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Gaming Cafes and Bars Face Unique Hurdles During Pandemic

Punch Bowl Social is reopening in Chicago

Two lanes inside a bowling alley.
Punch Bowl Social reopens Monday with bowling, karaoke, and new cleaning protocols.
Barry Brecheisen/Eater Chicago

Update: A Punch Bowl rep has informed Eater Chicago on Monday afternoon after publication that the Fulton Market location will not offer karaoke at this time. Public health officials have stated that karaoke is a health risk during the pandemic as COVID-19 can travel through the air. Revised story follows.

The future of Punch Bowl Social has been revealed as the Fulton Market restaurant and game room reopens Monday for the first time since Chicago restaurants and bars were shut down in March due to COVID-19. The Denver-based dining-and-games chain wants customers to bring their “immediate social crew” (a group of eight or less) for bowling, foosball, darts, ping pong, and arcade games, according to a rep.

The pandemic further complicates how gaming restaurants — like Punch Bowl, Dave & Buster’s, and arcade bars — can operate. Punch Bowl’s rep say it’ll abide by the usual safety precautions like masks for workers and patrons, contactless menus and payment, and staff health checks, but there are special protocols for games, too.

An employee will escort bowlers to their lanes, sanitize keypads, and assign bowling balls with player preferences in mind; crooners can pick their songs via digital app, while a “karaoke host” will bring customers to karaoke rooms and wipe down mics and monitors between sessions. Singing could be a risky proposition as health experts advise COVID-19 can spread through the air.

Board game cafes also find themselves in a similar situation during the age of the novel coronavirus. Chicago’s board game cafes, spots where folks come to eat, drink, and play tabletop games, have been forced to refocus on food offerings and retail game sales to stay solvent during the pandemic, according to the Tribune.

Ownership at Athena Board Game Cafe in Rogers Park, Bonus Round Cafe in Lakeview, and suburban Evanston Games & Cafe all describe a significant shift in business model: customers that once hung out to play for hours at a time now stop in briefly to pick up one or two-player options for at-home entertainment. In addition to financial struggles, they describe a social loss as well — the owners miss their communities, gamers who brought energy and joy to their spaces and made the daily struggles meaningful. For the time being, locals can support these spots by ordering food, buying games, and participating in online events like a Magic: the Gathering pre-release tournament.

Over in Logan Square, Chicago Board Game Cafe has been open for the last few weeks for takeout. The cafe, from the company behind party game Cards Against Humanity, had been closed for dine-in service since March. The company made headlines after co-founder Max Temkin’s controversial departure.

As far as Punch Bowl, locals in the West Loop and Fulton Market wondered if it would reopen. The chain shuttered a location in suburban Schaumburg in the spring as the company was “unable to reach satisfactory new terms to move forward” with its landlord, and its majority investor — Cracker Barrel — announced in March that it would not continue to invest in the chain. At the time, lenders said they planned to foreclose on the company’s assets. The chain’s website currently shows locations open in Georgia, Ohio, Colorado, and Minnesota, as well as outposts that are ostensibly reopening soon in Virginia, Texas, Michigan, Indiana, Wisconsin, Oregon, and California. Though independent restaurants have largely born the brunt of the pandemic’s economic fallout, large chains have shown vulnerability as well. A Punch Bowl rep says locations in San Diego and Austin, Texas are also reopening Monday.

And in other news...

— Ken Strandberg, the founder of venerable Bucktown bar and venue Gallery Cabaret, died in his sleep on the morning of Wednesday, September 9, according to a Facebook post. “Kenny opened the Gallery Cabaret in October 1988, and has hosted this haven for budding artists, musicians and comedians for over 30 years,” the post reads. “We are eternally grateful to have known him and we thank the Strandberg family for keeping Kenny’s Gallery Cabaret legacy alive.” Staff write that they plan to hold a memorial and celebration of Strandberg’s life once the coronavirus pandemic has ended. Meanwhile, the bar has set up a GoFundMe for its workers.

With a heavy heart, we are sad to announce the passing of our founder and patriarch, Ken Strandberg. He passed away in...

Posted by The Gallery Cabaret on Thursday, September 10, 2020

— Neighbors and fans have raised more than $9,000 to help the owner of a longtime Bucktown ice cream truck get a new generator after serving the area $1 cones for more than 40 years, according to Block Club Chicago. Wilfredo Cintron, who transplanted from Puerto Rico to Chicago in the 1970s, hasn’t changed his prices since 1978 — a conscious decision he made out of empathy for those who don’t have a lot of money, his son told Block Club. Fans noticed this summer that the old generator in Cintron’s truck was making a lot of noise, so they set up a GoFundMe to raise the $5,000 needed to replace it. Donations poured in and the fund has significantly surpassed its goal.

Chicago Board Game Cafe

1965 North Milwaukee Avenue, , IL 60647 (872) 310-3999 Visit Website

Punch Bowl Social

310 N Green St, Chicago, IL 60607 Visit Website

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