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There's got to be a twist - the place where pinball is still in fashion

Culture

Since opening three-and-a-half years ago, Fortitude Valley venue Netherworld has tapped into a winning formula and treated bumper crowds with its unique combination of pinball and retro-arcade machines, craft beer and vegan-friendly pub grub.

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Netherworld opened in early 2017, and has attained a loyal cult following, for its range of craft beer options, dozens of vintage arcade and pinball machines, old-school video-game consoles and board games, and Hellmouth Diner, which offers vegan-friendly and meat-filled versions of everything from wings, loaded fries and subs to burgers, hot dogs and mac and cheese.

After closing its doors to the public in March, the venue is back open for business, albeit with a limited capacity and strict adherence to hygiene and safety.

Unlike many other licensed establishments, the owners of Netherworld – Ben Nichols, Kieran Ryan and Jimmy Angliss – took a proactive approach when the COVID-19 pandemic hit and decided to suspend their usual operations several days before mass gatherings were officially banned by the Government.

As Nichols told InQueensland, Netherworld has always prided itself on providing a safe and inclusive environment for its patrons, with a focus on sharing and community a core part of the venue’s ethos.

“When we think about what Netherworld is, and what our venue is about, I think sharing is the word that we come back to the most,” Nichols said. “It’s a place where you share games and you share beers and you share food and sharing it is the opposite of what we need to be doing right now, in a very practical way.

“We just knew that this venue was specifically built for touching things that other people touch. It’s something that we’re always conscious about and we try to clean as much as we can every day anyway but it’s something else to be said to go through [board game] Settlers of Catan and cleaning every single wooden piece, it was just not going to happen.

“So I think, you know, just looking around the venue and just noticing and recognising that this was easily a high-risk place at the height of things, we wanted to be very conscious of that and not necessarily put the venue first, but put our responsibility first.”

As Nichols explained, the venue’s unique offering also presented a unique set of challenges when it came to reopening the venue when the State Government announced Queensland would be moving to stage three in its roadmap for easing of restrictions

“They’ve got rules for different industries, but the closest that we would be is sort of like a pub with pokies, except they’re not pokies,” he said.

“I suppose you can treat them in the same way, as in they’re machines that people are actively engaging with … but, for example, we didn’t know if someone could stand up in a bar and have a drink or whether they had to be seated.

“We know they can now, but we didn’t know that until 24 hours before we opened on stage three, because if someone can’t stand up and have a drink, they can’t play a game and of course they’re not going to sit down on a chair to play pinball.”

Nichols said in the first couple of months of social restrictions, it had been concerning trying to figure out how Netherworld would be able to reopen in a way that was both safe to its clientele while also not detracting too much from the atmosphere that had given the venue such a loyal cult following but said they can see a clearer path ahead,  “obviously pending a second wave [of COVID-19 infections] in Queensland”.

The venue is making sure every patron logs their personal details upon entry, social-distancing measures between different groups are being strictly adhered to, and machines are being constantly cleaned when not in use, and hand-sanitiser dispensers are located next to every machine.

“I think we’ve got a pretty good idea of like how we make our way through COVID at this time,” Nichols said, “and I’m fairly confident that we’ll see our way through to the other end, and then we’ll just work as hard as humanly possible to rebuild the community, rebuild a safe space – one that is safe on an emotional level but also extremely safe on a physical, santised level.”

During the few months the venue was forced to shuts its doors, Netherworld offered some takeaway options and also engaged with some of its regular audience by hosting interactive sessions via online streaming services.

“We did engage with lots of different streams, which included pinball streams, video-game streams, trivia streams, movie clips screenings, just lots of lots of random thing, DJ nights, so we had a whole variety of stuff, it was all via Twitch.”

Netherworld had been streaming content on Twitch – a platform heavily focused on video-game content – for most of its existence, and Nichols said it would continue to interact with its audience online for events such as its trivia night.

“At the moment there’s no way we can do a trivia night because we just can’t have that many people in the venue at the moment, it’s a close-quarters thing,” he said. “We have 100 to 200 people taking part in the trivia every week and that’s that’s been really nice because that’s all part of the normal trivia crew to come here every single Wednesday.”

Nichols was quick to give credit to Netherworld’s staff for the ongoing success of the venue, saying, “they’re all the friendliest people and their vibe and their spirit is sort of the personality of the bar at the end of the day”.

“And honestly, just the community as well, people that come here, without being funny about it, really are flies on the wall, they’re here all the time and it’s great to keep seeing the same faces for years in a row – and hopefully we can do that for years into the future, too.”

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