Featured image courtesy of Charlotte Burger Blog. All others courtesy of Zachary Pulliam
By Anthony Montalbano
The evergrowing Charlotte area is home to 40,000+ small businesses. We had the pleasure of talking to one of them recently in this interview with Zachary Pulliam, owner, operator, technician, and collector of Super Abari!
Opening in 2016 at the rising popularity of arcades with bars, Zach has sought out how to bridge the gap between the likes of Dave & Buster’s and traditional arcades of the ’80s with much success with the opening of Abari. Sharing the love of pinball, gaming, and arcades, Super Abari shares the arcade scene with others in a symbiotic relationship between other Charlotte arcades and surrounding areas.
Much like other small businesses suffering the same fate of closing down due to the hands of COVID, Abari reopened as Super Abari offers a larger game floor that is home to dozens of iconic pinball and cabinet games ranging from the ’70s to today. In this interview, we talk about all of this and more, along with future plans for Super Abari.
Zach, it’s great to have you here and to be able to talk to the owner of one of the more prominent arcades in town, so let’s start with Abari before you reopened as Super Abari.
As far as the original spot goes, I was doing corporate IT for six or seven years, and the concept of an arcade bar was something I had wanted to do since I was in college. You know, I just thought it was such a cool concept, and the rise of arcades with bars set the thing in motion for that concept to be something that wasn’t Dave & Busters or anything, you know, not a chain, more of a smaller offering with more of a focus on the games instead of just whatever amusement/redemption crap.
Charlotte’s pretty notorious for contractors; when you’re working as a contractor for the banks, you’re like, “Oh, well, my contract’s up, and they’re never going to offer you full-time.” So, you go to the next frickin’ bank, and then you hope you make more money, or you go along with it and try to get on full-time, which really doesn’t happen, unfortunately. So, I just kind of got fed up with all of that, and so I opened up Abari.
Originally, I started doing everything probably around 2014. That’s about when I really started to get games and incorporate it into an LLC. From there, I kind of started pretty small and humble, I took out a very small business loan, and I think it was like, I don’t know, maybe $100,000 total. I know that’s not that’s still a lot of money, but when you’re trying to open a business. [Laughs]. I got that, and we started with probably about 25 to 28 games, maybe a pinball and like 20 arcade games or something like that. And so yeah, that’s kind of where I started, and from there on, just expanded.
Images courtesy of Zachary Pulliam
What was the point that things started to shift more into pinball since pinball is pretty prominent in your arcade along with arcade cabinets?
You know, I’m a gamer myself, and I really enjoy both pinball and the arcade. I definitely wasn’t as big into pins as I am now after really learning pinball and really getting into it. I started pretty small and just kind of grew with the business, and Super Abari is just kind of the continuation of that.
Can you go into the story of the location change? I know there were a couple of years or so when Abari closed during COVID, and then you reopened as Super Abari in a new location.
Of course! The reason we’re not at the old location anymore is during COVID. I want to say it was like June or July, probably July. We were told that we could not renew our lease because they were selling the land. So the land is officially sold. The Bodega that’s there right now is, I think, this is their last month. So next year, that whole plot of land is going to be demolished, and we get more, you know, condos, apartments, whatever bullshit.
Charlotte seems to be endlessly developing when it comes to more apartments and condos and all that.
So, that’s the only reason we moved. I’d probably still be there today if the pandemic didn’t happen. My landlord, I really don’t blame them. Our lease was up, and we had the option to renew, but he decided to sell, and that’s just how that is.
Do you see Super Abari being a more permanent place, or do you feel like it’s going to happen again?
No, I don’t think so. My new landlord is incredibly, incredibly hands-on. She helped us a lot with trying to get open. She’s awesome. This building has been in her family since the early 2000s. This area of Belmont, in general, I wouldn’t say is rapidly growing, but starting to really take shape from a business standpoint. I mean, we have tons of great stuff, whether it’s, you know, Sweet Lew’s BBQ, Bloom and Bottle, and some more restaurants and stuff around, so I think she is dead set on keeping this building for the long run.
There’s a big resurgence of the ’80s right now, especially in the metal and music scenes and, of course, seeing arcades, as we mentioned earlier, that isn’t just Dave & Busters.
It’s definitely nostalgia. I’m 36, so we’re close in age, and that’s something I’ve been trying to learn with Super Abari; as I get older, I know that not everybody has the same nostalgia as you or me. And since we’re 21 and up, you gotta think we have young people born in the early 2000s and mid-2000s, so that time period is their nostalgia.
