July 7, 2020
“I’m doing this for the love of gaming.”
That’s what Abari Game Bar’s owner, Zach Pulliam, told me over the phone. Before he answered my call, Pulliam was playing one of the 50+ arcade games featured inside the popular NoDa arcade bar hybrid. Playing multiplayer games is something Pulliam loves and dates back to his early childhood with friends. “That nostalgia to me is the ultimate comfort,” he said. That comfort is exactly what he hopes has passed on to the local community. Thanks to COVID-19, the community will have to wait to play again.
Abari has been closed for months, as have all bars since Governor Roy Cooper’s order was announced in March. With the Associated Press reporting rising cases in 40 states, including North Carolina, it could stay closed for the foreseeable future. Uncertainty abounds and the only game being played right now at Pulliam’s bar is the waiting game. It’s a game he’s played before.
Pulliam had been sitting on the idea for Abari years before he opened. “The idea of the bar was something I wanted to do since college,” he said. “I just thought it was the coolest concept.”
After graduating from UNCC in 2009, Pulliam worked in retail and eventually moved onto IT, but by 2014 he had enough. That world didn’t offer him enough creativity, so he began researching what an arcade bar would look like and determined that it was feasible. His idea was a step closer to reality.
After taking all of 2015 to apply for an SBA loan, formulate a business plan, and find a location, Abari opened in NoDa in March of 2016. Pulliam’s vision was simple. “I wanted to give everyone a reasonably priced place to hang out and feel comfortable in,” he said.
It would be a place of refuge, somewhere people could escape to for relaxation and nostalgia. It would also be cost-effective. The classic arcade games that adorn Abari’s interior cost roughly $10 for an hour of play Pulliam estimated. Getting a drink would also be cheap (Pabst Blue Ribbon beer is priced at $1.50). Above all, the bar would be about community, providing multiplayer fun to whoever wanted to play. It was a successful formula, but not consistent at first.
Abari’s first year was a “honeymoon period,” according to Pulliam. Besides being yet another new bar in NoDa, a neighborhood known for bars, breweries, and entertainment style venues, Abari was the first arcade-bar hybrid in the Charlotte area. Fascination with Abari and its concept led to a solid first year, but it didn’t stay that way. Things were quite as steady the second year, and it wasn’t until the third year that Abari was successful on a consistent basis.
“We started hitting our stride,” he said, adding that it felt like “we can keep doing this for a while,” if things stayed solid. One of the surprises was just how big the community of patrons became. The appeal of Abari grew outside of the confines of NoDa, spreading all throughout the Charlotte area and attracting a diverse group of people. “I didn’t expect that we’d have such a wide appeal,” Pulliam said. “It’s been a great feeling to be affirmed that I did something right.”
Concerns around COVID-19 have forced Abari to remain closed, but it’s that same unexpected community that’s trying to save it. A recent GoFundMe campaign is closing in on $15,000 raised to support the bar and its staff. Comments on the page detail just how significant the bar is. “Abari is family to me and many others,” said commenter Amanda Lax, who met her fiancé there. “It’s a part of our story, my story, and many others’ stories.” A scroll down the page reveals many more like it. For Pulliam, the funds raised will constitute “two guaranteed months of paying the big bill”– his rent.
Upcoming community events include a Street Fighter tournament on July 9, and a drive-in concert on July 11. Abari and Charlotte 3rd Strike, a group dedicated to the game Street Fighter, are partnering for the online charity tournament and fundraiser, while the Drive-In Concert Series helps raise funds for both Abari’s operations and for other local businesses and bands. The second installment will feature Elonzo Wesley, Hungry Girl, and Justin Fedor. Pulliam calls the events successful, and plans to continue finding steady streams of fun and repeatable income but is still uncertain. “I can do these events over and over again…but obviously it’s not enough to really pay for us not being open,” he said.
The future for Pulliam and Abari is fraught with uncertainty. After the July 11 fundraiser, Pulliam says that he will reassess and wait to see if North Carolina goes into Phase 3. Other options he’s considered for income are the games themselves. But, it’s a solution he sees as self-defeating. “After a certain point, you start selling the whole point of the business. If I gut the business, what’s the point?” he said.
Games are more than just a business decision for Pulliam. Selling his machines would mean selling a piece of who he is and what he loves to do, adding one more thought: “If you know a friend who’s a small business owner, make sure to try and help them out however you can,” he said, “there’s no such thing as not enough at this point in time.”
Update: The Abari Drive-In has been postponed due weather concerns.