Shoot for the Stars
Photos by Tracy Lynn Photography of Huntsville
Anita Pool was down—but not out.
After she was diagnosed with stage four breast cancer, Pool found herself sitting still for long periods of time—the result of treatments zapping her energy—leaving Pool barely able to stand up on some days. To occupy her time and hands, she picked up a video game controller. Pool, now 60, is the first to admit she did not understand the appeal, but that soon changed.
“I ended up playing for four hours that first day,” says Pool. The newfound attraction to video games helped Pool through her treatment and influenced her decision to ultimately open a family entertainment center (FEC). But getting in the game as a small owner and operator, came with a big risk that was met with even bigger passion.
Fighting for Her Life
Before becoming the co-owner of Rocket City Arcade, a growing classic arcade in Alabama, Pool had a successful career in pediatric oncology in Corpus Christi, Texas. Pool found herself intimately familiar with cancer treatments—where she worked with families of children with life-threatening illness—after her own battle with ovarian cancer in 1999.
“I felt like I could empathize with the children, and I could help them more,” she says.
It was during her second round with cancer, a breast cancer diagnosis in 2004, that Pool found herself drawn to video games.
Her husband Herman Pool owned a video game store popular with teenage boys interested in playing games like “Counter-Strike” and “Halo.” The same multiplayer games allowed Anita to recuperate in place while linking to other players around the world. After meeting an online community full of video game fans, Anita knew her curiosity could potentially transition into a new business.
To her family, she was a mom, wife, and grandmother who spent months receiving exhausting treatments for a stage four cancer diagnosis. To the online game playing community, she was known as Sergeant Princess, a bit of a wild card not afraid to lay players out and show that “Project Reality”—her favorite game—was not just for boys.
“It would blow them away because I was just beating all of them,” she says. “I got really good at it.”
Herman says finding success in her online persona helped his wife face her real-world problems.
“Video games really helped her recover from cancer,” he says. “It gave her something to do when she couldn’t do anything else and she didn’t have the energy to go anywhere else.”
The couple’s love of online games soon transitioned into a love of arcade games—so much, the Pools began collecting older cabinet-style games that decorated their Texas home. The collection ultimately paved the way for the birth of Rocket City Arcade.
The Move to Rocket City
Before moving to Huntsville, Alabama, to live closer to their daughter and son-in-law, the Pools sold their home collection of games. Luckily, they found a local old-school arcade to get their “Pac-Man” fix. Poor business decisions, as Anita describes them, led the arcade’s owner to become late on rent and unable to pay employees on time.
“We were kind of sad it was going out of business because there isn’t anything else like that around here,” she says. So, the couple decided to get into the FEC business themselves. They bought the arcade, and Rocket City Arcade was suddenly their own.
One simple question of “how hard can it be?” led the couple down a rabbit hole of buying every arcade game they could within thousands of miles. Herman created a bot that crawled the internet flagging sales listings on Facebook Marketplace and Craigslist for used arcade games. In just two weekends, the couple picked up 50 arcade game systems.
Today, Anita is the CEO of the business, tasked with hiring and training a dozen employees and managing the operations side of the business. Herman—an author, marking strategist, and computer programmer—is the chief technical officer. With previous experience repairing televisions, he became the arcade’s repair technician, giving them a level of comfort knowing that older systems in need of a tune up or fix could be handled in-house by someone with the skills to do it.
The serendipity of the combination of Anita’s passion for the business and Herman’s technical know-how is not lost on the couple, who both say it’s likely the reason they’ve been successful (like many family-owned FECs).
“The great thing about being married to Anita is that she really complements me,” says Herman. “She’s really good at working with employees. She’s really good about being very passionate about what her story is and why Rocket City Arcade is important.”
While Herman will call Rocket City Arcade a small FEC, he prefers the term “retail entertainment.”
“That’s by design,” he says. “When we first opened up, we didn’t have the room for food and beverage, and we needed other sources of income.”
Besides games, Rocket City Arcade also offers a retail area offering new and used games for home video game systems, game controllers, T-shirts, and collectible merchandise.
“We do our best to bring great experiences to anyone who comes into the arcade, whether it’s someone looking for games to buy or someone wanting to share and experience with someone else in the arcade for the first time,” says Aaron Morgan, manager of Rocket City Arcade.
