An arcade with new and classic cabinet games and a restaurant helmed by Secret Sauce Co. is coming to the former home of Red Emma’s in Station North.
Michael Shecter, one of the co-owners of the North Avenue Market building, is partnering with MAGFest, the locally run nonprofit dedicated to gaming and video game music, Secret Sauce and other vendors to make the new space, which will take the name of the old market.
Shecter envisions it as a hub for local vendors. The bar program will emphasize local beers and spirits, and organizers are still in talks with other Baltimore-based companies about opening up more food counters in the building. Secret Sauce Co. and other makers will also sell their products on site.
“I think it’s a way to showcase local businesses as much as possible,” says Shecter.
Jaimes Mayhew, vice president of operations for the project, said the arcade will bring a different kind of entertainment to one of the city’s designated arts and entertainment districts, something he realized while researching bar arcades in other cities.
“I ended up spending way too much money,” he says. “And I don’t really like video games–or I didn’t think I did.”
Dominic Cerquetti, a board member of MAGFest, which draws thousands to National Harbor for its convention Super MAGFest, said members of his organization first met Shecter while working on programming for Artscape.
When Shecter approached them about collaborating on a bar arcade, the organization saw it as an ideal fit with its mission of promoting gaming culture, and its desire to grow events in Baltimore.
“This thing existing in the world is something we wanted to help make happen,” says Cerquetti.
MAGFest already owns a few cabinets and, through its connections on the East Coast, stores some for collectors, too. And they’ve built systems of their own, including Challenge Boxes that flip classic video games on their heads. For example, you can play the first level of “Sonic the Hedgehog,” but collecting rings–ordinarily one of the game’s goals–actually kills Sonic.
Unlike a traditional arcade, where a sizable chunk of revenue is derived from each game play, Shecter and Mayhew say they want to make this more of a hangout spot, and that includes letting local developers bring in games to test and working with the Maryland Institute College of Art’s Game Lab.
They’re still sorting out how pricing will work–a membership is one possibility–but they stress the emphasis is on gaming, not getting people to feed quarters into the machines.
“It’s not about making money off people from the games,” says Shecter. “It’s about enjoying games, enjoying game culture.”
For Secret Sauce Co., purveyors of locally made ketchup, the North Avenue Market offers a chance for growth. The business held a pop-up late last year in the old Lost City Diner space on N. Charles Street to serve burgers, fries and milkshakes. While the event was primarily a showcase for the ketchup, co-owner Matthew Steinberg said people were equally enthusiastic about the burgers themselves and everything else on the menu.
After the pop-up ended, Steinberg thought Secret Sauce would have to find another venue for a one-off. Instead, they’ll have something more permanent.
“We love Station North and we wanted to keep doing it,” he says. “And when we were presented the opportunity to work with Mike, we were thrilled.”
The menu will build off of the one from the pop-up, with different types of burgers and a rotating burger special. Steinberg says he and his business partner, Vaughn Weitzman, will use the opportunity to to test out a bunch of new sauces in the space’s kitchen.
Earlier this week, workers and artists were preparing the space for a series of pop-ups with food, music and a couple dozen arcade cabinets during Artscape weekend, set for July 19-21.
Friday has soft crab sandwiches from Bmore Big Softy and music from DJ Impluse. Saturday features tacos from Cocina Luchadoras and music from DJ Fleg and James Nasty (also, Secret Sauce Co. and Nasty’s hot sauce company Jones Falls Sauce Co. are debuting a hot sauce collaboration). To close the weekend out on Sunday, they’ll have a to-be-determined food vendor and music from a chiptune group.
The market will then close down and workers will continue to build out the space for a mid-September or early October opening.
The organizers envision the project going in several phases after the kitchen is up and running. Eventually, they would like to be open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, becoming one of the few eateries in the neighborhood to serve all three.
Phase two involves shifting the arcade part of the business into a neighboring room, opening a new entrance on North Avenue and building out the current entryway, situated at the corner of North and Maryland avenues, to accommodate a bigger stage for live entertainment.
If they want to expand even further, for a phase three, they can move another spot down and absorb the old home of Liam Flynn’s Ale House.
After Red Emma’s departed for Mount Vernon last year, Shecter and Mayhew tried to find a traditional tenant but ran into a variety of problems, so they decided to fill the space themselves.
Landing on a arcade-meets-restaurant-meets-local market involved a lot of evolving ideas, and they say they’re open to adapting the concept even further and trying out new things based on what they see and what vendors tell them.
As Shecter jokes, “It’s a business plan without a business plan.”
But he says each new step or change will be made with an eye toward growing community, something that was vital to Liam Flynn’s when it was housed in the market, and remains a core part of the identity of Red Emma’s.
“We want to make sure the community component is built in as we continue to grow.”