Sitting in Super Abari Game Bar during a May 7 preview event of the new business, watching nearly 100 people move about the new space that he’s spent the last two years pouring his life into, owner Zach Pulliam still couldn’t claim victory just yet.
Pulliam, who was forced to close his original Abari Game Bar location in 2020 due to COVID-19 and rising rent prices at the Optimist Park site, said he was relieved but still anxious about the opening of its successor, Super Abari Game Bar.
“It’s great to finally see people in here,” he told me. “It’s great to finally have an actual night of service, but it’s still kind of the beginning in a lot of ways. We got a lot of stuff we still need to get done. So I’m still stressed, but a little bit more relieved now that things are kind of running and I can see where I need to fix certain things.”
Pulliam faced a number of obstacles in opening Super Abari, located on Seigle Avenue between Belmont Avenue and Van Every Street in north Charlotte’s Belmont neighborhood. The rezoning process alone dragged on for seven months before he could even start on renovations and new construction.
But on Monday, May 16, Pulliam and his team will see all their work come to fruition with the grand opening of Super Abari Game Bar.
The name fits, as the new location features expanded versions of everything that made the original Abari location so popular. If you count the new patio, the 5,500 square feet of space at Super Abari nearly doubles the 2,800 square feet that was open to patrons at the last spot. That allows for a bigger arcade to fit the 60+ games and 35 pinball machines, a roomier console lounge, a larger bar, and a patio that’s a breath of fresh air for those who remember the glorified stairwell that served as the porch in Optimist Park.
An atmosphere of inclusivity
More important than any new expansion is the return of something more visceral: the sense of community that Abari cultivates among Charlotte gamers.
Michael Zytkow, founder of local gaming and civic engagement organization Potions & Pixels, could barely hide his excitement at the May 7 preview event.
“I think it’s crucial for the gaming community and for people in general to have venues like this where they feel comfortable, where they know they can be themselves so they can have a good time,” Zytkow said, signaling to the people around him. “The thing that we all share in common in the gaming community — as you can see that we all get along very well — is that we recognize games have the power to bring people together like nothing else.”
To that point, the preview event was hosted by Charlotte Gaymers Network (CGN), a local LGBTQ gamer organization. Co-founder Jonathan Barrio told me he helped launch the organization in 2020 partly because he was inspired by the inclusivity at Abari Game Bar.
“Abari was one of the only places in Charlotte where LGBTQ gamers could go and feel welcome before the Charlotte Gaymers Network was created,” Barrio said. “So we have a lot of love and respect for Zach and what he built and being so inclusive to all different creeds of people, cultures, diversities, everything. That’s why we really wanted to throw our support behind him.”
In May 2021, Barrio enlisted the help of his fellow CGN members to show up at the original Abari months after it had closed to help Pulliam wheel out the dozens of arcade games and cabinets that remained inside.
More than 80 people showed up that day in a show of solidarity that inspired Pulliam to keep pushing to open Super Abari.
“I wasn’t expecting that,” Pulliam recalled. “I was just expecting a few friends to come and help. It was insane.”
That day also inspired the May 7 preview event.
“Basically I made the promise, I was like, ‘Hey, whenever we open the new spot, I am going to invite all of you out and you’re going to get to enjoy it before everybody else because you helped me do this.’”
Roadblocks and pressure for Pulliam
Things didn’t always come together so smoothly for Pulliam, however. Even after the lengthy rezoning process that continuously pushed back his plans, he ran into months-long delays with architectural drawings and other obstacles.
In social media posts over the past year, he was candid about feeling pressured into reopening Abari, admitting that he sometimes regretted it.
I asked if, now that he could see his efforts start to come to fruition, he finally felt like it was all worth it.
“It feels good, but it’s one of those things where it’s still early. I think it’s nice to see all these people having fun, and it definitely makes me feel better, but it was a huge investment for me, way more than the first time,” he told me. “I’m happy I did it because I love doing this … but I think COVID did a lot to really kind of instill that fear in me because I get that this could happen [again].”
For those who have been rooting him on from the sidelines and stepping in to help when they can, however, what Pulliam has accomplished is of an importance that he may not even yet register.
“To see all of our work germinate into what this is today has been really amazing and very fulfilling,” Barrio said, “just being able to support somebody who’s been so supportive, no questions asked, without any motivation, to be good to each other and be good to people. Zack truly built a community for everybody here at Abari, and I can’t tell you how many of our members come to us and tell us how comfortable, how safe they feel as LGBTQ+ people here at Abari.”
Zytkow, who lives just a couple of blocks from Super Abari, said that in the future he hopes to work with Pulliam on community initiatives for the Belmont neighborhood and surrounding areas — similar to the workforce development program the two partnered on in 2019 — but for now, he is just taking it all in.
He hoped Pulliam would find some time to do the same.
“I’m really proud of Zach and I’m so happy to see this all come together,” Zytkow said, “because COVID devastated so many people in our community in so many different ways, and to see small businesses like his get hit so hard for the duration of COVID and to also experience issues of growth and development that negatively impacted him, this is a way of saying ‘Hey, we’re here. We’re building something that’s not going to go away.’ I feel like he needs to just be so proud of what he’s done.”
Beginning May 16, Super Abari Game Bar will be open weekdays from 5 p.m.-2 a.m. and weekends from noon-2 a.m. All ages are welcome on weekends from noon-5 p.m. with a parent or guardian present.