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The beginning

Ottawa hasn’t always had a great reputation for being a city that people enjoy themselves in.  I have heard many people describe Ottawa as “the city that fun forgot,” though I don’t agree with that sentiment as I rarely lack leisure activities to participate in around the city and I know many others in the same position.  Though, no matter how you feel on the subject of fun in Ottawa, while various people considered the viability of a board games café in Ottawa no one was quick to test out the waters.  After performing his own research my second cousin, David Narbaitz, decided to make a go of it.  Though he felt it would be well attended, there were no guarantees so he elected to take a conservative approach.

When starting a new business you need to furnish the company with the assets it needs to operate though there are many options for how you approach the acquisition of those assets.  Purchasing a discounted new item, purchasing a used or refurbished item, re-purposing something you already have, or putting off acquiring a piece until later are some of the ways you can minimize the costs associated with starting a new company.  What approach you take will, generally, depends on how important a given asset is and what your experiences are but it’s important not to forget to analyse your worst case scenario and take that into account.  While nobody starts a business with the intention to have it fail, if you are providing your own funding you’d want to be able to recuperate as much of your initial investment as possible.

In the case of Monopolatte, taking a conservative approach included setting up in a converted home as compared to taking over an existing restaurant space, furnishing the space with a mashup of furniture from various sources instead of purchasing or commissioning matching furnishings, and using an alternative approach to its point of sale system.  Because of this, when you visited Monopolatte, it had a distinctive homegrown feel but the lower initial investment and monthly rent meant that the café would take less time to break even and could weather difficult times more easily.

Point of sale

When it comes to commercial restaurant point of sale (rPOS) systems the hardware isn’t the most expensive part.  It’s the software license that is, generally, expensive be it a large initial investment or as a recurring subscription plan.  As such, if an expensive rPOS is purchased and the company fails, even in the first year, it’s possible that only a small fraction of the initial investment can be recuperated.

While an order-counter-type café can get by with just a cash register, as soon as you have servers taking orders at tables where someone else is preparing the food and clients are running up a tab which needs to be settled before they leave, you can benefit greatly from the features of an electronic point of sale system.  While I will acknowledge that there was a time when restaurants worked very effectively using paper-based tab tracking/ordering systems, they weren’t perfect.  I don’t think I have an overly negative view on the next generation of workers, but the number of times I’ve had a young cashier pull out their cell phone to recalculate the change after they mistyped the amount I paid (and I’m talking the difference in change between twenty dollars and fifty dollars) makes me fear that their innate reliance on technology for everything would hamper their attempts to adopt a precise manual process.

While we were pondering how to proceed, I did some research on what was available in the realm of open source rPOS systems.  I found reference to a couple but was only able to find the source code for one: FloreantPOS.  Floreant seemed to fit the bill for what we needed: an open source rPOS system with a touchscreen interface and chit printing.  Floreant was Java-based and supported multiple terminals. After some preliminary testing on existing machines we invested $200 in a touch screen terminal and two thermal printers which was enough to get us up and running in the pre-opening environment.

While the system properly accepted orders, printed chits, printed receipts, and calculated change we noticed that refill orders broke the chit printing option, the cash drawer reconciliation system was very broken, and there was no effective way to extract exact financial information.  Fixing the refill chit printing issue wasn’t too bad as it was a known issue with the fix posted online.  Fixing the settlement and sales reporting issues was a lot more difficult and uncovered other shortfalls with the system such as the extensive use of the floating point data type, non-transactional database calls, and improper rounding and financial math.

Being an open source system I was able to resolve or work around many of these issues giving us a system which served Monopolatte well for the life of the café.  That being said, however, there were some faults that couldn’t be resolved without major rework.  Rather than rewriting vast parts of Floreant I developed a plan to build a replacement open source rPOS system though never had the time to completely implement it.

Please note that while refreshing my memory to write this article I noticed that Floreant is being developed again and has had some new features added.  I’m not sure if the issues we encountered in 2012 have been corrected but it may be worth checking out the latest updates to see if all the issues we had to tackle back in the day have been resolved in the new edition.

Reconciliation

One of the features FloreantPOS lacked was the ability to properly reconcile receipts, cash, and debit batches.  Not many POS systems do and many companies turn to Excel spreadsheets in order to ensure everything balances.  It was easy to create a spreadsheet to facilitate this process but I also needed to create a report to extract the proper information from the Floreant database.  The report was slightly complex as certain database records would get duplicated when settling tabs but we were able to get a good view of the data.  With the numbers from the daily Floreant report, the debit machine batch close, and cash drawer counts are entered into the spreadsheet it would indicate if the numbers balanced or not.

