NOCO businesses mix alcohol with pinball and classic video games

By Dan England | Photos by Jordan Secher

In another life, Kevin Kelm could have been a dude working on cars all weekend.

But he loves pinball, and though many wouldn’t compare pinball to a ’67 Mustang, the comparison is dead on for Kelm. He loves popping the hood—and yes, you can actually do that to a pinball game—and repairing something or just tinkering. His eyes light up like arcade lights when he shows you all the whoozeewhaitzs that make up a game. The wires look like a ball of snakes or a bomb from “Mission Impossible.” But they don’t scare Kelm. In fact, all those moving parts mean the machines break down at least once a month, and you get the idea Kelm kinda loves that. 

“I’m really proud of these machines,” Kelm says. “I love pimping them out.” 

Kelm, after all, was an IT guy before he joined forces with Gary Rechnitz, his partner in both life and business, to open The Flipside, one of the many bar + arcade joints in Northern Colorado (we can’t say “Barcade” because it’s trademarked). Rechnitz was an anesthesiologist. The business was a good move for both of them: Kelm could tinker full-time and Rechnitz could open a bar with fancy cocktails and great beer. This isn’t some dive bar with a couple pinball machines in the corner and Bud Light. 

“I was content with just beer,” Kelm says and laughs, “but he was like, ‘No, no, we need cocktails.’ I admit it was an amazing choice.”

The two pride themselves on opening what is essentially an arcade in downtown Loveland, with nearly two dozen pinball machines and video games, many you can play with others, like a tabletop collaborative Pac-Man. Kids run through the corridors, and there’s colorful lights and loud noises everywhere to keep them happy. But it’s also an upscale bar to keep the adults happy as well. If you set a high score, which are reset monthly, you get a free drink. 

“The trick is to make this a space for everyone,” Rechnitz says. “We want this to be a very inclusive place.”

They opened it five years ago in an old opera house. They looked through 12 buildings before they found the right one. They didn’t have a business plan: There weren’t any. But now the business model is everywhere, and there are brand new places and places that have been around for years, all with the same setup: pinball, maybe a few classic video games and lots of fancy drinks, both for kids and adults. 

So does Kelm have, say, a shiny refurbished Mustang among his collection, which he switches out monthly? Of course. That’s the Adams Family pinball machine. Kelm says it was the most popular machine of all time, and indeed, it sold more than 20,000 units, more than any other. 

“This is where it all started for me,” he says while gazing at the machine. 

Nostalgia scores high

Barcade started the trend in 2004. It now calls itself the original arcade bar, with eight locations, most of them on the east coast. They sell merchandise and have tokens and (admittedly impressive) lists of games for each location. They include “Dig Dug,” “Donkey Kong,” “Defender” and deep cuts such as “Gyruss,” “Final Fight” and “Moon Patrol.” Modern classics such as “Mortal Kombat” are there, too, and there’s Nintendo console games such as “Mike Tyson’s Punch Out,” and even something called “Friday the 13th,” which just sounds wrong. These games, plus the reimagining of pinball, with video, audio clips from movies and lots of new ways to get points (you can even have more than one ball going at a time now) makes the arcades a good attraction.

“It hits both demographics,” says Andrew Shear, the owner of Mile High Arcade in Denver. “The older people are nostalgic, and the younger people mostly missed the arcade phenomenon and now get to enjoy it with alcohol.” 

The nostalgia is a big key. Dave & Busters did this years ago, too, but modeled it as a Chuck E. Cheese for adults. Barcade brought back the classics and hit a nerve. Shear had fond memories of being one of the “Space Age Whiz Kids” Joe Walsh sang about, hitting up arcades with a pocketful of quarters and playing “Dragon’s Lair,” “Galaga” and “Gauntlet.” 

Shear started Mile High Arcade after purchasing his first arcade game, getting hooked and figuring, correctly, that he couldn’t be the only one who craved a taste of their childhood. He ran things out of his garage. Now he’s the main supplier for many of these places, loaning them out (even picking them out) and sharing the revenue or renting them out for private parties. He has a large collection in a warehouse, but he also has a huge list of contacts. 

“In the beginning we would buy them from every online resource,” Shear says. “But now that has dried up because of the demand.” 

‘This is one my kids will enjoy’

Ely Corliss uses Shear as his supplier for Stella’s in downtown Greeley, a new place he opened beneath his Moxi Theater and stuffed with pinball machines, classic video games, air hockey and skee ball. He even named Stella’s after the youngest of his two young daughters because he considers it a place for them. 

“I’ve tried to build businesses the community will enjoy,” he says, “but this one my kids will enjoy. It’s fulfilling to put on concerts, but my kids don’t enjoy concerts.” 

The place does serve alcoholic drinks but also has an ICEE machine, and Corliss hopes to establish the place as a killer burger joint. There’s neon art everywhere, including one that says “You Light Up My Life,” the first thing Corliss turns on when he walks in. There are arcade buttons to turn on lights and a drinking fountain that he hopes will eventually spew Kool Aid. He even has arcade tokens, though the machines take quarters as well. He decorates the place in neon, which he also does for Luna’s, his nearby taco joint named for his other daughter. He has a spare room to keep other neon signs to change things up. 

“Going through Nashville encouraged me to think of this place as an art installation,” Corliss says of Stella’s. 

Many of these businesses indeed did grow out of personal collections. Kim Jones, the owner of Pinball Jones in Fort Collins, opened in 2011 to put her pinball machines to use. Jones had a thing for the machines after working in an arcade in college and thought she could successfully emulate the 1UP locations in Denver. 

The place has classic video games but emphasizes pinball—they have 35 machines running—because they believe that works best in bars. Pinball, like pool, generally works best in a crowded room with beer, she says. They also loan out machines to places such as Chipper’s, breweries and the Lyric Cinema, and do revenue shares. 

“It’s so unique,” says Aidan Lancaster, the general manager of Pinball Jones, about the pinball craze. “It’s not a video game and too expensive for the home market. It managed to find a niche. And the dominant paradigm in video games is playing online with someone. It’s the same way here. You can play with people in a physical location.” 

The place changes throughout the day, he says, with kids tromping through during daylight hours, teens in the late afternoon and early evening, and just adults late at night. They even have age restrictions on the weekends. 

Lancaster believes the business still has a niche, but he admits they’ve had to step up a bit too now that the competition is tougher. But that competition also benefits them. 

“We had been beer only and added liquor this year,” Lancaster says. “It’s been a lot of change, and it’s been the busiest we’ve ever had.”