Innovative Locations: Electric Shuffle’s Gene Ball on Creating a Shuffleboard-Centric Entertainment Destination

The last episode of ARCO/Murray’s Innovative Location webinar series in 2021 features Gene Ball, CEO of Electric Shuffle USA. Electric Shuffle is an interactive shuffleboard bar/restaurant destination, hailing from the U.K. after success in their first locations in London. Gene and his team just opened the concept’s first U.S. location in the Deep Ellum neighborhood of Dallas, TX with ARCO/Murray as their design-builder.

Watch the full episode here, or read the highlights below:

For those who aren’t familiar with the concept, what is Electric Shuffle?

Gene Ball:  First thing I always say about Electric Shuffle is that it’s not the shuffleboard you’re used to. Usually we think of shuffleboard tables in the back of a dive bar, and people don’t really play it. It’s not that. We’re trying to reimagine shuffleboard, and build spectacular bar. Those are our two big missions. We look to create really beautiful spaces, serve awesome food and drinks, and create an amazing atmosphere for our guests. We just opened our first US location in Dallas about three weeks ago. We’ve got two locations over in the UK. And we just signed a location down in Austin for next summer. So really excited about the growth, people have been loving it here in Dallas.

How did you first get involved with Electric Shuffle?

GB: Yeah, so I was previously at Topgolf working on emerging concepts. And as we see in this industry, everybody talks to one another with all these social entertainment concepts popping up. I was introduced to the Red Engine team, which are the founders of Electric Shuffle over in the UK. And about a week before the pandemic, I headed over to London to meet the team as they were looking for a partner to roll out Electric Shuffle here in the US, spent the weekend with the team, brainstorming and strategizing on how we’d attack the US together, even in the midst of the pandemic. We really hit it off and just kind of bonded from the very start. We function as one team. It’s not US versus UK, it’s one holistic team and how we work together, how our organization is structured. So it’s been about two years now since we’ve been working on getting Dallas open and planning for US expansion.

Where did the idea for an entertainment concept around shuffleboard come from?

Steve Moore was our founder over in the UK and the CEO and Founder of Red Engine. He actually circumnavigated the globe in a fire truck, which is where the name Red Engine comes from. While he was on his world tour in, he came upon shuffleboard for the first time in Katy, Texas. It wasn’t that big over in Europe at the time. And that’s when he first had the idea of reinventing shuffleboard and bar games in general. That was about 10 years ago. He started with Flight Club, which has been a wild success, and they’re just continuing to revamp these traditional bar games that, for a long time have been popular, but nobody actually took a different spin to them. So that’s when Electric Shuffle really started to be created, about 2016-2017. They really started focusing in on building out the tech, thinking about what the guest experience should look like, etc. The first location opened two years ago in Canary Wharf in London. We opened a second one in London Bridge this past summer and now Dallas is the third global location for Electric Shuffle.

It’s interesting that shuffleboard isn’t something that’s as popular in Europe compared to the U.S. How did the UK locations take to Electric Shuffle at first?

GB: It’s been a huge success, but the initial challenge was educating people on what shuffleboard is on the whole, right? In the U.S., people know what it is, but we still have to educate them on how it’s completely different than anything you’ve previously experienced with the game. We can play 16 players at once, we make it team-based, we only play one way, etc. We’ve got all these different kinds of games. Whereas in the UK, they’re really introducing the country– London, specifically– to shuffleboard as a completely new sport. So, it’s two different ways that we’re educating our potential guests.

Another interesting thing you guys are doing is marketing to an adult-only crowd. Can you tell us more about the decision to not market Electric Shuffle as a family destination?

GB: Our demographic is 20 to 50-60. We want this game to be for adults. At the end of the day, we’re building bars. Really awesome bars where you can have fun, and revamp what the traditional bar looks like, right? Amazing food, amazing cocktails, an elevated experience. We’ve had guests come in surprised on good the food is here. We don’t want to just be an entertainment destination. We want to be a place where you can pop in for a drink, play with friends. Initially we were debating children or not, but we ultimately decided we want adults to come here, have fun, drink a little bit, listen to music, of take a load off and really enjoy themselves with friends. And it doesn’t have to be 20’s to 30’s. We’ve had corporate events, and people of all ages really like the game and the experience.

What triggered growth to the US?

