Seattle Gaming Café Builds Community with Food and Face-to-Face Fun
By Candace Brown
In a building on Leary Way, in Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood, a place called Café Mox bustles with lively human interaction, the air filled with laughter and conversation from people of all ages. A local craft beer flows from a tap, filling a glass with amber goodness under a foamy head. Savory aromas announce menu items ranging from a humble grilled cheese sandwich to exotic concoctions like “The Cartel.” This specialty involves chipotle braised steak, bacon, prosciutto, a trio of cheeses—cotija, queso fresco, and pepper jack— plus black beans, Anaheim peppers, jalapenos, red onions and beefsteak tomatoes.
Although the menu alone could bring in the crowds that keep the place buzzing from 10 a.m. to midnight seven days a week, something else attracts them: games. From parents with young children to retired folks, people gather here to hang out with friends and family members while they eat, drink, and play games. The best part is that these games involve face-to-face socializing and no electronics.
History repeats itself. Long before individuals succumbed to the isolating addiction of video and computer entertainment, friends and neighbors met in community halls to play bingo, had pinochle and bridge parties, and tried to out-strategize each other over checkerboards in the country store. Now, the owners of Café Mox—two brothers named Damon and John Morris—have established a highly successful business where that kind of old-fashioned fun can flourish, building community and strengthening families.
It all began with John Morris selling games online in 1998. His business evolved into a partnership with his brother Damon, first working out of a Seattle basement and then finally this conventional retail space in a building at 5105 Leary Avenue NW in Seattle. These days, the building houses not only their thriving game store called Card Kingdom, but also their adjoining Café Mox, which opened in May 2011, based on the realization that nothing goes better with a good game played in good company than good food and good drink. People buy games in the retail store to take home or play onsite, and they can also check out games and puzzles for free from the store’s “game library.” Card Kingdom hosts gaming tournaments in the retail store in a tournament room dedicated to organized play. However, many customers prefer to simply settle in and relax at Café Mox to play their favorites while enjoying tempting foods along with a great selection of microbrews, wine, soft drinks, or juices.
Customer Experience Manager Dan Tharp has worked with the Morris brothers for eleven years in many different capacities. He graciously gave his time for an interview to share the story of Card Kingdom and Café Mox with Neighborhood Life, remembering how it grew from a humble beginning to a neighborhood hub, all of that happening with a speed and vigor that shocked everyone. He also described the types of “gamers” who call this place home.
Candace Brown for Neighborhood Life: When you first had the idea of what you call a “gaming parlour,” what sort of reaction did you get from the neighborhood?
Customer Experience Manager Dan Tharp: Ballard has been growing quite a bit. It’s pretty common for new places to come in. Our first step was to make our way to all of these different places and introduce ourselves. We took the initiative. We wanted to let everybody know that most of us who work here live in Ballard, that we’re locals. From most people the reaction was “Do you think you can actually make that work?” They were polite about it, but I think a lot of people had a hard time envisioning something like this actually doing well. That was a pretty common theme from even personal friends. It was dubious optimism, I guess.
NL: It sounds like your business took off right away.
DT: It surprised all of us. It was so quick. It was obvious as soon as we opened that there was a big need in the community for something like this. It was pretty phenomenal.
NL: In the beginning, did you run into any opposition or concerns from others in the neighborhood over traffic, hours, or anything like that?
DT: No we didn’t. Luckily, the building we moved into is sort of on the edge of downtown Ballard and not right in the heart, so traffic impact did not come up. Another thing is that the building came with a parking lot across the street. It’s amazing. From the beginning, we were hoping to open up a destination place, and having a parking lot really helps with that.
NL: Did you originate this idea, or is common in other parts of the country?
DT: I think it’s getting more common. When we thought of it, we thought it was a completely original idea. Then as soon as we started working on it and doing some investigating, we started finding other places that have kind of done the same thing. There’s a convention in Vegas geared toward game store owners specifically, and last time we were there we just got a ton of feedback from people saying “We’re starting up the same kind of thing,” or “We have this idea…” I think people are getting more comfortable after realizing it could actually work.
NL: It is very interesting to see this in an age when we have all gotten so isolated because of electronics. It’s kind of like the pendulum swinging the other way, isn’t it?
DT: Yeah. That’s the thing, specifically. The owners, John and Damon, were very much behind the idea of supporting board games and card games and things that have you actively engaged with other people. When you throw in the extra layer of being social and going out into the public while you do this, it just starts to really create a community. Once the community starts building, then it actually gets more momentum. It’s like a snowball; it just keeps getting bigger and bigger.
When we had the café in mind, our goal was a place where the hardcore gamers—our customers who play games all the time—could bring their non-gamer friends, have some really good draft beer and some really good food. At the same time, they can maybe be like “Hey, since we’re here, let’s play a game.” They could trick their non-gamers friends into actually being part of the community. So far it’s been working really well. (He laughed.)
NL: Let’s talk about the word “gamer.” It’s obvious what it means, but I’ve never heard anyone use that term, and I’m unfamiliar with many of the games mentioned on your website. Okay, you have families with kids, and I assume you have typical board games I might have played myself as a child, but it also seems you have this culture of super-serious “gamers.” Can you please educate me about this?
