop Day event or the annual New Years Eve events – we’ll get the same faces every time. So that’s a good feeling that people like what you’re doing so much that they want to keep coming back again and again. As far as complaints, we didn’t have too much “push back” about the per-person cover charge – once people were keyed into what we were as a business and what we have to offer, it made sense to them. Part of that is the fact that this is a new concept for the vast majority of people – so you have to walk them through what it is and why it’s set up this way, etc. Two months into the business, I think our biggest complaint was that we were always full on weekends – despite being able to seat as many people as we do, we were habitually waitlisting Friday nights through Sunday nights because of how popular it was! If that’s our biggest problem two months into the business, it’s a good problem to have, as we always say.
It sounds like you struck the right chord with the crowd. So what is the demographic of your customers like?
All sorts – as far as age, the biggest slice of the proverbial pie is the 18 to 30-somethings. A lot of them have either heard of or have played a number of the standard new wave of games – Settlers of Catan, Ticket to Ride, etc. We get a whole range in terms of experience and hobby interest – any given day, we’ll see Candyland or Cards Against Humanity being played side by side with things like Eldritch Horror and Mysterium. Just last week, I saw a group playing Sequence sitting next to a table with two people playing Twilight Struggle. Some days it’s lots of big groups and other days it seems like every table is a couple out on a date. We’re a great first date spot, we’ve had quite a number of those.
I visited a few months ago, actually. I thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to introduce my wife to a bunch of gateways while also getting a firsthand experience before the interview. (Highlights include experiencing a crushing defeat by my wife in multiple rounds of Love Letter and purchasing Azul after getting home).
So, what is the challenge behind serving such a wide variety of customers and what sort of solutions have you come up with to best serve their needs?
We knew that because you have a large range of hobby interest and experience, you need an appropriate range of games to serve those different levels. So in the beginning, we set up the library so that it had both classics and old standards like Clue and Scrabble and Connect Four, and more hardcore stuff like Agricola and Puerto Rico, and everything in between. We knew we were going to get people that wanted something that was familiar or easy or quick, just as much as we were going to get people who wanted something new to them, complex, and/or with a larger investment of time. Like any library, if you’re going to have people with varied interest or dedication, you need to have titles that appeal to that whole range.
We have found that on the restaurant side of things, including more gluten-free and vegan items (particularly because this is Los Angeles) has been important. I remember after a couple months of selling our chocolate-covered Oreos stuffed with peanut butter or cookie dough that we get through our bakery vendor, a customer told me that the cookie companies had recently started selling gluten-free Oreos. So after a discussion with our bakery partner, we figured out a way to include them, and we had them in the bakery case a week later.
Is it a requirement for some of your staff to be board gamers? If so, how do you figure out that kind of info during the hiring process? Second, what do you think are the most valuable traits for a staff to have at a board game cafe?
No, not a requirement – but that question usually comes up in the interview process. We have had great luck with hiring when it comes to gamers, as well as not-so-great luck. So being interested in board games isn’t enough to get a job – you need to be able to do what needs to be done during the shift, and that’s everything from taking orders and liaising with the kitchen, to making and serving drinks, to keeping things clean and tidy, to cleaning the restrooms, to wiping down and busing tables, and everything that any other normal cafe employee would do. Will it help when a customer asks if you know how many points the castles are worth for the farmers when you do your end scoring for Carcassonne? Sure, but it’s not a requirement. I remember in an interview with a really good former employee, he looked at all the games and said, “do I have to know anything about all these?” He was genuinely concerned walking into this whole new world as a neophyte whose last game played was probably Monopoly at the age of ten. So we always tell people that you learn about it just by being around it – you get a sense of what people play, what is popular, where it is on the shelves, etc. so you pick it up through “osmosis.” And very often, non-gamer employees become gamers just by being around it all the time. Regarding the former hire who asked about the games, within three months of hiring, he was extremely well-versed in it; he even ended up trying D&D after a year of hearing about it and seeing it played.
For those new to the concept of a board game cafe, could you share what are the primary ways for the cafe to earn revenue?
Though there is a cover charge per-person to play, the majority of the revenue (not to mention the effort and expense that come with it) is the food and drink aspect of it. Some other cafes have a retail element, selling board games and all that, but we don’t – an additional revenue stream, sure, but for us it’s a matter of resources (management, space, capital, etc.)