As anyone who operates a restaurant knows, having the till balance at the end of the day is a happy occurence but not always a regular one.  Between drawer bleeds to purchase last minute supplies, commision payments, and other exceptions, making the day’s numbers balance can sometimes be quite the task.  Once a day’s transactions are balanced, the spreadsheet would provide the data to be entered into the accounting system which would allow for easy bookkeeping – though my goal for the next project of it’s kind is to have an automatic import into Quickbooks to save that bit of effort.

By using this approach we were able to track sales by profit centre.  While not something a lot of small restaurants do, when coupled with tracking the cost of goods sold, allowed us to see where our revenues were coming from and react quickly to changes in revenue.

Research and development

While not always evident to the clientele, Monopolatte wasn’t a static entity.  Over the life of the company a variety of projects were undertaken to improve the offering to clients and expand the business.  Some of the projects were implemented in the public space but others weren’t because the opportunity to implement it didn’t present itself, the timing wasn’t right, or the project couldn’t be accomplished within an acceptable budget.

One idea which had been contemplated was expanding the café’s offering to include classic console video games in order to compete with Ottawa first e-sports lounge.  In considering this option we realized that simply obtaining some games, consoles, and TVs wasn’t going to work as the standard tables for playing board games aren’t a good layout for playing console games.  You don’t want people around a central table you, preferably, want people in a row or semi-circle facing the television; for board games you want lots of light while for e-sports you want much less light.  Having a booth with a wide-viewing-angle TV embedded several inches beyond the back of the booth with locally-controlled highly-focused lighting seemed like a potential hybrid which would work for both board games and video games… but would it?  We elected to find out so built a prototype in someone’s basement.  After a few rounds of testing we had come up with a list of issues and so disassembled the prototype, updated the design and assembled a second prototype.  The second prototype worked really well and we felt like we had a good solution to the problem of how to offer both conventional and video games to our clients.  As we were planing how to expand Monopolatte in order to add several booths, a second e-sports lounge was opened in Ottawa which made the investment seem much more risky.

Another idea that came up was adding a long-running alternate reality game (ARG) which patrons could embark upon for the challenge and, potentially, some exclusive deals.  While other resources at the café built the ARG specifications, back story, and clues there was the requirement to have a few extra web properties in order to effectively deliver the game.  One web property which was needed was a public website for the 1950s equivalent to Monopolatte.

The website was a pleasure to create as it allowed me to create a website which is a hybrid between modern and 60 year old technology.  The site was created in WordPress to make maintenance easy but featured some hidden information which may only be revealed if you looked closely at the source code or printed certain pages.  As the site was to be for the 1950s equivalent of Monopolatte they, too, had a library of board games but the index for games was in the format of a cardfile.  Searching through the cardfile could yield yet more hidden information.

Due to some staff turnover the people responsible for designing the ARG left Monopolatte before it was launched.  There were plans to port parts of the web properties to the main Monopolatte website but the decision to close down put an end to those plans.

The ending

Monopolatte was the first board games café to open in Ottawa.  With it’s success two more board game cafés opened up soon after.  While Ottawa could support two board games cafés, the addition of a third and various other new-style-entertainment eateries prevented everyone from enjoying the turnover they needed to remain healthily profitable.  Subsequently, one of the newer board games café closed down.  Competition for patrons remained fierce between the various board games and video games eateries.

In life there are always trade-offs, Monopolatte was no different.  Having a compact location with a relatively small kitchenette was cost effective but also limited the number of patrons and the amount of food which can be served.  Monopolatte really was a board games lounge which also happened to serve some food, the other option is to be a restaurant which happens to have a large collection of board games.  While food and beverage were the best-performing profit centres, even pure restaurants can have a hard time making ends meet if they don’t have sufficient clientele so it wasn’t clear if moving to a larger location with a larger food offering would guarantee that the company would scale up the profits.  Besides, if one goes through the trouble of expanding,but don’t manage to attract new clients, you are worse off.  Due to this uncertainty management elected to keep Monopolatte small and nimble as this offered the best guarante to remain profitable despite the competition.

While Monopolatte was staying solvent it wasn’t in a position to pay its front-line workers as well as the David would have liked.  The thought always came back to the idea that having a larger location with more tables, a wider variety of food, and the proper efficiencies to satisfy the customer’s needs with the same number of employees would allow the company to pay more but it comes back to the question of would the clientele support these changes?  After the failure of some plans to safely scale up, when the opportunity presented itself, David elected to close down the café and wrap up operations after over four years in operation.

While it was sad to see the project come to a close, it has less sting when it is closed down gracefully rather than failing.  I thank David for giving me the opportunity to contribute to his endeavour and all the staff at Monopolatte over the years who made being involved very enjoyable.  A great deal of thanks is also due to all of the clients who made our work worthwhile.  This project let me get creative in ways that I, generally, don’t have the opportunity to in other parts of my life.

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