By Katy Anderson
Among the clatter of pinballs racking up points and soda cans being popped open are the sounds of children laughing and people smashing buttons on video games.
Starfighters Arcade, a vintage gaming business located on McKellips Road and Greenfield Road, offers access to classic video games, pinball machines and snacks.
Co-owners Mike Lovato and Steve Thomas opened Starfighters Arcade in 2014 after collecting and restoring gaming machines for years. Lovato said he first recognized his passion for restoring arcade games when he bought a “Centipede” machine for a new house and began fixing it.
“I found out that I enjoyed the work, and I just kept buying games until it got out of hand,” Lovato said.
The arcade’s current selection of games comprises arcade machines from community members, online sellers and other collectors, he said.
The pair wanted to create a place in Mesa where people can go relive their youth through the experience of vintage games, Lovato said.
“Our goal has always been to provide a family-safe environment where people can come and enjoy arcade gaming from the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s in as close as a real setting as you can get,” Lovato said. “We’re not a ‘bar-cade.’ We’re not anything other than strictly an arcade.”
Starfighters Arcade has been open four years and offers unlimited gaming to customers for $11. The arcade also offers snacks and soda but does not sell alcohol or other food items. Lovato said he and Thomas wanted the arcade to be a place where parents can bring in their children to play the classics.
Other Mesa arcades, like The Grid: Games and Growlers, offer alcoholic beverages alongside the gaming experience. But Lovato said Thomas preferred to base Starfighters Arcade on what was popular in the ’90s: soda, candies, arcade games and pinball machines.
Lovato said he and Thomas did a lot of research before starting the business and knew exactly the revenue they were giving up by not providing alcohol or food.
“We knew the return wasn’t going to be as high without those two items, but we really wanted to do it to provide a resource for the community,” Lovato said.
Julia LaRosa, a clinical assistant professor at Arizona State University’s W. P. Carey School of Business who has a background in management and business consulting, said small businesses that specialize in a specific product like Starfighters Arcade have to listen to what their audience wants to be successful.
“In an establishment like this, you’ve got to really know who your target audience is, and you want to cater to them in very deliberate ways,” LaRosa said.
Small businesses like Starfighters Arcade are most likely to fail when they do not conduct the proper market research to find their audience, LaRosa said. The small businesses need to make sure each customer is ecstatic with their product and “really go above and beyond, because there’s too much competition,” she said.
In the case of Starfighters Arcade, the atmosphere attracts families in the Mesa area, Lovato said. He quantifies the arcade’s success by their ability to grow the business and give back to the community, whether it be through gaming experiences or charity events, Lovato said.
Starfighters Arcade hosts two charity events a year where they raise over $1,000, including a yearly Christmas charity event for autism foundations, Lovato said.
“Giving back to our community is a big deal for us,” Lovato said. “The more able we are to do that based upon our patronage is a measure for us of being successful.”