So, I’m really trying to think I’m not only here to please me or someone older than me; I want to please these people that are growing up and about our age now. So, that’s why we’ve been really focusing on things like rhythm games, and I think pinball is kind of timeless. In fact, it doesn’t matter if you’re older or younger. Pinball is just such a magical thing that’s hard to recreate in a home setting unless you have a real machine.
We’ll always keep pinball as a focus. We want what I call “experience games,” right? You want something that somebody can’t go home and sit down on the couch and play, you want to play it at a bar, and you want to be social, and that’s why I’m always focused on multiplayer, as well. If you’re here with your friends, or even making new friends, you know, it’s easy to dive in on a multiplayer game like that.
When I was there recently, you had a couple of rhythm games in the back corner. Taiko No Tatsujin and Jubeat, which you don’t usually see at arcades, and as you mentioned, multiplayer games, you had a Time Crisis machine and many other two-player games. You’ve also got pinball machines from quite a range of years. When you took out the hundred thousand dollar loan, did that include buying the devices, or are they rentals?
I own pretty much 100%. I have some friend’s machines here from when we were first opening up; they were like, “Hey, you know, can I put this in and get some money?” And the only reason they’re still around is that they’ve been here since the beginning. Realistically, I would never do that now, and the only reason I chose to do it with Super Abari is just that they’ve been loyal to me. I could have bought whatever they brought in here on the floor right now and done it myself, but I think that’d be rude.
You have the new James Bond machine that just came out this month and the new Star Wars. It’s impressive; you have a lot of machines in there, and not just pinball, of course. Pinball has been getting more popular, and as you said, the arcade bar scene is getting more and more popular. The other place by you, Paranoia Pinball, I wouldn’t say is competition since you offer two different styles. Hence, it’s kind of like a symbiotic relationship in that you feed off each other’s customers.
Chris at Paranoia is a great guy. I would say that people who are passionate about gaming in Charlotte and the surrounding areas all kind of know each other, and it is very symbiotic because we care. We care about helping each other, and I think we all offer something different, so it’s not like they’re competing in any way. It’s more like, “Hey, this is a companion bar to us.” And we’ll always say that about Paranoia or The Basement, which is up in Concord, because we’re all pretty good friends.
A bit outside Charlotte, but do you know the guys out in Asheville at the Asheville Retrocade or the Pinball Museum?
Most of the people I know are in Winston, which is Reboot, then the guys in Chapel Hill, The Baxter Arcade, and we know Troy at The Basement and Chris at Paranoia, some of the museum guys but not the Asheville Pinball Museum, but some others like Forest City and a few others. I mean, it’s a pretty tight-knit group. But some of these people you just really never see engaging. I get it. You know, I’m busy all the time. I’m not as social as I used to be. If you own some games, and you have them all in one location, or even if you’re just an avid collector, generally speaking, it’s a close enough group where you know each other.
What’s the maintenance like on the machines? It looks like you’re in your workshop. Do you do your own maintenance?
So, when it first started, it was just me. I was the only tech, and then I quickly found out that that was not possible. So I hired Matt about three months after opening in June 2016. I’ve had Matt here since then, and then it would be Matt and I doing maintenance, and then when we reopened as Super Abari, I knew I needed one more set of hands because we have more games on the floor.
So, we technically have three techs. We have two techs and then me, which I will say I’m a tech; I mean, I do know my stuff. I’m definitely not as good as the guys on certain things. We’ve got tons of parts like the only time we won’t have something that can get up in the next day is if it’s a very special part, and we’re lucky because Marco (Marco’s Specialties), pinball-wise, Marco is in South Carolina. So, generally speaking, if I ordered something that day, I could get the part the next day, which is awesome.
So, it’s a one-day turnaround between a machine going down or a broken part and coming back up. That’s impressive!
Sometimes you get screwed because there are very specific parts that are out of stock everywhere, and what’s crazy is we’ll have it with newer Sterns, and it’s like, “These are still in production; why is it hard to get parts?”
Would you say it’s easier to work on older or new machines? Some of the older machines can look complicated with all the wires and harnesses.
I think it’s easier to work on older-style games. The reason I will say that is just because you don’t get a bunch of surface-mounted chips and stuff. There are big solder points that are easy to change out parts if it’s board related. And then, of course, you know, pinball’s mechanical and electrical, so you’ve got two sides that can go wrong there.
