Table Top Café permanently closes 124 Street location due to COVID-19: ‘There’s just no way to make enough money’

Edmonton’s first board game café is being forced to downsize due to the coronavirus pandemic. Table Top Café owner Brian Flowers announced Tuesday his second location on 124 Street is permanently closed, effective immediately.

“In order for this downtown store to function, it has to be full. So it needs social distancing to not be a thing, or there’s just no way to make enough money,” Flowers said from the shop near 102 Avenue, where he was working Tuesday to shut down the business.

Both his downtown location, which opened in 2016, and the original location on 75 Street, just north of Roper Road in south Edmonton, were closed to customers on March 16 — more than 10 days before the province ordered the closure of several categories of non-essential businesses, including hobby shops.

“I saw just through the writing on the wall,” Flowers said. “We were already so slow by that point that it wasn’t too difficult of a decision, it was just logical and it was safer that way.

“At the time, I had no idea how bad this would get. So it wasn’t that difficult of a decision at the time, but it felt like the right thing to do.”

Flowers laid off all 19 of his employees, most who worked part time, so they could begin the process of applying for employment insurance right away. As he’s been cancelling services and getting ready to ship his equipment and stock to the remaining location, Flowers said it’s been an extremely stressful situation.

“I’m getting keys back from staff and there’s kind of saying goodbye to the store. It’s pretty emotional.”

Flowers admits he didn’t think the closures would be long term. “I was definitely thinking it was gonna be like, at most, a month. It seemed like everything was gonna get locked down and then two weeks would go by and everyone would stop transmitting the disease somehow. I was very naive.”

He said several surrounding businesses — like the hair salon and shoe store across the street — are closed because they can’t re-purpose their business in the way that others have, such as booze distilleries making hand sanitizer or clothing companies crafting medical garb and face masks.

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“Everyone’s trying to reinvent themselves, but some businesses only work if you get a physical person in your store.”

Table Top Café describes itself as a special blend of coffee shop, board game library and retail store, serving beer and wine, along with food such as sandwiches and paninis, snacks, and candy.

Flowers said the 124 Street location always had more more foot traffic and more customers and just more sales in general. But he said rent was also two and a half to three times higher (depending on utilities) than his smaller southside store, located in a strip mall surrounded by industrial and commercial businesses.

“The thing that kept hanging over my head was, ‘The only way this store really functions is if I can get it full,’” he said about the downtown location.

“And as a business that encourages people to leave their houses and touch communal things, it doesn’t seem like that’s going to be viable for quite a while.”

Flowers said as a business owner, he had prepared for threats like fire, economic hardship, thefts and “More physical, real visual things I can actually see – as opposed to an invisible killer that makes everyone to stay home.”

“I play a lot different board games and they simulate all kinds of ridiculous scenarios — but the idea of a disease that would cause businesses to close because people couldn’t be in them did not ever occur to me. It just seems like such an extreme situation.”

Flowers is going to continue to sell board games and puzzles to customers. He said he can deliver around Edmonton or people can pick them up from the southside store.

“I’ve always had an online store – only really used to sell a couple games a month through there, it was never something it focused on. So I’ve just been using that and we’ve had a little bit of support from there. And puzzles are apparently super popular right now.”

One game that he can’t get his hands on right now? Pandemic – a cooperative board game in which players work as a team to treat infections around the world while gathering resources for cures. The game has existed since 2008.

“There’s a couple different iterations of it, but even to restock games right now, there’s games that you can’t get,” Flowers said, explaining that many board games are made in China, where the supply chain has been disrupted by coronavirus shutdowns there.

“I’m sure the online guys were probably much quicker to jump on this than I was. I think they are still doing pretty well. But I’m like, one per cent of the sales that they would do. So they probably have a lot more supplies to survive on until the supply chain gets fixed.”

Flowers said now more than ever is the time to support local businesses.

“Everyone’s going to be doing their best to survive and that will only happen if the community can support them,” he said, adding he expects he will be able to scrape by as a one-man operation selling games online.

“But everyone’s going to be stuck in a lot of sticky situations. And I think the end of this month is going to be very brutal for a lot of people.”

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