The word ‘retro’ has been dragged through the mud over the past decade. Hipsters across major UK cities have had a hand in it, as they happily part with £30 for a moth-eaten 7UP Fido Dido T-shirt without even realising that it probably once belonged to their uncle.
It’s a shame, but so tainted has ‘retro’ become, that I can’t help but hear it as ironic whenever anyone uses it to describe a look or style. What if the thing in question is genuinely retro? How can someone convey that historic authenticity without looking like a try-hard? Well, the clue is in the question – anyone that bases a concept or project around a previous popularity must retain the foundations in their original form and deliver the idea authentically. This was just one of the key requirements for Francois Kitching (pictured), Joe Dowling and Tom Humphrey when they first talked about creating a bar packed full of 80s and 90s arcade machines, as I found out when I caught up with Kitching at Four Quarters in Peckham last month.
The first time I went to Four Quarters was for a friend’s birthday – he had hired the upstairs room at the debut site in Peckham, which features classic consoles and games, low ceilings and neon lights. That evening, we were all transported back to our early teens, sat in your mate’s converted attic, playing hours of Mario Kart and drinking cans of… urm… fizzy pop. But to tell you the truth, the significance of the concept didn’t really hit home. Despite the whole venue being full of excitable Londoners, I saw it as a fairly cool bar with some games – nothing more.
But then I went back. Only this time it was for a themed event based around the cult American TV show It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. That night I witnessed a customer loyalty and devotion that many operators could only dream of, as hundreds of Four Quarters devotees dressed up, sang, danced and immersed themselves in an event theme that was executed with a level of precision and detail I’ve yet to see anywhere else. I know the show fairly well, so could appreciate just how much effort Dowling and Kitching had gone to – guests were living out the programme. It’s this commitment to a meticulous offer that has allowed Four Quarters to become what the founders envisioned from the start – the first genuine arcade bar in the UK.
“It would never have happened if it wasn’t genuine and original,” says Kitching. “For the first couple of years, we made mistakes and the business wasn’t as profitable as it could have been, but we always made sure the delivery of what we were doing was exactly what we wanted – there was no compromise in the quality of beer, entertainment or the arcade machines. That is what sold our brand to people – the legitimacy and the authenticity of it. We really wanted to present gaming from another era that was designed to be played in a social scenario. These games were made that way and they’re still great for having fun in a non-insular way.”
While Kitching and Dowling look after operations and Humphrey looks after the machines, the trio actually have two other silent partners in the business. Although Mark Jones and Simon Dennison aren’t actively involved in the day-to-day, it’s the mutual obsession over arcade games that brought the five men together – Dennison is actually at the forefront of the arcade collectors’ community, which allows Four Quarters access to so many old machines. However, despite this gaming focus, Kitching explains that Four Quarters is a bar first and foremost.
“I feel like we straddle the line between being a good bar and a good place to socialise, but also with a great arcade,” he says. “It was always ‘bar first’, because if you just focus on the games then you end up with something that feels like a youth club.”
On like Donkey Kong
Here’s how it works then. If you did want to just pop in for a drink and some food, that’s no problem – game play isn’t obligatory. For those who are keen to jostle at the joysticks, you exchange £1 at the bar for four American quarters – each game is 25¢ a play, which is pretty cheap when you think about how much the average game of pool costs. I know what you’re thinking – how do you possibly make money from machines that, because of their age, are prone to breaking down when you’re charging such little amounts? Well, the truth is you don’t.
“These machines are 30 years old, so they break a lot and you need to be able to fix them,” Kitching explains. “We make all of our money from drinks. The games cover the cost of operation and repairs. Should another operator try and do that, they’d probably find that the costs are prohibitive. We are lucky that we have our team – Simon and Tom – who have done this for years. With early 80s stuff, if something breaks, you may need a version of a certain microchip that goes with the 80s tech, etc. It’s crazy. It’s why we feel we have the ability to deliver something that not everyone else can and that’s the reason why at the moment there are only one or two other attempts of doing what we do in the UK.”
When asked if it bothers him that other operators may try and replicate the Four Quarters model, the answer is considered. It’s not so much the duplication of the idea that would frustrate; it’s more the fact that it stands a good chance of being done badly.
“I wouldn’t like other brands to enter this space and do it poorly, as I think it would give the idea of an arcade bar a bad perception,” he says.
It’s a fair point and he gives a fair example. The BrewDog site in Shoreditch launched ‘Two Bit’ in 2015 – a space beneath the bar that featured some arcade games.
“It was clear to us that it wouldn’t work – the machines weren’t original, they didn’t own them, they were £1 a play and they weren’t right. In six months, it fell apart and they pulled the machines out.”
There’s no denying that Four Quarters is operating at a time when competitive socialising is seen as an easy win. Throughout the whole of the UK, concepts built around mini golf, darts, shuffleboard, bingo and even baseball are opening up and attracting active crowds who want to fill their spare time with specialised entertainment. But how long can that really last? A dartboard is just an added element to an overall pub experience – one could argue that an entire business based solely around playing darts faces its own particular time crisis. With two bars that have a regularly changing roster of authentic arcade games that have already stood the test of time, does Kitching think that their varied approach to competitive socialising means Four Quarters has a greater chance of longevity over its peers?
“We’ve thought about this a lot recently,” he says. “Looking at some high street brands, where people go for a birthday party or bookings or whatever, if you go there, it’s amazing the first time, but what about the second, third and fourth? Do people really go back? It must have some sort of lifespan. It isn’t designed to be a neighbourhood bar – our format is slightly more casual, which will hopefully prove to have more longevity. We’ve become more aware of where we sit in the marketplace.”
On the very day of writing this article, Four Quarters celebrated its fifth birthday. It took two years for the team to pay back its start-up loans for Peckham and think about opening their second site on a canal side in Hackney. With valuable lessons learned during those first two years, the founders were able to approach bar number two with a little more knowhow and operational finesse. Even so, through a combination of vacant neighbouring offices and David Cameron’s outstanding EU referendum, Four Quarters Hackney got off to a shaky start – how close was it to being game over?
“Brexit was starting to happen and markets were nervous,” Kitching remembers. “We opened in February, it was snowing and it was a ghost town in the middle of nowhere. So we trimmed some costs and closed during the day, but, ultimately, it just took a little bit of time for the site to have people there and for them to realise you could walk along this canal and you’d find something. Our sites drag people across London – once they know that we’re there, they travel to visit us.”
If you’re ever near either of the Four Quarters sites, I would encourage you to pop in and see what Kitching means. On a Friday night, you’ll find such a varied crowd who are all there for different reasons. Fanatic gamers compete alongside an awkward couple on a Tinder date; corporate bookings socialise next to a birthday celebration or a lads’ night out. Four Quarters seems to attract a beautifully diverse clientele through a solid bar offer, complemented by its arcade-orientated hook – it’s an intriguing dynamic to observe.
When chatting to Kitching, I get the sense that big things are on the horizon. He talks of ambitious ideas – a site in every major city hosting a countrywide tournament that culminates in a flagship central London site for the live finals. It’s a long way off, but why not? Investors are almost certainly circling the brand and it’s now down to the five founders to decide what finance and rate of expansion is most suited to their business.
“We really want to be the UK’s number one arcade bar brand – that’s where we want to be,” he concludes. “That’s the mission. We’ve got planning in place, but it all depends on if we self-fund or find external investment and what route we take. We are so particular about how we present ourselves, but I see this model working in every major city in the country and I feel like this is the start. We’ve finally gone from a small business with limited budget to two successful profit-making sites that are doing well. It feels like this is the start of things to come – the right time to take things to the next level.”