Retro arcade bars were making a comeback, but the pandemic was tough on the industry

Pac-Man and pinball machines may be decades old, but the nostalgic joy of putting a coin in a slot and reliving the sights and sounds from retro games lives on — and it kept arcade bars busy before the pandemic.

“Just being able to have a beer and play games kinda brings you back to what it was like to be 10 years old,” said Robyn Harrison, owner of Cabin Fever, located on Bloor Street West.

“More started popping up, and then the pandemic hit,” Harrison told CBC News.

Harrison says the community of arcade bar owners in Toronto is pretty small and tight knit, and navigating the pandemic restrictions wasn’t easy for their unique business model.

“I was reading the restrictions on what it looked like for restaurants and other businesses and I was like, ‘I am not any of those things.'”

Cabin Fever and other bars like it have since reopened but with capacity limits and other health measures in place. Aug. 6. was the earliest possible date Ontario could have moved beyond Stage 3 of its pandemic reopening plan, which would eliminate capacity limits, but the province hasn’t yet met its vaccination targets.

Last week, the federal government announced it’s extending a number of pandemic economic support programs, including the Canada Recovery Benefit (CRB) and the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy (CEWS). But the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB) says the financial support should extend longer, and the capacity limits are making it difficult for indoor entertainment venues to recover.

Mike Bartolo, one of the co-owners of Tilt Arcade Bar, says once the restrictions are lifted, he’s looking forward to the community feeling that came with mingling freely and challenging strangers to games. (CBC News)

For Mike Bartolo, general manager and part owner of Tilt Arcade Bar on Dundas Street West, a certain sense of community is still lacking at his venue.

“Walking around here in the old days was like being a kid at a candy store,” he said, noting they’ve now separated table service from the arcade games.

“With the social distancing, we can’t have people walking around and talking to other groups so we’ve really lost that social aspect of gaming.”

But Bartolo is still grateful to be in Stage 3, because being completely shut down didn’t give arcade bars many options at all. 

“You can’t sell an experience for take out; it doesn’t work,” he said.

Slow road to recovery for indoor entertainment

Julie Kwiecinski, director of provincial affairs for Ontario at the CFIB, says the pandemic has devastated indoor entertainment venues like arcade bars.

“They were closed for such a long period of time, they didn’t have options like other businesses to generate revenue, such as curbside pickup and online sales, and they are still limited in their recovery by capacity restrictions,” she said.

Kwiecinski says a recent survey of CFIB members showed 95 per cent of the harder hit sectors, including indoor recreation, have not yet fully recovered. 

“That’s really a whopping statistic,” she said, adding many businesses estimate it will take nearly two years to reach that point.

“That’s a long time and if you’re a struggling business that will feel longer.”

Julie Kwiecinski, the director of provincial affairs for Ontario at the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, says indoor entertainment venues are struggling with capacity limits. (Submitted by Canadian Federation of Independent Business)

Kwiecinski wants businesses to get the opportunity to start addressing their debt faster, and for governments to commit to helping smaller businesses longer term.

“Every day that these businesses aren’t allowed full capacity is yet another day they can’t start truly recovering,” she said.

Support still available, province says 

In a statement, the Ministry of Small Business and Red Tape Reduction said it continues to do everything it can to help businesses through this difficult time. 

“The government offered a wide range of supports to businesses affected by necessary public health measures including the Ontario Small Business Support Grant, which delivered nearly $3 billion in urgent and unprecedented support to over 110,000 small businesses across the province,” said Ian Allen, the communications director for Associate Minister Nina Tangri. 

Allen wrote the ministry is also connecting businesses with “mental health support, digital and e-commerce tools, financial planning and personalized advice through the Small Business COVID-19 Recovery Network.”

There’s still no date for when the province will move to what it calls the “Exit Step” of its Roadmap to Reopening, but last week the Ford government said one of three conditions Ontario has set for moving beyond Step 3 has been met.

High hopes 

At Tilt Arcade Bar, Bartolo says customers have been rushing back, despite not quite having the same experience they had before the pandemic. He attributes that partly to the unique draw of tactile gaming during a time when everyone is on their smart phones.

“A pinball machine, you have a whole world under that glass, you have to manipulate it yourself,” he said.

Harrison’s space is intimate, but she says she has a number of loyal customers too. One of them started a Go Fund Me without her knowledge last year, raising $16,000 and keeping her afloat before she was eligible for government funding.

She says she was once extremely worried that arcade games would be considered high risk when the pandemic was over, but now she has high hopes.

“I have been quite pleasantly surprised with the number of people coming in, willing to book, people who are coming back,” she said. “This is so much fun and it is such an interesting thing to do every day. I became a little more grateful and aware of that.”

It’s the fun times that keep Bartolo pushing through the challenges too.

“I’ve had people thanking me up and down for hanging on, for doing what we’re doing. People do this to have fun,” he said. 

“It puts a smile on my face.”

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