Making the right moves: Queen & Rook Board Game Cafe plays on through the pandemic - Technical.ly Philly

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Nov. 12, 2020 12:57 pm

Making the right moves: Queen & Rook Board Game Cafe plays on through the pandemic

What started as a novel idea on a trip to Canada has become a locally minded business that serves people of all ages during a tumultuous year. Here's how owners Edward Garcia and Jeannie Wong are keeping the Queen Village shop alive.
Queen & Rook Board Game Cafe owners Edward Garcia and Jeannie Wong.

Queen & Rook Board Game Cafe owners Edward Garcia and Jeannie Wong.

(Photo by South Street Headhouse District)

As the parents of two kids, Queen & Rook Board Game Cafe owners Edward Garcia and Jeannie Wong quickly found that their family’s free time was split between places that were designed for children or for adults. There seemed to be no middle ground.

A trip to Canada piqued the couple’s curiosity.

“In Canada, I went to a place called Randolph,” Garcia said. “They had a model for board game cafes before the U.S. did. I wanted to see if there was something like that here: a café or restaurant with board games that kids and adults love with alcoholic drinks and good food. I came back and didn’t want to let go the idea.”

The idea behind Queen & Rook Board Game Cafe was born.

Before pivoting to full-time entrepreneurship, Garcia worked in nonprofit management, where he enjoyed a stable career that paid well. Through his job, he was able to attend Temple University and earn his executive MBA through the Fox School of Business. Similarly to Lokal Artisan Foods founder Charisse McGill, he credits the program with renewing his interest in entrepreneurship and introducing him to individuals who were thriving as entrepreneurs.

Access to capital is more likely to be a barrier for Black and Latinx entrepreneurs. Garcia and Wong sidestepped institutional investors by reaching out to friends and family for what became their first round of investment. After sharing their idea, loved ones contributed between $1,000 and $5,000 of their savings to help the cafe get off the ground. Of the 10 investors, almost all are people of color or women, Garcia said.

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Even with this start-up capital, Garcia and Wong still used their savings and maxed out credit cards to purchase many things for their business. They were able to secure a 7(a) loan through the U.S. Small Business Administration to purchase a liquor license, a cost that starts at a minimum bid of $25,000. Garcia compared it to putting a deposit on a house.

Queen & Rook. (Courtesy photo)

Garcia found getting a lease for a space to be a difficult experience. Over two years, he and Wong went through four realtors to see 10 different spaces. But each time, Garcia felt that property owners wanted a larger deposit than they would have asked of a white business owner; his MBA degree and high annual salary and the couple’s good credit couldn’t prevent potential landlords from ignoring that they were not white, he said.

The couple eventually leased a space — 607 S. Second St. in Queen Village — from another owner of color who was an immigrant.

“Our landlord was owner of one of the first Japanese sushi restaurants in Philly,” Garcia said. “When he started in the ’80s, he had a sense of, ‘If your business idea sounds solid, I’ll give you a chance.’ That’s something we didn’t get from other landlords.”

Since opening in September 2019, Garcia said Queen & Rook enjoyed a steady stream of business, the owners said. People of all ages would come to the cafe: Families would spent time mostly during the day, and college students and young adults would come later at night. Families would also have birthday parties for kids.

The pandemic changed all of that for the nascent business.

Queen & Rook had 24 staff members on before closing on March 15. A day later, they only had one. Almost the entire staff was laid off quickly so that employees would be able to apply for and receive unemployment compensation. Garcia and Wong had not been open a full year and already had to pivot quickly.

“We had to reinvent ourselves three or four times,” Garcia said.

The couple added food delivery to its and also began selling board games to customers. Using pallets he collected outside of a Lowe’s hardware store, Garcia built outdoor seating to accommodate patrons. The cafe was considered an essential business by the state, but for much of March and April, that meant Garcia was making food in the kitchen and running it out to delivery drivers.

With Queen & Rook being able to stay open as an essential business, Garcia looked for a way to help other game shops that did not have the same designation and were temporarily closed. Queen & Rook partnered with Philly Game Shop and sold their games to help them sustain through the pandemic, for instance, and took only a small cut of the other store’s profits.

Wong said that the business received a Paycheck Protection Program loan that allowed the couple to bring back its entire staff. However, business still is not as a robust as before, with outdoor seating capped at 24 guests, a quarter of the maximum 100 people that Queen & Rook’s indoor seating allowed before the pandemic. Outdoor seating can also be limited by inclement weather.

Queen & Rook hosts outdoor gameplay. (Courtesy photo)

While Garcia and Wong didn’t take advantage of many local resources for funding or biz-building support, aspiring entrepreneurs have organizations or models to look to.

In July 2020, Temple’s Small Business Development Center launched the Center for Hospitality Resilience and the Center for Digital Transformation. The Center for Hospitality Resilience helps businesses like Queen & Rook Cafe that were affected by COVID-19 while the Center for Digital Transformation helps businesses capitalize on new methods of online business, such as ecommerce.

Baltimore’s Community Wealth Builders is an organization that helps entrepreneurs of color crowdsource as a way of accessing capital. In December 2019, the organization started the Maryland Neighborhood Exchange, an initiative designed to connect companies with grassroots crowdfunding. There’s also Honeycomb Credit based out of Pittsburgh, which similarly lets entrepreneurs crowdfund for capital. And as Honeycomb cofounder George Cook wrote in February, there are options closer to home: “Philadelphia’s network of Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFIs) and public-private small business loan funds such as PIDC serve as great resources of capital in Philadelphia because they are deeply attuned to their local context and benefit directly for promoting the positive externalities associated with local lending.”

From his experience, Garcia believes Latinx and Black entrepreneurs could better benefit from organizations like the Greater Philadelphia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in the early stages of business planning that include accessing capital.

“Especially in the beginning, people are all for helping businesses that have things figured out,” he said. “Once you blow up, everyone is lining up to mentor you. But it’s before you blow up that you need help in getting to the next step. If you have one location, how to do you get to the next? If you’re working form home, how do you get to the second year?”

As Queen & Rook Cafe navigates the pandemic, Garcia and his partner strive to continue putting people first. Support from the community and partnerships with other local businesses have helped their small business persevere through a tumultuous year.

“A lot of people think of entrepreneurs as cutthroat,” he said. “For us, this is a means to an end. The dollars are important but not more important than people or community.”

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Michael Butler is a 2020-2021 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of The Groundtruth Project that pairs young journalists with local newsrooms. This position is supported by the Lenfest Institute for Journalism. -30-
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