Staying small, Rocket City Arcade does not offer redemption games or food and beverage (F&B) on-site. Without these standard elements found at larger FECs, the Pools admit they operate an FEC that doesn’t fit the description of a typical facility.
“We found out how unique we were,” says Herman. “We really didn’t know.”
What the Pools don’t offer in standard FEC fare, they provide in innovation. All the virtual reality (VR) games were all created in-house. Herman hired designers and programmers to write code for the stories he created.
With titles like “Zombie Madness,” “Attack on King’s Landing,” and “Lonestar’s Last Stand,” Herman believes the
original content gives Rocket City Arcade an advantage. Each game can accommodate four players and only takes one minute to learn how to play. With a play time lasting three to seven minutes, Herman says they’ve created greater capacity, allowing more players to participate each hour.
“It’s really cool saying we have an experience no one else in the world has,” he says.
An additional 20-by-20-foot, free-roaming laser tag space rounds out the experience.
Finding Her Footing
When the couple took over the lease, Anita kept the employees who worked at the previous arcade—the best course of action, or so she thought.
By keeping the current staff, Anita believed she could learn from the staff and watch her new business find its footing in the Huntsville market, a metropolitan area comprising engineers and literal rocket scientists working at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center and in the region’s booming aerospace and defense industries. Unfortunately, the employees she carried over from the previous business were more accustomed to working with a collector crowd. Many did not stay long with her fresh approach to running an FEC.
“I just kind of run it on instinct and what I like and what I would like if I took my kids to a place like this,” she says, likening her interest in people to the same style of comfort she provided while working in pediatric oncology in Texas years earlier.
The approach worked. Rocket City Arcade quickly took off as she dove into tailoring her FEC for families and marketing it as a destination for game play.
Since opening her doors in 2016, Anita has seen not only her store double in size, but revenue statements have increased exponentially as well.
In 2017, her first full year of operation, Rocket City Arcade’s revenue totaled about $275,000. In 2018, she saw that jump to $460,000. The Pools say they are on track to close out 2019 with around $660,000 in total revenue.
“I’m doing something right,” says Anita.
But, there have been growing pains. By the end of summer 2017, Anita had maxed out her 3,500-square-foot space. Feeling personal pressure to grow her business, she opted to move to the current location: a 6,000-square-foot space that she believes, once again, is too small for her business.
“I think probably the biggest mistake I made was when we moved last year,” she says. “We didn’t get a big enough space. We should’ve gotten something about twice the size of what I have.”
In hindsight, Anita says she wishes they stayed in her original location and held out for an even bigger space that could accommodate one of the quickest growing aspects of her business—birthday party rentals.
That aspect of her business alone is so busy, she hired a dedicated party manager. This team member is entirely focused on all aspects of the event, from ensuring the correct pizzas are ordered (without space for in-house F&B, Rocket City Arcade has agreements with a local pizza shop for parties and service) to decorating the party space.
Aeryn Hough, Rocket City Arcade’s party manager, says should the Pools decide to expand a third time, the community would continue to embrace the business.
“I hope it will bring in a new crowd of people by adding something new to Huntsville’s must-see list,” she says.
Beyond birthday parties, Anita has found an inherent knack for saying “yes” when approached about other potential business opportunities. She has hosted private corporate functions and other events, including a wedding reception. In terms of diversifying their income, the couple also rents out classic arcade games.
The Pools take a unique approach to operations but have learned from the greater FEC community as well. After meeting with other FEC owners at IAAPA FEC Summit, the Pools learned a crane game would help provide revenue. The claw-grabbing unit has become a visitor favorite.
“[Talking to other operators] also helped us to think more like a larger organization, which allowed us grow bigger than we would’ve thought,” says Herman.
Morgan, the arcade’s general manager, says he thinks Rocket City has done well even as larger FECs enter the market because of the personal touch the small business brings to the Huntsville community.
“We add a unique experience where parents and their kids can bond over memories from video games and [with] each other,” he says.
Caitlin Dineen is an Orlando-based freelance writer with more than a decade of print and television journalism experience, some of which led to a Pulitzer Prize nomination from her reporting at the Orlando Sentinel.