ROGERS PARK — Before moving to Chicago, Patricia Gonzalez lived in Italy and traveled through Europe, where she fell in love with the cafes full of friends and families playing cards and board games.
Inspired by her time overseas, Gonzalez opened Athena Board Game Cafe in Rogers Park, a “dream” business that was years in the making.
Then the pandemic hit, forcing Gonzalez to change course. Though she can’t host customers in the new cafe at 1418 W. Howard St., Athena will officially open Saturday with a slightly different business model: as a combination cafe and board game store.
Instead of having board games available for customers to play while having lunch or coffee, Athena will be offering for sale its stock of 250 card, dice and board games. Gonzalez is selling the board games as a way to bring in some income and to get people familiar with the store before they are able to open seating.
“We’re trying to be flexible,” Gonzalez said. “People will get to know us, try out our food, and that will help.”
Gonzalez grew up Caracas, Venezuela before moving to Michigan and then Italy. When she came back to the United States, Gonzalez knew she wanted to live in a big city like her home town, so she came to Chicago.
Gonzalez and her daughter, Sara Rivera Gonzalez, moved to Rogers Park in 2018. The family picked Rogers Park for its diversity and neighborhood feel, which they said would be a good setting for a European-style cafe.
The family was working towards their dream business when the coronavirus pandemic forced businesses in Chicago to close, wreaking havoc on the restaurant industry.
Gonzalez was in the process of getting her business licenses when the shut down took place. Knowing they wouldn’t be able to seat customers for some time, Gonzalez pivoted the business, opening around Memorial Day for take-out food and drink orders.
Now, Athena is expanding into board game sales as well.
“It’s a concern,” Gonzalez said about not being able to host customers in the cafe. “But there’s not much we can do about it.”
Athena offers a full menu of coffee drinks, plus sandwiches, salads and desserts. The business makes milkshakes and sundaes, as well.
Eventually, Athena will open its cafe seating area, which has room for about 34. Tables will be customizable to accommodate large groups for game playing, and for the solo coffee drinker who wants to work on a puzzle, Gonzalez said.
The board games sold before the seating opens will be replaced, and the cafe will offer a wide variety of options, from easy-to-learn familial games to intense, long-playing board games.
A grand opening will be held when the seating area can be opened to the public, she said.
“There will be a little bit for everybody,” Gonzalez said.
Though the opening timeline and business plan were thrown for a loop, Gonzalez said she is happy to be open and serving a neighborhood she loves. While families are stuck inside, puzzles and board games have become popular entertainment options — a fact Gonzalez hopes will help bridge the gap until she can welcome customers.
“I love the idea of a family coming and getting a game and being entertained for a weekend,” Gonzalez said. “We can’t go to the Taste of Chicago or Lollapalooza, so we have to stay in and play board games.”
Athena Board Game Cafe, 1418 W. Howard St., is open 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday-Friday and 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. For more information, click here.
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