GB: I think we’re seeing it across all the social entertainment concepts, the US loves social entertainment. There’s so much whitespace here. If we know there’s something that people love, great bars, great design, great atmosphere, great games, whether you’re in the UK, in Australia, in the US, people love having a good time. I think that’s our core underlying belief– there’s such a large population in the US who love this. And we know that people love having great experiences. And we’ve seen that traction in the UK already. So we decided to bring this brand to more people in the world. That’s really the Red Engine team’s mission– we just want to bring as many people happiness as possible.

What do you think it takes to keep customers returning to a social entertainment destination, and to make sure it doesn’t become a short-lived trend?

GB: I think for us, it’s actually not thinking of ourselves as an entertainment destination, right? That’s the place you go to once or twice a year, maybe for a special event. We don’t want to be that whatsoever. We want to go the opposite way. How do we build an amazing epic bar that you’d love to come to? We know the game is good. We know that people love it once they’ve play it. We spend probably 20% of our time thinking about the game and that experience, and the other 80% of the time is thinking about what is our design? What does it feel like to come have a drink with us and sit around with some friends? What is the atmosphere and the music, the lights, all of that? What’s the vibe inside the venue? We want to be and are the place you want to go on a date night to, or for a drink, or to grab a bite to eat given our menu or design or atmosphere. So, I think it’s getting out of the mindset of an entertainment destination and thinking of ourselves first as a place that people love to go as their neighborhood bar.

How much is the game of shuffleboard adding to a concept that has a great vibe, great food and great drinks?

GB: Don’t get me wrong, shuffleboard is a huge piece of it. It’s a draw. It’s why most people probably are coming in the first time, right? It is the unique draw factor of, “Hey, let’s go check out this new shuffleboard concept,” or, “I’ve got a birthday party that I want to go to.” The menu and hospitality, the atmosphere– that keeps people coming back.

It’s clear you have a really strong team when it comes to design. You have this almost steampunk vibe, and all these really cool touches, like electric panels on the walls and that kind of thing. What are you drawing inspiration from when you think about the creative atmosphere of Electric Shuffle?

GB: I’m laughing because everybody says steampunk. And we try not to be steampunk. But people keep saying steampunk, it’s really funny. I would say the creative brand vision started with the London team. And we’re really evolving. I think the best way to describe it is timeless. So, when the team first came up with Electric Shuffle in London, they use this dichotomy of science and art, right? Science is traditionally a cold industrial thing, it’s just very black and white. Art is beautiful or comforting, things like that. So they asked, how do you bring those together and make science beautiful. I think that’s a lot of the elements you’re probably seeing—it’s this industrial, cold field, but bringing a warmth to it, and it’s timeless, too, like you’re not sure if you’re in the 1950s, or the 2050s. It’s this weird kind of unknown time period. But it’s immersive, it’s fun, you like it, but you don’t know exactly why you like it.

Everything’s based off a persona– we call her Tessa– who’s our inspiration. Tessa is a female scientist from like the 1950s, who loves science, but loves beauty and art and fun. And Tessa’s workshop and idea of science is very different than what was traditionally done at that time, which was a very-male dominated industry. She likes to make things beautiful. She likes to drink. She likes to have fun. So, we use Tessa to design our Electric Shuffles. We’re constantly asking what would Tessa feel when she goes through this space.

How many shuffleboard tables do you expect to have at each location, and how many can play at a time?

GB: In Dallas, we’ve got 2 bars and 17 shuffleboard tables, and it’s about 15,000 square feet. I think going forward, it’ll be dictated by the site and size we look at, or the site and location. We’re always looking for a great location, a great building and space first, and then we’ll determine the number of tables we need after that. I think the sweet spot for us is anywhere from 10 to 18 tables. It’s about what the space dictates and the market dictates, not, “How big do we need to make these,” but instead “Wow, we really love this area, this space and this location.” So in Austin, we’re going to only have 10 tables, a little mini bar, and a big main bar. Austin will be a completely different environment compared to Dallas.

