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ROLLING THE DICE AND FINDING SUCCESS

Written by Karen Shih, BTC

Photo courtesy of John T. Consoli

 

It’s 3 p.m. during exam week, and College Park’s only independent coffee shop-board game parlor is full of students fueling their studies with locally roasted brews, sandwiches and pastries.

Co-owner Ben Epstein ’02 keeps picking up his long-cooled lunch panini and putting it down, unable to eat when there are customers to be served and cooks to be helped. 

The hubbub makes him happy. He co-founded Board and Brew at the Varsity with friend Brian McClimens ’01 in June 2014 and it’s already on track to be profitable by the two-year mark, years earlier than the average for a small business.

“We knew we were bringing in something completely different,” he says.

The pair took different routes after college, where they got hooked on Settlers of Catan, the “gateway drug” of serious board games. History major Epstein managed branches of TGI Friday’s and Panera, as well as former local chain Chicken Out, and computer science major McClimens joined the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory, where he still works part-time. But their love of strategy brought them together constantly.

It seemed natural to return to College Park, where they knew students, faculty and staff wanted an alternative to bars and pizza shops, and open their dream: a board game café.  

There were risks, of course. Stores in the city see a 20 to 50 percent drop in business during breaks, according to their research, and the Varsity’s retail space has seen significant turnover, even among established chains. But by organizing tournaments that draw people from throughout the D.C. area to play their more than 500 games and reaching out to the local community—new Mayor Patrick Wojahn is a big fan—Board and Brew has steadily grown its clientele.

“It’s crazy how many people live here but go other places when they go out,” says Epstein, who sees opportunities for the university and city to engage locals in the pursuit of a better college town, also known as the “Greater College Park” initiative. The owners hope that with increased investment and development, their stretch of Baltimore Avenue will become more walkable, with more parking, and that marketing efforts like Restaurant Week will be improved.

Though it’s taken 80-hour workweeks away from their families, they’ve turned Board and Brew into enough of a success that they’re considering a second location in Washington, D.C.  

“If you’re not passionate about it, you might as well not do it,” Epstein says.

Date of Publication: 
2/11/16