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  • Tara Crutchfield

Happy Birthday, Rec Room!

You know it, you love it, you’ve probably played a game of drunk Mario Kart there – Rec Room turns one this Halloween!


The product of partners Jason Ellis, Conn O’Leary, Corey Ripley, Barrett Hollis, and Mike and Wendy O’Leary, Rec Room quickly won over Lakelanders. We sat down with Jason Ellis and Conn O’Leary to discuss the video game bar concept.



“I think collectively we wanted to do another project,” said O’Leary. Initially, the idea was to open a dive bar. Lakeland has quite a few dive bars that have stood the test of time, so the vision changed.


Ellis brought up the idea of a “barcade,” a bar/ arcade concept popular in many metropolitan areas. O’Leary thought of his sister. “I can sit at a bar and drink for two or three hours and be fine, but within ten minutes, she’s like, ‘What’s next? What are we doing? We aren’t doing this all night. We need to go play pool, shoot darts, sing karaoke, do something.’” The idea of having an activity-oriented bar had teeth to it.


They recruited some like-minded folks for the project and got to work on their Lakeland barcade, Rec Room. The idea was intentionally inclusive of everyone in the community, said the partners – friends getting together for drinks, a date night, and those who don’t drink at all. “That was the impetus behind it. This could be for everybody,” said O’Leary.


When they found the building that would eventually become Rec Room, formerly LkldTV, O’Leary said, “We fell into the perfect space. […] We could see the potential bloom.”


The renovations took about a year and a half to complete. The Rec Room was set to open in March of 2020 but was delayed into the fall by the pandemic.


“It was kind of a bear,” O’Leary said of the project. “It was an old building, built in the ‘30s, I think, so we had to do extensive electrical repairs. We gutted it, and then with all the COVID delays, when we were close to finishing up, they still hadn’t green-lit all the bars yet.” Rec Room finally opened on Halloween of 2020.



ALL FUN AND GAMES

Bringing video games into the bar scene was a no-brainer for Ellis and O’Leary. For Ellis, his favorite game was Ms. Pac-Man. “I cut a countless number of college classes to go to the Student Center when no one was there, to play,” he said. The iconic arcade game is free to play at Rec Room.


For O’Leary, it was Dig Dug. “I remember playing that in the hallway of a gym rec center that I used to go to when I was a kid. I’d throw coin after coin into that,” he said. O’Leary, who grew up in Hawaii, remembers frequenting an arcade there called the Fun Factory. “The best time of the year was my birthday when they’d hand me ten or twenty bucks, and they’d leave so I’d be by myself in this arcade. It was the best thing ever. Twenty dollars back then went a long way because all the games were a quarter apiece.”


It isn’t all retro games at Rec Room. The bar has a good mix of old, new, and activity games. Rec Room regulars buy tokens to play everything from Mortal Kombat to NBA Showtime, Guitar Hero, Big Buck Hunter, Golden Tee, basketball, skeeball, and air hockey. They recently installed two pinball machines, a popular addition to the barcade.


Above all else, O’Leary hopes Rec Room is a fun space whether you’re looking to socialize, sip a cocktail, or win a few rounds of Jurassic Park pinball. “It can be whatever you want to have fun with. If you don’t care about video games and just want to drink at the bar and hang out with friends, cool. If you don’t drink at all and want to come in and have a basketball tournament with your boys, we’ve got that too.”


LEVELING UP THE BAR SCENE

As for the drinks, Ellis said, “We wanted to have a curated list that showed that we had bartending skills but could also handle a high-volume atmosphere.” Their most popular cocktail is the Planet Popstar, made with white rum, a strawberry shrub, fresh mint, cream soda, and lemon juice.


When we spoke in September, they were preparing to roll out a new selection of drinks with a Tiki flair. Ellis described them as “light, fruit-forward, fun” and “dangerously delicious.” He worked with Rec Room General Manager, Olivia Lewandowski, to develop their cocktail menu. Rec Room slings plenty of seltzers, new-school cocktails, and frozen drinks, serving a primarily younger crowd.


Though the bar doesn’t serve its own food, they regularly host food trucks and vendor pop-ups. “My favorite is Pinoy Cravings,” O’Leary said. “They’re so friendly, they’re cool, and their food is amazing.”


TEAMWORK MAKES THE DREAM WORK

Reception of the Lakeland barcade has been encouraging, say the owners. “The community and The City have been nothing but great,” O’Leary said.


The pair attributes much of Rec Room’s success to their team. “We put together a really good staff,” said O’Leary. The bar hasn’t suffered staffing issues plaguing much of the service industry. “That’s been good to have that continuity. People like coming in and seeing their bartenders, and the ones we’ve had have done well connecting with customers and building that clientele base where they know their names, what they drink, know their stories. That’s been invaluable to us.”


Asked if they have any new concepts in the works, the pair behind some of Lakeland’s favorite hangouts, including Rec Room, Good Thyme, and Cob & Pen, agreed that they were “ambitious, but also measured.”


O’Leary said, “We’re always looking to expand and do bigger and better [things], but it’s got to make sense. […] That’s how I think we’ve done so well – we have a vision, and we wait for the vision to coalesce into something we can manage.”


“We like the burgeoning town as opposed to the established bigger city,” added Ellis. “One of the things we’ve done really well is we know how to find good people and use them to their potential and grow positive working relationships with them. Building the management team at Cob & Pen allowed us to step away and do projects like this. […] ‘You’re as good as the people you surround yourself with’ is pretty true.”


Celebrate one year with Rec Room this Halloween. Follow their social media for weekly events and specials like Monday Mario Kart tournaments, Token Tuesday, and Thursday BOGO and ping pong tourneys, as well as their quarterly DJ dance parties. Happy Birthday to one of Lakeland’s most rad bars!


Rec Room

202 N Massachusetts Ave, Lakeland

(863) 213-4073

FB @RecRoomLKLD

IG @recroomlkld

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