Abari Game Bar continues to be one of Charlotte’s favorite hangout spots

 By Sarah Terry Argabrite

March 18, 2018 (Updated) 

In 2004, when Zach Pulliam heard that the first arcade bar had opened in Brooklyn, he was a student at UNC Charlotte. As a video game enthusiast, he thought opening an arcade bar of his own would be something cool to do one day–if he ever won the lottery. Pulliam had very limited resources and didn’t come from an affluent background. His mother was a teacher and his father a carpenter, so a dream like owning an arcade bar seemed mostly unattainable. But he liked the idea of an arcade bar as a way to save the struggling arcade concept. At the time, arcades were mostly confined to malls and boardwalks, and they weren’t very popular, since home consoles had become so sophisticated.

Zach Pulliam, owner of Abari Game Bar. Photo: Alex Cason

Soon after graduating, Zach was fortunate to secure a good tech job. Working in tech was great for building up savings, but he was growing frustrated with the hierarchies, restricted access that prevented problem solving, and the general day-to-day. Around 2013-14 as arcade bars were becoming more common in bigger cities, Zach took notice that Charlotte still didn’t have one and decided to take his savings and look into how to get a small business loan and make a go of it.  

He scouted out several locations, finally settling on an older building on N. Davidson Street. “Then our trouble began,” Zach joked. It’s funny to look back on, but it was a challenging time as he navigated getting an older building up to code and ready for occupancy. There was plenty to be repaired or completely replaced.

Photo: Alex Cason

Abari opened its doors in March 2016 to positive reaction in Charlotte. There was the 10-player Killer Queen game (One of only 16 in the world), Pinball games and tournaments sanctioned by the International Flipper Pinball Association, and a ‘90s style living room setup with multiple consoles and lots of games. The nostalgia of sitting on a pleather couch in a basement playing video games is something that many who are now of drinking age can identify with. That comfortable, nostalgic vibe is Abari’s niche. “This is a dive bar. This is an arcade with a bar and not a bar with an arcade,” Zach points out, simply to say that you won’t find some of the upscale things you would expect at an uptown bar at Abari. Zach and his patrons prefer it that way. “It’s really gratifying when people, especially females, say they can come here and feel comfortable,” Zach said. With arcades traditionally being a male-dominated realm, it’s a big deal when there is a space in that realm, like Abari, where everyone can feel safe and comfortable.

Though the reaction was overwhelmingly positive, not everyone had rave reviews in the beginning. That was something that Zach had to learn to cope with as a new business owner. In an age where opinions tend to run rampant on social media, it’s something that all businesses now have to be aware of. Zach sees Abari as an extension of himself, like a child, so when he found criticism of the bar online, it was difficult to take at first. He improved things when possible but ultimately learned to accept that there would always be a critical opinion or review out there. “I’ve definitely developed a much thicker skin than I had back then,” Zach said.

Zach Pulliam, owner of Abari Game Bar. Photo: Alex Cason

In the early days of Abari, Zach and his bar manager James worked 12 hour days regularly out of necessity. “It was incredibly overwhelming at that point,” admits Zach. At first he repaired all the games on his own. Luckily, around the summer of their first year he was able to bring in game technician Matt, who drives up from Winston-Salem several times a week. There are constant repairs that have to be done, especially on the pinball machines. Zach explained something that might surprise patrons of Abari: “You don’t really make that much on the games. The money that the games make keeps the games running and helps us pay Matt to repair them.” There has to be another stream of revenue to make an arcade work today (unlike arcades in the 1970s), which is where the bar comes in. They have a selection of beers, many local, on tap as well as liquor and a selection of sodas, including the nostalgic Surge soda. Bar sales have been crucial.

After running a bar arcade for a few years through the good and the bad, Zach and his crew have come out the other side. Things have stabilized since the early days and are going well now. Abari’s regulars, those who come to Abari to celebrate birthdays, and anyone who has visited and told a few friends have made it possible. 

Abari Game Bar celebrates their 3 Year Anniversary with a mega Block Party on Saturday, March 23.

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