Within the food and drink category, having a beer and wine license is a great revenue stream – however, it’s a lot of setup and front-end expense for the approvals and permitting, not to mention the annual expenses involved for the license, insurance, etc. It’s not as easy as putting a sign out on the sidewalk that says, “Beer here,” and then watching the money roll in.
Have there been any foods that got taken off the menu because it just didn't work out? What are the most popular foods?
In the beginning we had a pesto pizza that needed to be cooked at a substantially different temperature than all the other pizzas, so during any particularly busy times, fluctuating the oven temperatures up and down and working that into the line of food items to be cooked was too much; it just created too many delays. Interestingly enough, we just recently added a chicken and pesto pizza as a special item on the menu – this time with a pesto that we’ve made especially so that it can be cooked without tweaking the oven temperature. We used to get a root beer float flavored cake through our bakery partner – some weeks we would sell a bunch of slices, while other weeks it wouldn’t move at all. As far as specials, we have had one special sandwich which was so popular that we folded it into the main menu – that one is called the Ace of Clubs, a chicken breast style sandwich with bacon and honey mustard. Some specials last longer than others – if one is particularly popular, it might be with us longer than one that undersells. Our most popular sandwich is the roast beef and cheddar one, with Sriracha mayo – people just love their Sriracha. We sell so many more of those compared to the others.
Food and board games--while a great combo for entertainment, not so much for keeping the games pristine, I'd imagine. What are some ways you keep maintenance of your games? How often do you have to get replacements for a game?
In any business like this, you’re going to have some loss and damage – it’s just a matter of fact. We always say it’s like a plate chipping or a glass cracking. You just have to accept it’s the cost of doing business.
You can certainly mitigate it – sometimes there are situations where you need to prevent someone from using the rulebook as a coaster for their coffee cup, or something like that. And certain games you can prolong the shelf life by taking preventive measures to wear and tear – games that involve a lot of card shuffling can be helped by using card sleeves, popular games can have certain components replaced with ones that are more durable, etc. Often we’ll laminate game rules if they need to be reprinted and replaced - if the game is so popular that it is being completely replaced, we’ll laminate the rulebook on the new copy. We have a list of popular games that I often reference and do a “welfare check” on – if the components are getting really worn, or if the board is splitting or the box is crumbling and all that, we’ll replace them outright. We’ve had at least a dozen copies of Catan on the shelves over the years, it’s played so often. I’m usually keeping an eye on that, while Terry is usually adding stuff to the shelves – new titles, Kickstarter stuff, etc.
We have a little bowl up at the service counter for lost pieces – orphaned stuff found on tables or under chairs that we might not recognize or realize to which games they belong. We go through it every week or so, and try to repatriate as many as we can. Some stuff has been in there for what feels like years; with over 1500 games in the library, it’s hard to remember which tokens or bits or coins go with which.
The upside to replacing games is that you can then use the old salvageable pieces. If you toss out a copy of Ticket to Ride because the board is split into four pieces, the cards are scratched up, and the rulebook is in tatters, you can still salvage those little plastic trains. So now you have a supply of extra bits for when something goes missing or counts come up short – because that’s always going to happen. We have tons of that stuff – spare cars for Life, extra beads for Mancala, little plastic organs for Operation, dice and sand timers, etc. (Operation is the worst offender in this regard – the writers cramp pencil and the spare ribs are frequent losses, in addition to the lead pipe from Clue.) If you’ve replaced these games multiple times over, you have all the extra bits on hand from prior copies that can come in handy.
What are some of the most popular/frequently played games among your customers and how do you decide how many duplicate copies you need?
The old standards and family favorites that we all grew up playing – Monopoly, Clue, Sorry, Trouble, Life, Checkers, Connect Four, Guess Who, Scrabble – and part of that is familiarity and nostalgia. As for the newer wave of hobby and strategy games, it’s titles like Catan, Ticket to Ride, Pandemic, Dominion – these are the heavy hitters. King of Tokyo, Splendor, Carcassonne, and Betrayal at House on the Hill, too. Nearly all of these more recent titles are in their own special section of “frequent flyers” on the shelves.
