From the Pool Hall To the Route:
Amusement Devices Continues Growth After Decades in Biz
by Matt Harding
In 1964, Gordon and Marjorie Jacobson opened up a pool hall called the Side Pocket in Kaukauna, Wisconsin. For decades, after their eventual route became Amusement Devices, it was a family business owned by their children – Eric, Ann, Kurt and Joe. They sold to their employees last September.
Kurt and Joe Jacobson said the original business was an early FEC concept, where the Jacobsons had not only billiards, but pinballs, a Wurlitzer jukeboxes and a small menu with hamburgers, hot dogs and similar fare.
“That was a fairly new concept in our area at the time,” Joe said. In the years immediately after starting the business, they started to add more electromechanical pins to their pool hall and ended up putting them in other locations as well. Joe said his parents became operators because other operators in their area at the time didn’t want to service games.
After a fire burned down their own original location, they built a new game room called the Phoenix. By 1973, it became a full-fledged tavern called Little Joe’s, which the namesake Jacobson ran until 1978. He, like his siblings, grew up working in the family business.
“I was helping my dad cover pool tables when I was 12,” he recalled. Kurt remembered cleaning the pool hall on weekends and playing games.
Along with their brother Eric, they started putting electronic darts into their bar and others across the area. “We were in the right place at the right time,” Joe said. “To this day, Wisconsin is one of the biggest dart states in the country.”
By the late ’70s, with the video game boom in full force, too, they were starting leagues and putting darts and other new games on location as Amusement Devices.
“We were very early on with the advent of solid-state games, the video boom and electronic darts,” Joe said, noting that between 1979 and 1985 they were running at full speed ahead. “When Space Invaders hit, you could put them almost anywhere and make money.”
“We continued through the years expanding the route,” Kurt added. “Gradually we ended up buying some routes and expanding our own. Every few years, we continued to buy out more operations. We were almost exclusively bars and bowling alleys at that time and we still are to some degree.”
They operate in a roughly 50-mile radius of Menasha, Wisconsin, where they’re based.
After having his own career, Joe bought into the business in 1989 as Amusement Devices continued to grow. At the peak in the mid-’90s, they had about 700 accounts. The addition of gaming in the late-’90s also made business easier.
Amusement Devices has also had a retail store called Straight Shot since 2009, which sells pool and dart accessories, CD jukes and the like.
Today, after selling several parts of the route to become more focused on their geographical area, they still have more than 400 locations, about 80-90 of which operate their pool leagues.
“Our leagues have probably got a little smaller than they were 15 or so years ago,” Kurt said, explaining there are fewer taverns. “I think we still run a decent sized league. It’s a good way to get people into the taverns.”
About 70-80% of their business comes from taverns. They also have bowling alleys, restaurants and a few others like skating rinks. They run a full line of pool, darts, TouchTunes jukeboxes, air hockey, self-redemption, candy cranes, plush cranes and other amusements. Gaming remains the most profitable with self-redemption and jukeboxes being next best.
With decades in business under their belts, Amusement Devices continues their steady growth even amid the turbulent times of the past of couple years.
“In general, it seems like the pandemic hasn’t hurt us that much,” Kurt said. “We’ve actually been doing very well since that time. We’ve got it running now better than ever.”
Learn more about the business at www.adigames.com.