Retro arcade bars were making a comeback, but the pandemic has been tough on the industry
Pac-Man and the pinball machines may be decades old, but the nostalgic joy of putting a coin in a slot and reliving the sights and sounds of retro games endures – and it occupied arcade bars before the pandemic.
“Just being able to have a beer and play games brings you back a little bit to what it was like to be 10 years old,” said Robyn Harrison, owner of Cabin Fever, located on Bloor Street West.
“More started to show up and then the pandemic hit,” Harrison told CBC News.
Harrison says the community of arcade bar owners in Toronto is quite small and tight-knit, and navigating pandemic restrictions for their unique business model has not been easy.
“I was reading the restrictions on what that looked like for restaurants and other businesses and I was like, ‘I’m not any of those things. “”
Cabin Fever and other bars like this have since reopened, but with capacity limits and other sanitary measures in place. August 6 was the earliest possible date, Ontario could have moved past Stage 3 of its pandemic reopening plan, which would eliminate capacity limits, but the province has yet to meet its targets for vaccination.
Last week, the federal government announced it was extending a number of pandemic economic support programs, including the Canada Recovery Benefit (CRP) and the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy (CUS). But the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB) says financial support should run longer and capacity limits make it difficult to reclaim indoor entertainment venues.
For Mike Bartolo, general manager and co-owner of Tilt Arcade Bar on Dundas Street West, his place still lacks a certain sense of community.
“It used to be that walking around here was like being a kid in a candy store,” he said, noting that they have now separated table service from arcade games.
“With social distancing, we can’t let people walk around and talk to other groups, so we’ve really lost that social aspect of the game.”
But Bartolo is still grateful to be in Stage 3, as being completely closed didn’t give arcade bars a lot of options.
“You can’t sell a take-away experience; it doesn’t work, ”he said.
Slow road to recovery for indoor entertainment
Julie Kwiecinski, director of provincial affairs for Ontario at CFIB, says the pandemic has devastated indoor entertainment venues like arcade bars.
“They’ve been shut down for such a long time, they didn’t have options like other businesses to generate income like curbside pickup and online sales, and they’re still limited in their recovery by capacity restrictions, ”she said.
Kwiecinski says a recent survey of CFIB members showed that 95 percent of hardest-hit sectors, including indoor recreation, have yet to fully recover.
“This is really a huge statistic,” she said, adding that many companies estimate that it will take almost two years to reach this point.
“It’s long and if you’re a struggling business, it will feel longer.”
Kwiecinski wants businesses to have the opportunity to start paying off debt faster and for governments to commit to helping small businesses in the longer term.
“Every day that these businesses aren’t licensed at full capacity is another day that they can’t really start to recover,” she said.
Support always available, depending on the province
In a statement, the Department for Small Business and Red Tape Reduction said it continues to do all it can to help businesses get through this difficult time.
“The government has offered a wide range of supports to businesses impacted by necessary public health measures, including the Ontario Small Business Support Grant, which provided nearly $ 3 billion in urgent and unprecedented support to over 110,000 small businesses across the province, ”said Ian Allen, Associate Minister Nina Tangri’s director of communications.
Allen wrote that the ministry is also connecting businesses with “mental health support, digital and e-commerce tools, financial planning and personalized counseling through the Small Business COVID-19 Recovery Network.”
There is still no date for the province to move to what it calls the “exit milestone” of its roadmap to reopening, but last week the Ford government said one of the three conditions Ontario set for going beyond Step 3 was met.
At the Tilt Arcade Bar, Bartolo says customers rushed in, although they didn’t quite have the same experience they had before the pandemic. He attributes this in part to the unique appeal of touchscreen games in an age when everyone is on their smartphones.
“A pinball machine, you have a whole world under that glass, you have to handle it yourself,” he said.
Harrison’s space is intimate, but she says she also has a number of loyal customers. One of them unwittingly started a Go Fund Me last year, raising $ 16,000 and keeping her afloat before she qualified for government funding.
She says she was once extremely worried that arcade games would be considered high risk once the pandemic is over, but now she has high hopes.
“I was quite pleasantly surprised by the number of people who came, willing to book, people who are returning,” she said. “It’s so much fun and it’s such an interesting thing to do every day. I’ve become a little more grateful and aware of it.”
It is the moments of pleasure that allow Bartolo to meet the challenges as well.
“I’ve had people thanking me from top to bottom for hanging on, for doing what we’re doing. People are doing this for fun,” he said.
“It makes me smile.”