Your second question on the game side of it, we can have 16 players on the table at once. And it’s really fun with more people. I think 6 and above is where we really want to get to, but when you have 10, 12, 14 friends playing and competing against each other, that’s when you start to hear the loud cheers. And we also have the capability to link tables into a big tournament, so all 17 shuffleboard tables can be linked together so we can have a group of 500 competing against each other. That’s when you start to see these events coming to life with groups up to 35 people in on Monday, across two tables and competing against each other, yelling at each other. It breaks down that barrier even for corporate events. You also get to know people a little better when they’re playing games, it feels much more friendly, competitive and fun when you’re interacting with people, right? The more people, the better, and it just adds to the atmosphere, the energy of the place.

You’re open during the day as well, it’s not just a nightlife destination, and I know this because of your brunch special, and if I read this correctly, every person coming in for that gets their own whole bottle of champagne, is that right? Tell us more about that.

GB: Yes, the nightlife is kind of where the bread and butter is, where we have most of the people coming in. But why can’t you party during the day, too, right? I am from New York and New York brunches, I think, are one of the most fun things in the world. You can go out and let loose. Have your bottle of bubbly and have some fun. We do brunch boards, like a bacon, jam pizza, we have DJs, you play some shuffleboard and just have fun for a few hours. So that’s our brunch, and it’s gone over very well.

So is it a full bottle of champagne per guest? Do people finish that?

GB: Yes, it’s a full bottle. It’s not like people think, like a mini bottle– you get your own bottle. So, there’s no skimping there. We have a non-boozy option, too, where people don’t have to drink a whole bottle of bubbly if they’re not feeling it.

How are you feeling about the first location? And also, how did you choose Dallas, specifically in Deep Ellum?

GB: I was living in Dallas, and also, it’s just been a great incubator for hospitality concepts. I think Dallas as a whole has always been a great space to launch hospitality concepts. It’s very central to the US. It has a good demographic that’s represents the rest of the country. So, for all kinds of the macro factors, Dallas always made a lot of sense to launch the brand. We’re also very familiar with the market and I think that was big to us, versus going somewhere else, where we’d have to really understand the market more than we already knew. We started looking at each neighborhood, and we had a couple on the list. But I think in our hearts, we always wanted to be part of the Deep Ellum community. It’s just this awesome, old school entertainment district that’s gone through waves of Dallas history, that’s starting to develop into this mixed-use development with cool entertainment nightlife. It’s full of brick buildings, really cool speakeasies, fun bars. It’s just got this variety and soul to it. Graffiti murals all over the walls, all over the district. It fits the brand we’re trying to build, but it’s also a place where we could add to the community and the neighborhood.

We happened upon our building, which is like a hundred years old. It was abandoned for I don’t know how many years and as soon as we walked in, we knew we needed to make it ours, it was just too cool to pass up. We transformed the old elevator shaft, it used to be an old freight elevator, into this library room. It has triple height ceilings with this bookcase and it has this back study, speakeasy feel. There are two shuffle tables in it that you can rent out.

It has been just so cool to see it come to life and watch people’s reactions who saw it going through construction, and then coming in for the finished product. People from the Deep Ellum community walking in saying, “We never thought anybody would take this building.” We think brands and companies like ours can help the Deep Ellum neighborhood continue to grow and get better, adding something different and bringing more people down to the neighborhood.

Are there any specific territories that you’re looking at next apart from Austin, or is Texas the focus right now?

GB: No, it’s not specifically Texas. We just found a place we absolutely love down near Rainey Street in Austin. And we couldn’t pass that up. But we’re looking, like every other entertainment concept, at the major metros across the US; Nashville, Denver, Chicago, Atlanta, Brooklyn, basically the list of the top 25 to 50 markets and just going down that list based on size and population and macroeconomic factors, while still being selective of places that fit our soul and our vibe. Austin and Dallas are very different from each other when it comes to the buildings we’re taking over. We’re going through a new office development there. But Rainey Street, if you’ve ever been down there, has that soul, that environment, of fun quirkiness.

Do you guys only look at retrofitting, or is ground-up construction in the future for you?

GB: I think I have a soft spot for retrofitting and redevelopment. It’s just so cool and really helps neighborhoods and adds value to something that gets forgotten about or torn down. I have a soft spot when I see old buildings that look like they’re about to fall over. I think from an investor side and a construction side, as we’ve learned with Dallas, those come with a whole set of challenges that make it a lot more difficult. Austin’s going to be completely a brand-new build, so almost a dichotomy to what the Dallas building was. We don’t pigeon-hole ourselves saying we need to be so specific to this size, this location, this corner, or anything like that. We just take a holistic approach across all of those things: aesthetics, deal terms, area, demographics, all of that, and then ask ourselves, do we feel good about this space?

