Drink up, nerd out and — for a $250 donation — rage-flip a table
The dark suit jacket worn by Cantina Forward CEO David Zoltan isn’t meant to hide his Star Wars T-shirt. And that’s definitely Captain America’s star-and-stripes shield on business partner Matt Wolff’s shirt.
Some might say the entrepreneurs, in nearly identical thick-rimmed glasses, are simply unafraid to let their geek flags fly. But that may be an understatement.
Zoltan and Wolff are busy laying the groundwork for Geek Bar Chicago — a nerd-culture-themed gastropub set to open in March that promises strategy board game nights, sci-fi TV watch parties, craft beer and cocktails named after H.P. Lovecraft deities (like the tongue-twisting “Cthulutini”). It’s an ambitious gambit for a couple of 36-year-olds with no hospitality industry experience, among other potential obstacles.
“I think the drawback is that you’re professing yourself to be part of a marginalized subset,” says Kathy Hayden, a food-service analyst with Chicago market research company Mintel. “How many people want to be known as a geek?”
Yet Zoltan and Wolff believe Geek Bar will attract plenty of people like themselves — unabashed fans of fantasy, gaming and role-playing who thumb their noses at the antisocial stereotype.
“We are our demographic,” says Wolff, the company’s chief marketing officer. “We’re building an awesome home for ourselves that we know our fellow geeks will love. We’re not guessing, we’re not opening up a University of Florida-themed sports bar — we know exactly what we would want from a place like this.”
It’s far from a sports bar, but the idea for Geek Bar originally came from one. Well, sort of.
Aug. 22, 2012. It’s a date Zoltan remembers because it marked the premiere of the seventh season of the new “Doctor Who.” He recalls wondering why there were hundreds of bars in Chicago showing the weekly exploits of Bears quarterback Jay Cutler, but none broadcasting the intergalactic adventures of the time-traveling sci-fi hero.
“You could throw a stone at any street in Chicago and hit a half-dozen faux Irish and sports bars. But where do the nerds go? I realized right there, ‘Oh shit, I got a new idea,’” Zoltan says.
He and Wolff had formed their Cantina Forward (yep, a Star Wars joke) “geektivist” social enterprise to help organize the Chicago Game Lovers, a decade-old Meetup.com group for board game enthusiasts, and arrange other nerd-based events such as the “Dweebutante Ball” and “Noobaholics Anonymous.”
Wolff said it dawned on them that they were promoting 30 to 40 events a month in other people’s bars and restaurants, yet weren’t seeing a dime of it.
“People are already coming out in droves, why are we not monetizing this?” he says. “Why are we giving money to someone else and invading someone else’s space?”
Geek Bar Chicago is likely to land in the city’s “geek triangle” — between Lakeview, Lincoln Square and Uptown where Chicago’s nerd demographic tends to dwell, according to Zoltan’s research. They’ve pegged a chef, Becky Nickels, and an executive director of cuisine in Tom Kern of Bad Happy Poutine Shop in River North.
They’ve also been busy raising capital. As of mid-July, they’ve received $100,000 in funding, mostly through traditional investments but a sizable portion has come from donations.
“We have a strong fan base of people and 800-plus fans on Facebook who are asking: ‘When is it starting? I don’t have money to invest, but I’d love to give you $5 or $25, whatever it takes to help you guys open,’” Wolff says. “Given the support we’ve seen, we think we have a strong chance to do really well.”
The goal is to raise $500,000, but Cantina Forward plans to sign a lease and begin construction on Geek Bar when it secures $200,000. They also expect a big chunk of money to come from a monthlong crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter that launches Tuesday. As is standard with Kickstarter projects, Cantina Forward has a host of rewards planned for those who pledge money to the effort: Geek Bar stickers, an invitation to a private launch party or podcast recording, a meal on your birthday for life.
Wolff’s favorite is the reward for the $250 pledge level.
“We’ll invite you in with your friends and you’ll set up a table with your favorite board game. Then we’ll set up a camera, and on tape, you’ll flip the table and rage-quit your game,” Wolff says. “Then you can put it up on Facebook page or YouTube to show the Internet how much of a badass you are.”
Geek Bar Chicago doesn’t quite qualify as the first of its kind — a nerd-themed 42 Lounge opened in Milwaukee in May, and Dernier Bar Avant la Fin du Monde (“Last Bar Before the End of the World”) opened to rave reviews in Paris last year. But Zoltan says his vision for Geek Bar is unique.
“We want places to plug in laptops, blazing Wi-Fi. We’re talking about having light fixtures with action figures hanging down from them,” Zoltan says. “Behind the bar, there might be screens showing ‘The Matrix’ and bartenders in lab coats. You look around, you’ll know where you are.”
But Hayden questions if there are enough Chicagoans willing to nerd out in a bar and buy a steady stream of craft beer instead of nursing a root beer.
“I think they might find themselves having to broaden their audience at some point,” she says. “But you never know. Geeks have to get out of the house sometimes too.”
Zoltan is so confident in Geek Bar’s success that he’s talking about expanding into different markets and hosting geek celebrity events.
“My dream event right now, I’d call it Neil Squared: a guest panel by Neil deGrasse Tyson and Neil Gaiman moderated by Neil Patrick Harris. I think people would pay money to be in that audience.”
Nerd buying power
There’s little doubt that geeks have buying power outside of the bar
scene. From big-budget comic book movies, best-selling video games to
top-rated television shows, nerds rule the pop culture universe.
“Iron Man 3”
Box-office gross: $406,850,977
Box-office gross: $623,357,910
“World of Warcraft”
10 million copies sold, an estimated $10 billion in revenue.
“The Big Bang Theory”
18 million viewers, third-highest rated broadcast TV show.
ABOVE: Matt Wolff and David Zoltan of Geek Bar pictured at Cheesie’s Pub & Grub. Photo by Heath Sharp