DT: Sure. We have what we call “casual gamers” who are the people who enjoy going out with their family and their friends, and they’ll casually play a game, have a good time, and visit. The game is just there to bring everyone together. They play and have fun, but the game is not necessarily the most important part of why they’re there. We have families with kids that come in Saturdays and Sundays during the brunch hour or during the evening. They’ll grab some of those classic games like Clue™ or Monopoly™ or Life™ or something like that. They’ll play, but it’s a good time for the family to just sit down together and interact. If Dad or Mom wants a beer or wine, they can do that, but it’s family friendly. The kids can have some juice or a soda. They’re going out, having a good time, and there’s that meal to be had. Then they also have that extra incentive of playing a game.
Then we also have people we call “destination gamers.” In general, they come out knowing they want to play a game; they have a game in mind; they have a strategy. It’s about seeing their friends and all that, but really they are there to play. So when it comes to our definitions of “gamer,” mostly the motivation is different. The “gamer” will interact with their friends and stuff but they’re there to play. The “casual gamers” are just using the game to visit.
NL: What games are those most serious gamers playing?
DT: The biggest one that we have is Magic: The Gathering™. It’s a collectable card game. We have events multiple times a week, every week, for Magic™. We get a lot of people who come out to play. People will set up on the bar or at a booth or table and they’ll have friends there and they’ll play magic. That’s definitely a hardcore game. We also have different games like Risk™, some that take a little longer to play. Settlers of Catan™ is a pretty popular game.
NL: I’m totally out of it. I’ve discovered a whole new world here. You’re going to have fun laughing about me during your coffee break.
DT: It’s actually refreshing. I’m so used to hearing from people who are in the lifestyle and it’s interesting to hear from someone that is not a regular gamer, who doesn’t usually play board games. Card Kingdom has a giant game library and you can check them out for free and take them into the café and play them. Our customer service reps that work in the store will help you find a game, and if you’ve never played it before, they’ll come over and teach you how to play. They’ll get you started and make sure you’re doing alright. They’ll leave you alone and then come back and check on you to make sure you’re still doing okay. So a lot of our customers try out a new game to see if they like it before they decide to buy it or not. It’s actually really done wonders for sales. Board games are getting more expensive now. It’s good to try it out and see if you like it before you fork over that $50.00 or so.
NL: What is the age range of the customers?
DT: We have kids who show up after school. They stay for a couple of hours and play games. We have young families in the 20s to 30s range. We’ve got older people who come and spend time and hang out and play games with their friends. We have people in their late 30s who have standing appointments in the private rooms, and they’ll come back regularly and play the games. During the day, when it’s a little bit slower, we have a bridge club that comes in to play once a week. It’s great.
NL: I love the multi-generational aspect of it. In terms of building a sense of community, do you see people forming friendships there that carry over into other areas of community life?
DT: We do. For us personally, as far as giving back to the community, we have a newly formed committee that is in charge of all our donations. If somebody has something they would like us to contribute to, there’s a group of people who can look at that and try to take care of all that stuff for us. At Christmas we do a Giving Tree. The best part of that stuff is that our own customers are helping us do that.
NL: As far as just the café, do you have any figures about the number of guests who visit per week?
DT: In general we have the same traffic as most other places. Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday tend to be a little slower. During the day tends to be a little bit slower, getting busier around 5 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday daytimes are busy, as well as evenings any night. On Thursday, Friday, and Saturday we’re packed. We have a waiting list for seats.
NL: What’s the seating capacity?
DT: If everything were full capacity it would have to be around 150. It’s not a huge place. We just opened up a year ‘round sidewalk with retractable walls and heat, so in the wintertime we can close the walls and turn the heat on. We also have two private rooms you can rent out in the back. What we get a lot of times is two or three people sitting in a booth that holds six people. So we end up with empty places we can’t fill up with other people because they’re already taken.
Because we ideally want people to have a drink and some food and play, we don’t actively flip tables as quickly as another restaurant would. We want them to stay and enjoy their game also. So it leads to some awkward situations when someone asks how long it will be for a table and we don’t know. The best we can do is our seating waitlist. People can come in, get on the list and give us their cell phone number, and then when a seat becomes available we’ll send them a text message.
NL: What advice would you have for others who might want to create a neighborhood business like this?
DT: We had other game stores before this one, so we were able to pay attention to what we thought the community wanted. We heard stories from other customers who had gone into restaurants and wanted to play a game and were getting poor service because the servers expected that they would not get good tips or they didn’t want them to take up the table playing. There was a need there (for tolerance) and we wanted to help with that. Also, knowing that people want their non-gamer friends to play and maybe discover these games, we thought Okay. It has to be a place where everyone will feel comfortable. It’s not just for this one group of people.
Just pay attention to what the community wants and what gaps are there, and know what you can do, understanding that it might not be exactly what you were anticipating having. But if that’s what they need, that’s what you should supply for them.
NL: It’s kind of like the old adage for business success: “Find a need and fill it.”
DT: That’s really it, and you have to care about it. All of us are passionate about games. We have people who are passionate about beer. They brew their own beer. They know good beer, so they help us put good beers on tap. They are suggesting things that pay off perfectly. We’re really passionate about creating a community. We’re passionate about having families come in and play. Customers pick up on that.
Resources for building community through games
Photos courtesy of Cafe Mox and Card Kingdom
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