What do you see as being the sector-specific risks involved with an entertainment/food and beverage concept like yours, and how does that compare to your competitors?

GB: As we think about us vs. other restaurants, we have that extra level of revenue margin from our game. That allows us to be a little more protected on downtimes or slow times, where at restaurants and bars, you’re playing with razor thin margins, especially with rising food costs and labor costs. Not saying we don’t feel those pressures as well. But anybody who has that extra layer of gain revenue makes us a bit more protected, but also a bit more attractive for signing leases to potential landlords.

I think the flip side of it is, especially with us and technology, when you have the technology component, that also means, higher capex, right? We need to spend a bit more at the start, so you’re making bigger bets across the country, which then means you have to be a bit more successful to offset that bigger capex.

And then how we compare to bars from restaurants. I think your point on not being fad is the heart of it, right? We don’t want to be labeled an entertainment destination where you come once and that was fun, I’m never coming back. We talk about this a lot with the team, its atmosphere and its hospitality. It comes down to those two things. We know the product will get you in the first time, but the atmosphere and hospitality will keep you coming back, so we really stress that to the team. And that’s what I think I’ve been most proud of the first three weeks– we moved into this building a week before we open, and the teams’ reviews have been amazing. Everybody leaving doesn’t comment on the game, they comment on how awesome the team is. We know your name; we remember your orders, we say hi to you at the front door– those little things actually stack up to make a person feel good and human. Good hospitality comes first.

A question on design-build, which is what you did with ARCO/Murray on Electric Shuffle Deep Ellum. Design-build is meant to give the owner a single point of contact, creating a less stressful and convoluted construction process where you might have a ton of vendors and subcontractors you’re managing yourself. There are still certain vendors that you wouldn’t have your design-builder handle, though, so a question from the audience asks if there are particular scopes that you feel are best coordinated by the design-build team but still contracted directly through the owner?

GB: I think it depends on the stage you’re at as a company. Right now for us being so early on, I think we’re functional experts in thing like kitchen design, how important our sound system is, AV, security. We’re still learning so much, so we really need to take a proprietary lead on things like our shuffleboard tables, our furniture, things like that. We definitely want to own those pieces until they get a bit more copy and paste. There are certain things that are just naturally proprietary that we really want to directly contract, like the shuffleboard tech. That we’ll always own, but the design-builder will always help us coordinate because it’s always going to be on their site. That also changes over time, right? As things get a little bit more built out, procedures get put in place, and we get a little bit more systematic, it’s a bit easier to transition over to the design-builder because there’s less coordination or changes that need to be directed to us.

Kitchens are a great example. Kitchens need coordination from the design-builder, no matter what. Ultimately, I think it’s evaluation over time, where does it make sense to take it off our plates and just allow someone to own the scope? Versus where’s we need to be super, super hands on, every single day to make sure that it’s getting done right.

What knowledge would you want to impart on entrepreneurs or anybody working with a new concept within the sector of location-based entertainment?

GB: I think the one thing I’ve learned over the past couple years is it’s a really, really difficult sector. It’s not black and white. You’re trying to figure out what people want in an experience. That was the biggest thing I learned– just because it’s a really cool concept, you have to constantly be thinking about what is the guest feeling. There’s such a personal component and people component to it that you can’t quantify, you have to just listen to what they’re saying and get feedback when they’re entering this space. I think there’s so much room for opportunity, but constantly thinking about your team and guests first, I think those are the things that, over the past two years, we’ve especially been imparted on by the Red Engine team over in London. If you think about the team and the guests first, that will pay dividends in the long run. It’s also a very crowded space. I think there are opportunities for everybody but I don’t think it’s for the faint of heart, and I think getting it off the ground is challenging, but rewarding, and thinking you can take it all on by yourself is very difficult. Building a really good team around you and realizing the guests and team comes first is what pays off in the long.

Gene, thank you so much for making time for our chat today. Really enjoyed having you on and we wish you the very best of luck in Dallas and Austin, and really excited to see what’s coming next for Electric Shuffle

Thank you for having me.