From Corporate America to Pinball Wizard
Entrepreneur Chris O’Neill Grows Arcade Bar Biz
by Matt Harding
One Well Brewing opened in November 2014 at a strip mall in Kalamazoo, Michigan. To call it an arcade bar would have been a bit of a stretch at the time. “When we initially opened, we opened with one Xenon pinball and a couple arcade games,” said owner Chris O’Neill, 37.
Working his way through college in Kalamazoo, after graduation O’Neill went to work in corporate America – in the banking industry – for a few years. He soon realized “that wasn’t going to be the way of the future” for him.
During that time, he’d also begun brewing beer in his driveway and started to ponder if a brewery might be his future instead. “When you hear your buddies tell you enough times it’s a good idea, you start to think it’s a good idea,” he chuckled. “And it’s been fantastic.”
O’Neill said he was trying to do something different in the bar/brewery space. “An arcade was definitely something I wanted to incorporate into what we were doing,” he said, adding that a large board game collection was also included since the beginning. “We were trying to buck the trend of being a TV-based sports bar and instead focus on being a community gathering place.”
Food was added a few months after opening and after a couple of years, the 4,000-sq.-ft. venue doubled in size. “We were already busting at the seams,” O’Neill said. There was a gym next door that closed, and his One Well Brewing jumped at the opportunity to expand.
In the old space, they added five more pinballs but were ready to go further. Once they expanded, they had 12 machines and started holding tournaments and also took part in Project Pinball, which raised money to get a pinball machine into a local children’s hospital.
In those early years, O’Neill said he was personally more into video games. However, he ended up playing pinball more often once the collection of games grew and regular customers started coming in just for pinball.
While One Well Brewing owned those first dozen games, they decided to work with an operator for yet another expansion last year.
At the end of 2020, O’Neill purchased the strip mall. A tenant adjacent to the brewery passed away and the business sat vacant. “With Covid, nobody’s looking to open new businesses,” O’Neill said. “So halfway into summer (2021), we decided we’ve got this space and nobody’s going to rent it – let’s try something on our own.”
In comes Wizard’s Pinball Palace… Now a part of the further expanded One Well Brewing, the much larger arcade opened Nov. 26. O’Neill, in case you were wondering, is the Wizard. It’s a nickname that stuck after he wore a wizard costume to a brewery Halloween party and “maybe had a few too many beers and started telling people beer was made with magic.”
Wizard’s Pinball Palace has its own entrance but is connected to One Well Brewing from the inside too; a portion of the connecting wall was torn down during the renovation.
The business now has 51 pinball machines and about 24 arcade games. About half is modern equipment and the other half is 1980s and ’90s retro – all running on coins. They say they have basically every Stern machine from the end of the 2000s to today. O’Neill said Hot Wheels and Legends of Valhalla from American Pinball have also been seeing a lot of play. Golden Tee, billiards (three tables) and foosball (two tables) are a part of the fold, too.
“We’ve got so many nice games, it’s a little bit random and a little bit uniform,” O’Neill said about gameplay in the arcade. “People are playing them evenly. Everything is getting the love.” (A full list of games is on their website, www.onewellbrewing.com.)
Their pinball leagues have grown since the beginning. Back in the day, their first tournament had just three people and now, they have a league of 55 regular players. “We’re maybe the biggest league in all of Michigan, which is awesome,” he said.
One Well Brewing (and now Wizard’s Pinball Palace) has always been focused on entertainment. “Not everybody goes out wanting to do a bunch of stuff but having nothing there is boring,” O’Neill said.
That’s why, besides the pinball and arcade games, the aforementioned board games have always been a part of the mix. He had more than 100 in his personal collection when they opened and now there’s a massive 350-game collection. Steel-tipped darts round out the attractions mix at the brewery.
Of course, food and beverage play a significant role. “We have a lot of customers who aren’t interested in the arcade,” he said. That’s because in addition to the terrific games, they’re a top-rated restaurant, ranking fourth locally on Yelp in the restaurant category. (The other three are fine dining establishments.)
“Food-wise, we’re one of the most inclusive restaurants in Kalamazoo,” O’Neill said, noting that he’s a vegetarian and they have a large selection of vegan and vegetarian food in addition to the typical carnivore fare. They’re also one of the largest restaurants in the city with the ability to seat some 300 people, mostly with community-style picnic tables and high-tops.
It’s also not unusual for them to seat groups of 50 or so from local hockey tournaments or whatever else. There’s a huge patio space out front to accommodate for that as well.
With such a range of “stuff” – from pinball to arcade to board games to food and drink – it’s no surprise that the business gets a diverse group of people. Being in one of the largest neighborhoods in town, O’Neill said there are a lot of families that come in and a lot of professionals coming in after work.
Even throughout the Covid era, he said they’ve always been doing fairly well. “We never really closed our doors. We did a lot of to-go business through the pandemic.” He said it allowed them to be more relevant and never fall out of people’s minds.
Throughout the holidays after their expansion, they’ve been busier than ever. Events continue to bring together customers, turning them into friends of one another – and that includes O’Neill.
Dart leagues gather on Tuesdays; pinball meetups are twice a month with various events peppered in between, such as release tournaments for Avengers: Infinity Quest and Led Zeppelin.
“I’ve really found that there’s a lot of people who like playing pinball who also like the social aspect,” O’Neill said. “You don’t really have to be the greatest. You just come and have a good time.”
Check them out at www.onewellbrewing.com or go have a good time if you’re in the area.