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15 Minutes of Fame: The AFK Tavern, where everybody knows your name

Customers at the AFK Tavern
From Hollywood celebrities to the guy next door, millions of people have made World of Warcraft a part of their lives. How do you play WoW? We're giving each approach its own 15 Minutes of Fame.

So these two WoW players walk into a bar. Only it's not just a bar -- it's also a full restaurant serving hearty but healthy (fresh, locally sourced and frequently organic) fare such as the thick, juicy Iron Dragon Steak ("a full half-pound of flat iron steak grilled in dragon's fire and served with sautéed veggies and a GLaDOS baked potato"). And then they don't go home, because it's more than just a bar and restaurant -- it's also a gaming center hosting everything required to enjoy a night of tabletop, console and online gaming.

Yes, this is heaven. Welcome to the AFK Tavern in Everett, Wash., the brainchild of WoW player Kayla Graves. "It was kinda my life's dream," she explains. "I run the place as general manager and design most the menus and almost all the drinks (a few are made by our bartenders), so I take the title of creative director most the time. I also deal with all our social media ... And advertisements. AFK started as my project, but we're big on community input, so we've shaped it that way and let it become more than us. It's pretty cool owning a company like AFK Tavern with my two best friends in the whole world."

Sound like the place where everybody knows your name? We thought so, too. Come on in.

Nechja's multiboxing team
Main character Nechja/Njecha/Nachje/Najche, multi-shaman team (currently inactive)
Guild Hyjal Duin
Realm Feathermoon

15 Minutes of Fame: The AFK Tavern -- what a great idea! How did the idea for the business come about?

Kayla Graves: Well, when I moved to Washington, I wanted to start a business. I was looking into a game store for a while because I wanted to help the gaming community. But I'm not a huge fan of kids ... and I didn't want to become a babysitter's service. Plus after working up a business plan and the numbers, I just didn't think I'd be able to make it into a sustainable company. I toyed with the idea of a game store/cyber cafe but again hit the pavement with some research and found how many crashed in the first few months. So I started wondering why ...

After about two years of cold calls to places who were in operation and to folks who had gone under, I started to have a bigger picture of the "things that didn't work." So this idea of the thing that would work started to take shape. It wasn't till I was at one of the local bars I hung out with a couple guildies at after my raids were over till the whole idea took shape. It just sorta happened.

See, I spent every week at my house entertaining my gaming group with crazy drink and food. I would tell all my WoW friends about what the drinks were and dinner, etc., etc. ... You know how it goes. They would all wish they had that where they lived.

The idea started there. Honestly, my raids became a sounding board for ideas. My RL gaming groups were the testers. I stocked a full bar at my house, started prototyping menus and items, amassing food service equipment. Interviewing owners and managers of "culture" hotspots, finding out what made them tick. Building contacts. Suddenly, I had a business proposal all typed out.

But it wouldn't sell... the idea. Investors thought I was joking. "Gamers don't go outside." "I think my kid plays Xbox -- you want to sell beer to kids! You monster!"Ha ha, gamers are all broke." "No one will ever go here." Every turn, I was getting shot down. So my partner and my best friend took me aside one day and said they were in. They'd throw their credit and savings in with me. Suddenly this idea of AFK Tavern was real. We were looking for buildings, applying for permits ... Hell, my guild started chipping in what they could to make this happen, even if they weren't local!

That's some incredible support. Are you aware of other similar businesses in the area or ... well, anywhere else?

A few similar, I guess. We knew of the Mana Bar. But there is no other place like us -- or hell, like them, for that matter. Most of the things close are LAN centers with beer and game shops with beer and snacks.

Drinks and cards at the AFK Tavern
Are most of your customers actually gamers, or do you get much crossover with local mainstream customers?

Gamers of all stripes and counterculture types. We have been getting known for our food now. Our lunches are getting very "local," but they check out games just like every one else to relax! ... so I guess, gamers and locals we're making into them.

It sounds like you're in a perfect geographic location for this kind of specialty business. Do you draw from the greater Seattle area, or are AFK Tavern-goers mostly Everett locals?

Oh, we're north of Seattle, and a lot of Seattle folks think we're on the moon. Doesn't mean we don't get all the good ones, though! We pull from all over. Not a day goes by we don't get a few out-of-state or -country people in.

What sort of physical gaming accommodations do you provide?

We for the console gamers have 11 Xboxes, two PS3s, NES and Super NES, Atari 2600, a Sega Genesis ... I've actually lost track of all the systems and an ever-expanding library of games for them. For the PC gamer, we only sport two computers, but we have a massive set of open power ports with wired and wireless connections to be used. So our LAN is very laptop-oriented, but you can expect about 20 some folks in on laptops most weekends. Our internet connection is a dual fiber optic line, 40up/down -- fantastic ping most nights.

