Patrons play pinball in Transmission Arcade on Main Street as a worker checks his phone. (Photos by Raymond Escoto)
Columbia’s two bar-cades, Transmission Arcade and Bang Back Pinball Lounge, were founded during the pandemic.
Despite those hazardous early days, the businesses survived.
Their stories are similar.
Both serve food to boost their earnings.
And both were founded by men who were missing arcades they had seen in larger cities.
“Every other city had an arcade bar, but Columbia didn’t,” said Joshua Rainwater, co-owner of Transmission Arcade.
For Frederick Richardson, owner of Bang Back, this was not his first venture.
“I’ve been consulting for different (bars that are also arcades) around the country since 2007,” he said. “The market here in Columbia was essentially untapped.”
The businesses cater to adults who miss the arcades they grew up with and younger people who never had the opportunity to experience them in their heyday.
Rainwater and Richardson acknowledged there was a hard truth behind that lack of opportunity. Arcades went out of business for a reason: The rise of home video game consoles killed them off in the early to mid-90s.
But the men understood the niche market they were targeting: Newbies. And, of course, they thought hardcore players would come back.
“You either like video games or you don’t,” Rainwater said.
Richardson echoed that.
“We have a lot of people that walk in and go ‘So how does this all work?’” he said.
Both men were “extremely cautious” about opening their businesses but were determined to move forward.
Luckily, diverse businesses are welcome in Columbia.
“They are what makes Main Street unique,” said Matt Kennell, president of City Center Partnership, when asked about Transmission Arcade. “Diversity and local businesses are what makes the district.”
Opening a business is one thing. Keeping a business alive and profitable is another. To that end, Transmission’s Rainwater had a unique idea. He needed to get people to stick around.
“The arcade is a (financial) loss to get people in the door,” Rainwater said.
The arcade’s profits come from the bar and food sales, he said. His priority “was for the arcade to be a place people could hang out.”
Richardson has a similar perspective.
“Pinball is therapy,” he said.“It’s for you when you’re alone and you need to be in your own thoughts and you just want to get away from the world. It’s for you when you want to go out with a group, connect with family or friends, or go on a first date.”
Then COVID-19 hit.
Both arcades opened during the pandemic. People were afraid of catching the potentially deadly virus. And their businesses relied on people interacting and frequently touching things.
The two businesses reacted to the challenges differently.
For one thing, Rainwater let people take arcade cabinets home.
“Those early couple of months, we rented games out for a month at a time and sold to-go food,” he said.
They also needed a food solution.
“We were lucky enough to join with Smokey Loggins, (a mobile food operation in Columbia), to run our kitchens,” he said. “Without them, we wouldn’t have made it.
Later Transmission also began allowing groups of any size to reserve time in the arcade while still following all CDC precautions, Rainwater said.
Richardson, meanwhile, took the changes in stride.
“We already had that extensive training and knowledge of sanitation and cleaning,” he said. “Every 30 minutes, we went and wiped down all of our games.”
In addition to obeying all CDC precautions, Richardson said they had a sanitation station near the games and put up signs encouraging masks whenever patrons weren’t eating or drinking.
While the businesses’ reactions may have been different, they both survived. But they also learned from the experiences as well.
“Kindness is necessary to a business model,” Rainwater said. “If you offer everything but kindness, no one cares.”
Richardson said that it was important to be a good neighbor to people.
“Once a quarter we like to go out and do charity work, primarily locally here in town,” he said.
As social restrictions and guidelines have eased, things have been looking up.
Richardson said his business has been up 58% since last year and that he is even looking for a second location.
Bang Back isn’t alone in seeing success.
“Try and come in on a Friday night, that’s all I’ll say,” Rainwater said.