Images courtesy of Zachary Pulliam
Between the newer and the older ones, as far as repairs, it’s not necessarily that one’s harder than the other; it’s just different.
I would say the new ones are probably more difficult because you run into things like parts not being readily available, or you might have to actually have to replace a full board instead of just replacing a transistor or a capacitor.
What was your experience like moving the machines from Abari into storage for a couple of years and then into your new Super Abari location?
I got really lucky; I will give a big shout-out to Charlotte Gamers Network and pretty much all of our regular patrons and anybody else who wanted to help. They so graciously helped me move. I want to say it was like 50 people that came out and helped move all the games. We got pods that can be picked up and moved, so we moved them all into storage, and they just kind of sat in the pods in a warehouse for two years.
It was way easier getting them out of storage than it was putting them in, but I mean. It didn’t take too long; we really had so many people there, and everybody was so willing to help, and just I’m so gracious for that because it was not a fun time for me, and I don’t know what I would have done if I didn’t have all that help the undertaking was huge.
Pinball machines weigh what, around 300 lbs a piece?
Yep, and arcades are about 450, like Midway Games, say, Mortal Kombat, and stuff like that. Very, very heavy.
The first Abari had a membership card, and now as Super Abari, you don’t need one. Were there legalities involved since you served alcohol that you had to do that? What’s changed now that you don’t need one now?
North Carolina is really weird. They have the most backward laws in the world, maybe not in the world, but it is pretty bad. If you served mixed drinks, like any liquor, and you didn’t have 30% of your gross sales in food, you had to be a private club in North Carolina, and you had to charge a membership fee with membership cards and a membership roster. So recently, thank God, they changed it, so you do not have to have a membership anymore; that’s why we only check IDs now.
In the beginning, when we first opened, we still had to do memberships. But we did it through an app, that was something they later let you do, and now we don’t even have to use the app, we don’t have to have memberships, we don’t have to do any of that. Some people would get miffed about it, especially if they came from out of town, but it was literally the only way that we could operate legally and sell liquor. So, that’s the reason we did it, and it was a pain in the ass. Trust me; nobody really wanted to do it.
Images courtesy of Zachary Pulliam
Tell me about the giant Gameboy in the lobby as you come in.
I’m really lucky that we met a couple of really talented guys. When we first opened the original Abari, we met a couple of brothers there named Jeremy and Jason Calamusa, and they own a fabrication shop called 8lincoln30. All the big pieces that we had were done through them. If I ever have an idea, I can tell them about it, and they can do it! They fabricated the exterior of the Game Boy. They tried to get perfect color matches for buttons, paint, text, and all that stuff. Then I did the interior, like the guts of everything.
What games do you have on it that are playable right now?
I usually switch them up. Tetris is just easy because it’s probably the best playing game on there. But we’ve had DuckTales, Bubble Bobble, and Mega Man, which is incredibly hard. And then, we’ve got Turtles, which is incredibly hard, too. A lot of platforming games require two people to play it pretty much. [Laughs].
Speaking of Mega Man, across the hall from the Game Boy is a decent size display case on the wall with all 11 of the mainline Mega Man games. Do you plan on making a mini museum or a more prominent display?
During COVID, the guys from 8lincoln30, myself, and a couple of other people tried to get a gaming museum happening here in Charlotte. That’s a huge passion of mine; I’m big into preservation and history. My dream job would be to curate a bunch of this stuff, so when we opened the new spot, I figured, “Why not incorporate that a little bit into it?” So, we started with a Game & Watch exhibit, then we went into a Metroid exhibit, and now it’s Mega Man!
So, it switches out every so often?
About every three months or so. It’s something I’m still trying to figure out at this point because we have limited space. When I’m doing something like the Mega Man, I had to be like, “Well, I can’t do X, I can’t do Zero. I can’t do Legends.” I need to focus on the mainline games because there are so many Mega Man games. I’m a big collector, but I don’t have everything, so I have to really pick and choose what I think will fit, or if somebody gives me stuff on loan, you know?
What would you say are your favorite machines that you have right now?
It kind of changes a lot. It’s like, “Okay, what can I go to and gravitate towards and pick up and play and just have fun with?” I would always say pinball wise is probably Bride of Pinbot, or, and that’s just pinball, the pinball. It’s a great machine and wonderful for beginners because it’s not overly complicated and has an easy ruleset in that you don’t really have more than one goal in that game, and it does so much right.
