Most midsize and capital cities in the United States have at least one board game cafe, Matt Quin said, but that hasn’t been the case in central Arkansas, at least until the first week or so of next month. That’s when Quin and his business partner Radiance Beltz, both of Little Rock, plan to open Caverns & Forests at 711A Main St. in North Little Rock.
Quin described the concept as a restaurant/entertainment hybrid. Guests play board and card games while being served food and drink. The Atlantic magazine wrote about the emerging trend back in 2014, seeing the cafes as meeting deep needs, “the need to connect with people in a public/private space, the need to have a meaningful interaction that doesn’t use emoticons, and perhaps the need, in an increasingly complex world, to work with friends and family toward a clear goal.”
“We offer a large library of games,” Quin said. “We’ve got about 500-plus unique board and card games at the moment, and the library will grow.”
Guests pay a cover fee, which at Caverns & Forests will be $5 for the entire visit, though membership plans will also be available. That’s the “games library access fee,” he said. “It helps us mitigate the cost of replacing pieces and games, because they will get worn down and in some cases destroyed over time.”
The cafe will serve a menu of appetizers, salads, grilled paninis and wraps, and beer and wine.
Caverns & Forests’ staff of between seven and 10 will include board game hobbyists who will help guests choose games and get them started on the game “and be there to assist them with rules questions as they progress through their evening,” Quin said.
“It is a model that’s pretty successful elsewhere,” Beltz said, “being half entertainment venue, half restaurant.” She added: “I think that having staff that helps people have fun while they’re here, get you into something that you maybe wouldn’t do before and structured social entertainment is really popular and it’s for everyone.”
Caverns & Forests has tested the concept through about 30 pop-ups since last November, “just to build a following and also get us used to the process as well,” Quin said. “We’ve built a pretty solid following over the last year with all of these pop-ups.”
In addition, a Kickstarter campaign has met its goal of $10,000. But the pair has also worked with Nicolas Mayerhoeffer at the Arkansas Small Business & Technology Development Center, and “he was amazing,” Quin said.
Quin and Beltz had initially thought that they’d need to take out a big loan, maybe $250,000, and do a big build-out. But they visited with the owners of game bar Board to Beers in Memphis, who urged them to start small instead, doing pop-ups, launching a modest Kickstarter effort and taking out a smaller loan, just because of the novelty of the concept.
Quin, as the former general manager of Boulevard Bread and of Zaza, had learned “that things change quickly and we need to be able to pivot at a moment’s notice,” leading them to adjust their business plan and shape the concept as they go. So in addition to the Kickstarter funding, he and Beltz, who also has extensive restaurant experience, took out a $50,000 loan from First Community Bank of Batesville.
They plan to open the 1,800-SF space the first week of December. Caverns & Forests will seat between 70 and 75. Hours will be 3:30-10 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday, 3:30-11 p.m. Thursday and Friday and 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Saturday. It will be closed Sunday and Monday, but they hope to open on Sunday within the first year.
“The space we’ve created we definitely want it to be somewhere where people can leave all of their digital lives behind,” Quin said. It won’t feature TVs, for example. “It’s about playing the game,” he said, “not watching the game, so we’re going to be a completely analog space.”
Quin and Beltz said they’re creating a comfortable, inclusive, family-friend environment for board gamers. “This is the least toxic hobby I’ve ever experienced,” Quin said. Beltz is also enthusiastic: “I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t think it was a really worthwhile thing to be doing.”