Taking the leap from TOKENS to CARDS

(Fannie Farkle’s is featured in the May 2016 issue of Play Meter Magazine.) Driving with the windows open in Gatlinburg, Tenn., a resort city sitting on the edge of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, one’s senses can be overwhelmed by the signs, lights, and sounds on busy U.S. Route 441, Gatlinburg’s main thoroughfare.

Here, national restaurant and entertainment chains coexist with independently-owned enterprises, doing good business year round with clientele visiting the area for family vacations, honeymoons, church retreats, and corporate events.

But amidst the lights and sounds of Gatlinburg, another sense is tickled. It’s been said that the sense of smell has the longest memory, and that’s true for Jason Mitchell when he thinks of Gatlinburg.

“The Ogle Dogs and sausages on the grill at Fannie Farkle’s are unforgettable,” remembers Jason. “I went to Trinity High School in Euless, Texas, where I played in the marching band. In 1986, our band participated in a national competition in Gatlinburg. That’s when I was introduced to Fannie Farkle’s. Returning there now brings back so many great memories.” The Ogle Dog is a hand-made, foot-long corn dog named for a family of early settlers in Gatlinburg.


Today, Jason is North American Sales Manager for Intercard Inc., a provider of debit card technology systems. His return to Fannie Farkle’s in 2015 wasn’t just for an Ogle Dog and to drop some tokens into the arcade games, although Jason says that happened. He had been invited by Marion Paul, Owner of Fannie Farkle’s since she started the business with her late husband, Don, in 1981.

Modesty aside, Marion started in the amusement industry at the age of 22 and has been working at Fannie Farkle’s since the business opened 36 years ago. She’s a dedicated and venerable personality in the family entertainment center (FEC) category, and a past-president of the Amusement and Music Operators Association (AMOA).

Marion reached out to Jason because she and her team had been doing research on debit card technologies and providers. Thirty-five years of occasional jammed tokens and tickets, plus the laborious ticket counting and redemptions by hand, were an annoyance, but nothing that her team wasn’t used to working through.

“It was a difficult decision,” said Marion, about moving forward with a changeover. “If it isn’t broke, why fix it? But I figured that it’s possible to get too comfortable. Plus, I wanted the business to evolve for the benefit of our long-term employees.” A number of Fannie Farkle’s employees are the first of two generations on her staff, mirroring the multiple generations of guests that visit her business.

The efficiency, reporting, and marketing opportunities offered with Intercard’s cloud-based debit card technology were enticing to Marion and her team. However, her initial research suggested that Intercard systems were beneficial only to multi-location FECs.

“While multi-unit operators do reap many benefits from having Intercard host a single database that manages all of their locations,” said Jason, “the greatest majority of our customers are single site owners like Marion who prefer an advanced, trouble-free, cloud-based card system. Intercard manages and maintains the database for them.”

“I had confidence in Jason,” said Marion. “He was knowledgeable, and he had the patience to walk us through the technology and what to expect. I was apprehensive, but excited.”

The installation of the Intercard system was completed in January 2016, and at press time Marion and her team were still evaluating the measurable increases in efficiencies and revenue as a result of the change. “We were definitely up, but part of that may have been from the new games and some nice (February) weather days we had in Gatlinburg,” said Marion.

“We’re using the system for both food and games,” she adds. “With the new system we’re seeing that some food customers are using the balance of their stored value of the cards, which often is not the full bill for their food purchase.

“The arcade, on the other hand, is really doing well with it. It’s absolutely helping us there. I think people spend more money with it. We were able to increase the prices of our games. Some games that were working for 25 cents, which now to me seems crazy, we’ve bumped up to 50 cents or even 35 cents.”

“The quality of the Intercard system from my perspective is flawless,” said Marion. The technician at Fannie Farkle’s, Randall Starkey, agrees, saying the change has made a “night and day” difference. Marion cites Jason, plus Intercard’s Manager of Technical Services, Bob Zoellner, and Technician Donald Weatherford, for a seamless transition and installation.

As far as educating guests on the new system, Marion said, “I would say 60 percent of them already knew how to use such a system. The rest have to be educated, but that’s where a good staff like ours is important.”

This offers an opportunity for upselling. “A staff member takes them to the kiosk to show them how to buy a card, and explain the tiers of reward credits available for spending more money. Right there we’re seeing more of them spending $20 instead of $5 or $10.”

Does Marion have any advice for an FEC owner/operator considering a transition to a debit card system? “I probably should have made this change five or 10 years ago, but it’s costly and you have to do it right. The key is to bite the bullet and invest in new games, in addition to the debit card system.”

She continued, “Some of our old games were not compatible, so we changed about 70 percent of our equipment with new and better games. Once resigned to that, it was kind of fun knowing that I was all in. I leveraged the investment to get creative pricing from my suppliers. We bought two Wizard of Oz redemption games that are very popular.” But with a fixed footprint, as Marion realized, it means in with the new and out with the old.

Ogle Dogs, it turns out, aren’t the only crave-able thing at Fannie Farkle’s. “We simply couldn’t keep all of our old games in service, which initially did not sit well with some of our regular guests. One of our long-time guests, an older gentleman, expressed displeasure when he learned that one of his favorite games had been replaced.

“So I walked him to the kiosk and showed him that with the purchase of a $20 game card he would get five extra dollars of play. He soon after discovered a new game that quickly became his favorite. It’s important to provide some personal service through the changeover,” Marion advises.

Another challenge Marion’s team faced with some long-time customers was with those who preferred to hoard their winning tickets issued from the old system, in some cases keeping years’ worth of tickets.

“Some of these people have thousands of redemption tickets,” said Marion. “Again, personal service and communication are very important.” Today, the homepage on Fannie Farkle’s Web site declares, “In 2016, we are going GREEN–no more paper tickets!”

“Overall, the new system is just peachy,” said Marion. “Here I am in Arizona (speaking by phone from her vacation home) and in the middle of an afternoon I’m able to see online what kind of day we’re having. Before I had to call and say ‘how’s the day going?’”

And on really good days, from as far away as Arizona, she can even smell the Ogle Dogs.