For the RPG gamer, we have massive tables for large gaming groups, a RPG library, battle maps, minis, everything you need to make your campaign more epic. War gamers? Huge tables for 40k and Warhammer! We even have our own terrain to use. Board gamers? Massive library of board games, from Castle Ravenloft to Risk to Scrabble! Card games? Magic to Uno, we have it.

Did I mention it's all for free, too?

Multiboxing shaman
That's incredible! You must get a lot of regulars.

Oh yes, we have tons of regulars, more of the "here every day" kinda folks. So we keep our menu pretty fresh so they don't get bored. Our special events bring in all kinds of folks, from people who are into the theme to people who just love our special events or just love the crowd.

Tell us about some of the regular events and meetings at AFK Tavern.

Well, every Saturday we try to have a theme night, and twice a month we try to have events. Theme nights are anything from pirate or steampunk night to a Star Wars or World of Warcraft night. Each of those night have a couple menus dedicated to the theme. The staff typically dresses in theme, and we do theme music/movies/games the whole night. It's sorta "participate if you want or just watch." Most people enjoy just hanging around with the theme.

What about special events?

We try to mimic major events that people perhaps can't get to themselves. We also do special events for fundraisers, like our "Bash to Smash Cancer" or "Quest to save Japan."

And this isn't your typical greasy burger-and-fries gamer fare that you're serving. What do customers find on the menu at AFK Tavern?

Oh, the food. This gets me every time. See, I came with expectations that we would have a menu that gave a cut above the local area. Our idea was that not all gamers want to shove mass amounts of junk food in their food holes, then roll around in trash piles. So we went for something different without getting too full of ourselves. Our menu has been though about 30 revisions since opening day, and it will keep evolving.

Right now, we make food we can be proud of, with ingredients we'd like to eat ourselves. So we have a higher food budget and don't take the normal cut on our food. All-chuck patties, everything we can local, fresh, good. Organic, even, if we can manage it. The idea is to make it so good we want to sit and eat it ... and most of our staff eats and drinks here ... and other restaurants' staffs, as well ... I think that's a good sign.

Now, what's funny is that I'm a vegetarian, and I come up with things like our Orc Burger or the Kingslayer's Feast. But I'm not a moral veggie, just a health veggie -- have been my whole life. So I take having to contaminate free fryers pretty seriously. And some would say I'm overboard about how obsessive I am about how our food is cooked, making sure each dish is prepared by itself with out any cross-contamination. But it adds up for people with allergies and food concerns. Also keeps the place very clean in the kitchen!

Multiboxers on their mounts
Let's talk games. You've been AFK from WoW for some time now getting your business off the ground, is that right?

WoW ... I loved the hell out of the game when I played it. I'm really big on working with a team, leading teams and just completing goals with teams, so WoW really worked out well for me! I played four space goat elemental shaman. Yes, I'm a multiboxer, one of the few who ever did it with pure hardware (no software assistance) and the only one who ever did it as an effective raider and raid leader in both 25s and 10s. I was pretty crazy about never leaving my clones behind, so I never played them "single player." Everything I did was with all four as a group, even with my alt groups. I did play them with different specs, however: two enhancement, one resto and one elemental for General Vezax was a little mind-bending ...

I leveled them and my alt groups to 85, but that was about it for new stuff. I don't play anymore -- still love the game, but I work 18+ hour days and like to get some sleep. It's hard to bring my multiboxing rig to work with me.

My server and my guild helped me make AFK, so it's going to always have a huge place in my heart. I miss my shaman something fierce. Like I tell everyone, I had to quit WoW to get a worse addiction -- small business!

Other than WoW, what's your poison?

StarCraft 2 -- I play that a lot, although I'm not going to pretend to be good in any way, shape or form. I'm play pen-and-paper RPGs at work quite a bit. I played the hell out of Dragon Age 2, all of the Mass Effects, Portal, Portal 2 ... I play most things so I can learn them and be able to talk them with people around the Tavern. If it's popular and fun, odds are I have messed with it for a couple of hours.

Catch Kayla's multiboxing videos on her YouTube channel -- and if you're near Everett, Wash., stop by the AFK Tavern for a meal and a game or three. Tell 'em WoW Insider sent you!

"I never thought of playing WoW like that!" -- and neither did we, until we talked with these players, from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine's Aron "Nog" Eisenberg to an Olympic medalist and a quadriplegic raider. Know someone else we should feature? Email lisa@wowinsider.com.

Filed under: Interviews, 15 Minutes of Fame

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