Arcade-wise, you know, there’s like a couple of games that I would say that are infinitely replayable in my opinion, and one that doesn’t get enough love is Sunset Riders; it’s such a great game; it’s probably one of the best Konami games of that era. And then I would say from just kind of dick-around-play, Galaga and Donkey Kong are two of my favorites.
About from the same year as Bride of PinBot, you have FunHouse as well, another iconic machine in pinball history in my eyes.
Yes! It’s got a new playfield, it’s been completely gone through, and it plays really nicely!
There’s a recent mod out for FunHouse, Rudy’s Nightmare. Do you plan on adding that to the machine?
I do have that on order. I don’t know if I’d ever do it. I kind of slept on it. You can play either game, so you can play the old rule set or the new rule set, but it has a nice color display on it.
What are some machines you’re hoping to get in on the next rotation or when the ones on loan go back?
We rotate stuff pretty regularly, so it doesn’t really matter even if those go away; like, we switched Iron Maiden for James Bond. I would say you’re gonna see a new game on the floor once a month, basically, for both arcade and pinball, if not more, but right now, there are a couple of things that are coming back on the floor. Pretty soon, one of them will be Mata Hari, which is a very early solid-state pinball, like ’78. And then some of the other kind of rarer things that we’ll be getting in the near future are ones called Radical, and it’s an ’80s pin.
It’s really fun. It’s awesome. It’s very unique for the era. And then Big Lebowski Pinball will eventually get in here. And then, arcade-wise will bring out a couple more classics. We have got a bunch of arcade stuff in the works. I mean, it would take a long time to list them, but I am working on a Duck Hunt machine. We’ve got a lot, let’s see, G.I. Joe, Initial D Infinity, a few more rhythm games, Sound Voltex III, and Panic Park, which is a two-player kind of like mini-game type of game. A lot of projects!
Going back to your arcade floor, you also have Ghostbusters, a personal favorite of mine, and Elvira’s Scared Stiff. And The Ghostbusters you have is the pro version, correct?
Yes, the pro; that was my first new-in-box game, my first brand-new purchase of a pinball machine.
There are multiple tiers when it comes to pins; I’ve played the pro and the premium which have magnetic bumpers near the flippers as opposed to rubber.
Yes, that’s the premium. There are so many tiers that offer some different things for each one.
A couple other my favorite machines you have there, Stranger Things; it’s really fun and can be very hard at times and looks amazing!
The UV stuff on that is awesome. It’s like two play-fields in one when you get to “The Upside-Down.”
That new James Bond is fun, the Willy Wonka one that you have and Metallica. Do you have plans on getting ACϟDC or Guns N’ Roses?
I would like to have it at some point. I’m kind of picky and choosey with my brand-new games because I have to be, you know? They’re so expensive now. It’s like when Toy Story came out. I was ready to bite the bullet on Toy Story, but then it was like Toy Story 4.
Yeah, I understand what you mean; I didn’t understand any other references because I only watched the first three. It was still a fun machine, but I knew nothing about it. It also seemed pretty complicated, like; a lot of the newer machines get insanely complicated with the rule sets and the gameplay.
Pirates from Jersey Jack, it literally has about 40 characters you can choose from the board, and it gets to be just too much.
Zach, thank you so much for your time today. Is there anything else you’d like to say or mention before we go?
I would say one of the other things that we’re trying to focus on since now we have more tables and stuff. We’re trying to focus on trading card games and board games too. So, you know, I think we have room to grow there. You know, we’re just doing Magic so far, Thursday nights is Magic, and then some of those guys will bring board games. I don’t think anybody ever uses them. But there are some really nice board games like 3D Catan.
I would say in the future, that’s kind of the thing I want us to grow, our geek communities. That’s what I’m focused on for the bar is building these communities, and I think that’s what really sets us apart from other places and why the first Abari did so well is, you know, trying to focus on these different groups of people. Right now, we have a really good pinball community; we have a really good fighting game community; we have a really good rhythm game community.
So you know, we have all these bits and pieces of people, and I think the good thing is we have a lot of overlap. So you have people meeting new people, and you have people sharing their love for something and discovering new things and friends through overlapping communities!
Images courtesy of Zachary Pulliam
– Anthony Montalbano is a contributor for www.vwmusicrocks.com and may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org