Having duplicate copies often presents a new set of problems – especially when you find a piece or card from the game and now have to figure out which copy it belongs to. For some games it won’t matter – if you have one extra dollar bill in one of the copies of Monopoly, it won’t be a make-or-break game-losing situation – but with a copy of the Park Place deed from Monopoly or the Chicago city card from Pandemic, you’re going to be opening each copy of the game until you find which one has it missing. For games where specific components have specific counts – Catan with its roads and settlements and cities, Pandemic with its four disease cubes and location cards, Ticket to Ride with its sets of trains, etc. - it can throw the game off.
Multiple copies also means you need to make sure they’re not getting “merged.” We used to have two copies of the base game for Dominion, but people were constantly pulling both copies off the shelf, pulling cards from both, mixing them together, and then putting them all back in just one box without separating them out; so we would have one copy of Dominion with all the estates and provinces and currency cards, and another set without any of them. We would sit down and recount everything and split out the sets, only to find that it would happen again a couple of weeks later, and we would have to do it all over again. For each of our copies of Catan, we included the 5-to-6 player expansion, and we thought we wouldn’t have this problem because we tagged them in multiple places on the box that the game already included the 5-to-6 player expansion. But we would still find that people would grab both copies off the shelf, mix them both together, and we would have one copy with all the cards and bits, and another copy missing them. So eventually we just gave up on it, and now have a single of Catan. Even with games like Ticket to Ride where you might not have duplicates but different editions (with different maps or cards) we find that they get jumbled up sometimes – we often find a ruleset for TTR Europe in the wrong box, or a Dominion expansion ruleset in the box for the base game. It’s just unavoidable, but we try to prevent it as best we can, and that sometimes means not having as many duplicates as we would like.
With games like Pandemic and TTR, I often find myself suggesting for customers to count their trains or cubes before they’ve started, because running out of them triggers game endings or certain conditions. And also, because I have spares at hand, I can replace them and get the counts back to where they need to be so that the customers can play them correctly and not at a deficit. There was one group last year that had a copy of Pandemic that was short six blue cubes, and when we found out and replaced them, it made a world of difference to their next attempt at the game.
As far as maintenance, we do checks on certain games frequently to make sure they’re all good – do the copies of Clue have all the right cards, as well as the score sheets and pens? Does each copy of Yahtzee have five dice? And I have worked my way through a huge portion of the library from time to time doing a “quality control” check – making sure everything is there, and seeing if anything might need to be replaced, repairing boxes, and all that.
That honestly sounds like a nightmare to deal with! (Especially the bit about customers combining multiple copies).
To add one more question about inventory, I noticed that your customers can suggest new games to add into your collection through the website. What are some of the most frequently requested titles? Do you keep on a lookout for any trending games on Kickstarter?
As mentioned before, Terry has his ear to the ground on new and Kickstarter stuff, moreso than I do. He’s more of the Acquisitions Department of the games, whereas I’m the Maintenance Department. Sometimes we get requests for games that we know won’t get played very often, and that their cost would make it prohibitive for us having them on the shelves. We’d love to have everything, but we have budget and spatial limitations. If we hear enough about a game or hear a lot of people talking about it, we’ll check it out and see if it will work for our cafe. Games recently added that we’ve heard requests for include Cryptid and a game themed to the movie Jaws.
What are some of your favorite light/medium/heavy weight games that you'd love to see your customers playing more often?
There are certain games that I’m always happy to see hit the table, because I think they’re terrific games, but sadly they don’t see much table time. I’m downright ecstatic when a group plays Acquire – because I think it’s fantastic and more people should know it and try it and be aware of just how much it influenced modern gaming. I’m always recommending Tammany Hall, Chinatown, and Thurn & Taxis, because I feel like they should get more play. (Chinatown does okay, and every group who has tried it on our recommendation has loved it.) The trick is that sometimes there are some games that aren’t “sexy” - i.e. things like Acquire or Thurn & Taxis don’t have gorgeous boxes with lush components and thousands of shiny bits and miniatures, but they are really solid games. Or the theme may be something off-putting – Bohnanza is a fantastic game which scales well from three to seven players, but it’s about farming, raising, trading and selling beans. On paper it sounds almost ridiculous, but the gameplay is great and for the groups who have tried it on our recommendations, they’ve loved it.
