Restaurant workers have long dealt with people who come into their cafes or sit at bars just to stare at their phones. But since the virtual reality game Pokémon Go was released in the U.S. Thursday, servers have had to compete for attention with some monsters at their tables.
Some of those monsters are Pokémon. Some are the bleary-eyed, neck-craning customers who are so addicted to the app, they’ve forgone niceties or anything else that gets in the way of their pursuit.
In Pokémon Go, players can stumble on a Pikachu or Rattata monster while walking down the street. But to advance in the game, players need to find Pokémon and other supplies in real-world locations, such as monuments, office buildings and restaurants. It’s created an odd situation for the hospitality business, as restaurants and bars that didn’t realize they were hosts to the game pivot to using it as a promotional tool: They must catch the people who are trying to catch Pokémon.
It works like this: Players go to local businesses or landmarks that are designated as PokéStops, where they collect balls that they use to trap Pokémon, as well as potions that heal Pokémon in “battle”and eggs that hatch new creatures. They can also go to locations designated as Pokémon gyms, where they can “train” their Pokémon and battle other players.
When a Pokémon shows up in a restaurant, it could be anywhere. It could be in the bathroom. It could be standing in your food (An update to an old, bad joke: “Waiter, there’s a Squirtle in my soup!”). But, for the most part, it’s completely random.
The game provides a major opportunity for restaurants. Some players have tweeted that they have changed up their lunch routines when they spotted a restaurant that has Pokémon. Any restaurant employee working at a PokéStop who has an account can pay as little as a dollar to to put out “lures” that entice flocks of Pokémon monsters to come inside, and show this increased activity to any players looking at their local Pokémon map. In a blog post, entrepreneur Justin Cener speculated that Pokémon Go just created an entirely new channel for marketing.
“If your business’s location is a PokéStop, consider yourself lucky,” Cener wrote.
During an interview Monday night in Washington, Duffy’s Irish Pub owner Casey Callister admits, “I’m baiting Pokémon right now,” setting out virtual incense that attracts Pokémon like catnip for 30 minutes at a time.
“Last night, Pokémon were coming in like crazy,” Callister says, laughing. “This two-headed bird [Doduo] kept sitting on the bar.”
On Sunday, the Facebook and Twitter accounts for the bar, located on Vermont Avenue NW just north of U Street, announced its status as a PokéStop, touting two extra advantages: Free WiFi and, most importantly, outlets at every barstool to keep players from draining their batteries. It apparently worked. “Every table had people playing,” Callister says. “People would walk into the bar, I said, ‘Are you playing Pokémon?’ and they just laughed.”
Some players were at Duffy’s for up to four hours that day. And even those customers weren’t on barstools the whole time: “They left and came back. I think they went [across the street] to the 9:30 Club,” which is a Pokémon gym, or walked around the neighborhood to try to trap different Pokémon.
He plans to capitalize on the bar’s status as long as he can, organizing Pokémon meetup events — the next one is this Thursday
The staff at Port City Brewing Company in Alexandria, Va., was surprised when a customer told them they were a Pokémon gym. Naturally, they jumped on it: This weekend, any customer who comes to the tasting room in a Pokémon costume will receive a gift, and “We’re also looking at putting together a Pokémon trivia in the near future,” Chris Van Orden, Port City’s marketing and outreach manager, wrote in an email.
“I’ve not heard of Pokémon before,” admits David Fogel, the owner of Silver Spring, Md., coffee shop Bump N Grind, which happens to be a Pokémon gym. “I don’t fully understand it yet.”
He learned pretty quickly: “People are standing outside [the shop’s front door] banging on their phones at lunch. It’s insane.” The question, though, is whether he can monetize his building’s newfound popularity. “Not everyone comes in. A few come in and grab a coffee, some come in groups of three or four. I don’t think sales are up because of it, but [Monday’s] kind of like Day 1.”
On Tuesday, Bump N Grind’s baristas tweeted out a picture of a Pokémon-themed coffee menu featuring a Doduo Espresso (a double vanilla espresso) and a Minccino Mint Cappucino.
Many other restaurants have been slow to capitalize on the craze. In New York, the aptly named fast-casual Pokeworks restaurant found out that it was a host to a character called Charmander. The tiny restaurant had drawn long lines even before the Pokémon craze began, and for the past few days, guests have been waiting patiently as they play Pokémon Go.
“It kind of happened without us knowing, so we’ve been along for the ride,” said co-founder Kevin Hsu, who started playing the game on Monday. “We’re looking to see how we can work it into more promotions, potentially. For now it’s more that we’re catching up with the craze just like anyone else.”
National restaurant brands have hopped on the Pokémon bandwagon, too. “Going @Pokemon hunting today? If you catch one in our restaurant, snap a photo and tweet us to win a $25 gift card!#PokemonGO” wrote Zoe’s Kitchen on Twitter. Pokémon has figured into the social media marketing at chains like Denny’s, Moe’s Southwestern Grill, Whataburger and others.
But it hasn’t been all fun and games. In addition to incidents of customer rudeness, restaurants are forced to give customers a lesson in boundaries.
“We’ve seen a few customers coming in with the game wanting to access our kitchen, but it’s off limits to customers due to safety concerns,” said a spokeswoman from the Southern chain Whataburger. “We know it’s all in good fun and we encourage our customers to be safe while playing the game.”
It’s easy for small restaurants to directly see the benefits of Pokémon Go, but for larger chains, the effect is less pronounced.
“Unfortunately, there is no way for us to track how many of our restaurants have Pokémon in them,” wrote Daley Michael, a spokesman for Moe’s Southwestern Grill, which has posted about the game on its social media accounts.
In Washington, the 9:30 Club decided to make a game out of it: Any member of the club’s Friends With Benefits member rewards scheme who “captures” the gym at the 9:30 Club or its sister venue Merriweather Post Pavilion will get 50 points, which can be used to get concert tickets or merchandise, if they send a screenshot to email@example.com.
9:30 Club spokeswoman Audrey Schaefer says staff haven’t noticed an increase in people focused on Pokémon instead of watching the bands: “I was at the club last night and it looked like a normal sold-out show,” she says. But even if that did happen, it likely wouldn’t be an issue. “We’ve never had a non-phone policy,” she says. “You just expect people are going to enjoy the show in their own way, in a way that’s respectful to those around them.”
Pokémon bar crawls have already been planned in cities from Brooklyn to San Antonio to Perth, Australia. Callister, the owner of Duffy’s, says that some regulars approached him about hosting a bar crawl, “but we’d have to get permits from the city,” which would be a hassle.
Even without the official designation of a bar crawl, the game is “bringing people together,” Callister says. Sure, most of the time, they’re hunched over their phones throwing pokéballs. But every once in a while, they look up.
“They’re sharing tips, talking about where things are, where they’ve found rare captures,” he says. “They’re teaching us older people how to do it.”