The flip side to that is that sometimes a game is “too sexy” - a person might grab the game off the shelves because it looks great (beautiful box art, tons of components, dripping with theme), but they might not realize how complex or involving it is, because they’re just evaluating it based on the box and not the game – they are expecting it to be as easy as Risk. The game might have a gorgeous cover of barbarians slaying goblins in some dark subterranean cavern and it might look fun and fast-paced, but when they take out the twenty-page rulebook, their eyes glaze over. So they put it away and then play Taboo, which is fine; nothing wrong with Taboo.
Ultimately we never judge you based on the game you’re playing – we might joke with customers about certain games (“oh, you guys are actually playing the Doctor Ruth game?”), but when it comes down to it, there’s no wrong answer to what you want to play. If you want to come to the cafe and play Trouble or Chutes & Ladders and have fun, that’s just as valid as coming to play Castles of Burgundy or Wingspan or Scythe. Everyone has a different idea of fun when it comes to this, so there’s no “wrong answer” to that question.
Since launch, what are some major adjustments that the cafe has gone through to solve any recurring issues?
About a year of operating, we started directly seating people during the busy times. Usually Friday afternoon through Sunday night, but sometimes we do it on the busy weeknights, too, especially during the summer months. It requires a great deal more effort on the front end than self-seating, but it allows us to maximize the number of people in the cafe and prevents us having to shift people from table to table as frequently as before we did it once things got busy. Much like in any restaurant, a host or hostess seats people, and we need to do so even more because we don’t turn tables like a normal restaurant. Plus it avoids a group of five people having to stand around on the waitlist because a group of two people decided they want to camp at a five-seat table, when there’s an empty two-seat table right next to them. We can’t seat the five people at the two-top table, so we would have to go through the motions of shifting them. Granted we have to do this from time to time, as the room fluctuates, but seating people during the busy days and evenings helps mitigate that and manage customer expectations. On a slow night, it’s fine for a couple to be at a four-seater, but on a busy Saturday night, we need to be able to seat according to group size.
What sort of impact (if any at all) has the opening of your cafe had on the community, including the local game stores?
This is a hard question to answer, especially not having an outside or neutral perspective on it. I do recall talking with one of the owners of Emerald Knights Comics & Games ages ago when we first opened, and we were musing over the fact that despite a huge overlap of interests of both of our clienteles, we weren’t in direct competition – since we don’t sell games while they do, and they don’t sell food and coffee while we do. We both offer venues in which to play and experience and share in the hobby, but our revenue streams are very different.
What was the most memorable event that your cafe has hosted?
We’ve done a New Years Eve event every year, and those are always great; and we usually do something for Tabletop Day every year, with giveaways and prizes. Those are ticketed events, and they usually sell out. We see a lot of regulars at them. We’ve had the tail end of a wedding reception for one group; the couple got married, bought out a movie theater for a movie for all their guests, then ended their night at our location playing boardgames, so that was pretty unique. We’ve had different groups do corporate or team building events for their employees. In our first year, we co-hosted a fundraiser event in coordination with the designer of Pandemic, to raise money for Doctors Without Borders. That was pretty cool, to see eleven different games of Pandemic going on at the same moment in the cafe!
What has been the most rewarding/fun part of running the cafe?
When we look around on a busy night, when we are at capacity and everyone is having a great time, and no one is on their phones or devices. That’s pretty extraordinary – I remember being stunned by it on one of our first Saturdays when we opened. To see nearly a hundred people all sharing the same fun in different ways, and not one person was texting or surfing on their phone. That was great. And to see regulars who have visited us since those first days, coming back year after year, that’s a good feeling too. We’ve had people who came for first dates, who are now married and have children – so being an albeit small part of their life story, that’s great too.
And lastly, are there any exciting developments in the works you would like to share with us?
We’re always analyzing it and examining it from different angles to see how we can improve. For anyone interested in news, we recommend subscribing to our social media accounts – that’s where you’ll get the latest when it comes to events and new food or drink specials and any other developments on the horizon.
Thank you Robert for the great insight into the world of running a board game cafe! Next time when I visit, I think I'll be extra courteous and buy more food and drinks :)
Readers, here are some additional info on GameHaus Cafe:
- Website: https://gamehauscafe.com/
- Social Media: Twitter, Facebook, Instagram
- Board Game Collection: https://www.boardgamegeek.com/collection/user/GameHausCafe
- Address: 1800 S Brand Blvd #107, Glendale, CA 91204
Thanks for the read as always and you can find more of my interviews here!