Burnout? Not a problem for Paul Burkhart, DO. Whenever the stress of practicing medicine gets to him, Burkhart turns to the silver balls, flippers, and flashing lights at his “barcade.”
Explore This IssueFebruary 2021
During the day, Dr. Burkhart is a partner physician at Ohio ENT & Allergy Physicians in Columbus, Ohio. But as a pinball fanatic, he’s also the owner of Level One Bar and Arcade, a pinball and video game emporium and bar in Columbus, Ohio. The business is stocked with nearly 20 pinball machines and dozens of video games from his own personal collection, as well as a couple of Skee-Ball lanes.
“I’ve seen a lot of colleagues who complain about burnout, and thankfully I’ve never really felt that,” he said. He has found that running a successful bar and arcade while working in medicine is the perfect way to combat stress. “It’s using two sides of your brain,” he explained “Medicine and bar ownership complement each other. If it gets really tough in one area, you can go to the other thing for a while. I’ve never considered stopping either one.”
Creating a Pinball Wizard
Burkhart grew up in Carlisle, Penn. “I’m old enough that when I was younger, arcades had pinball machines, and I became a pinball junkie—I loved it,” he said. “I would mow lawns and run a paper route to get rolls of quarters at the bank to play.” He steadily fed those quarters into the machines at the local mall arcade, although his favorite was the Gold Strike machine at the Carlisle YMCA.
Dr. Burkhart also pursued other interests as he grew up. He played on his high school and college tennis teams and long considered medicine as a career, following in the footsteps of his uncle and aunt, both ophthalmologists. He attended Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania, where his father taught speech and communications, and explored different subjects. “In college, I started out as a history major, then business, then psychology, but all the while I took basic science classes so I could also be pre-med,” said Dr. Burkhart. He found his connection after learning about osteopathic medicine during a presentation at Shippensburg, “I liked what they were saying about the holistic view of the body,” he said. He applied to several osteopathy programs and eventually graduated from the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine with a doctorate in osteopathy.
Dr. Burkhart discovered a passion for otolaryngology after completing an ophthalmology rotation. “Because of my aunt and uncle’s focus, I kind of thought I’d be an ophthalmologist too, but I found out it’s basically [dealing with] cataract after cataract,” he said. “It’s fine, but it didn’t appeal to me.”
His next rotation was otolaryngology, and it was there he found his specialty. “I did otolaryngology for two weeks not expecting anything,” Dr. Burkhart said. “I was with a busy surgeon in Philadelphia, and I loved it. I saw kids, middle-aged people, the elderly. It was so diverse and there were so many options.”
Today Dr. Burkhart is a generalist at Ohio ENT & Allergy Physicians in Columbus. “What I enjoy the most is pediatrics—tubes, tonsils, and the interaction with the kids,” he said. “I also enjoy nasal sinus surgery and basic laryngology.”
Building the Business
But Dr. Burkhart’s first love will always be pinball.
To support his interest, when Dr. Burkhart was in middle school his parents bought him a pinball machine from Toys “R” Us as a birthday gift. But he found it wasn’t the same as the big machines at the arcade. “The toy version broke in about two days,” he said.
Dr. Burkhart’s collection began in earnest during his medical residency at OhioHealth Doctor’s Hospital in Columbus, when he bought a house nearby and then quickly purchased his first pinball machine in 1995.
“I was a big fan of The Simpsons, and was playing in a pinball league,” he said. He learned about a secondhand Simpsons pinball game, fixed it up, and then played it constantly. “That machine cost a lot of money, but I was a single guy in residency,” he reasoned.
Not long after, Dr. Burkhart set his sights on something new: A South Park pinball machine. “When Sega came out with a South Park pinball machine, all I could think was, ‘Ooh, I want that!’” A friend who fixed pinball machines in the league found one, and soon it joined Dr. Burkhart’s other machines. “I played those games constantly,” he said. “It was so much fun.”
Once he completed his residency, Dr. Burkhart built a larger house with a walkout basement that would house his expanding pinball game collection. To find the machines, he would attend arcade auctions three times a year at the Ohio Expo Center, where arcade owners would showcase and sell older games. “I’d bring a long orange extension cord with me, plug them in, and test play,” he recalled. At each event, he would purchase a couple of games to add to the line-up in his basement. He also found pinball machine sellers on eBay.
Dr. Burkhart joined Pinball Forum, a newsgroup for pinball enthusiasts, and began communicating with pinball collectors around the world. At one point, his basement was packed. “I smattered in a few classic arcade games like Defender, Pac Man, Galaga, Ms. Pac Man, and Frogger,” he said. “There were about 12 video game machines, along with 80 pinball machines—when I reached 80, I had to get a storage unit to hold the extras.”
Dr. Burkhart’s basement became a fun zone, where he hosted an annual Halloween costume party. “When I was dating the woman who’s now my wife, we’d buy cases of Sam Adams and party subs, and we’d play games all night,” he said. “People just loved it.”
Medicine and bar ownership complement each other. If it gets really tough in one area, you can go to the other thing for a while. I’ve never considered stopping either one.
The basement events continued over the next few years, as Dr. Burkhart married his wife and had the first of his five children. “After a while, I thought it would be fun to own a business like it, before bar/arcades existed,” he said. “A few years later, maybe eight to 10 years ago, my brother told me about a friend in New York who visited a place called Barcade.” But at that point, Dr. Burkhart reasoned, he was married, had his medical practice, and was raising two small children with a third on the way. The time for opening a bar/arcade just wasn’t right.
After another year or two went by, Dr. Burkhart learned from his friend who fixed broken pinball machines that a similar place was opening up in Columbus. “I said to myself, ‘It’s now or never’ and talked to my wife about it. She’s an attorney, and I have my practice, but we didn’t want to be old and gray, sitting in a rocker on the front porch thinking, ‘I regret that we didn’t try opening our own business.’”
The result was Level One Arcade and Bar, which opened in 2015 in the Crosswoods area of Columbus. It’s one of several bar/arcades that operate in the central Ohio area. Dr. Burkhart stocked the place with his own Simpsons, South Park and 20 other pinball machines, nearly 50 stand-up video games, and two Skee-Ball lanes. Level One serves mostly craft beers and a few game-themed cocktails but doesn’t sell food.
“We’re still an attorney and a doctor, and food is too complicated,” Dr. Burkhart explained. “We wanted to keep it simple, so we have menus available from local restaurants.” Pre-pandemic, the business would allow take-out from other establishments to be brought in and was a popular setting for birthday parties and other gatherings. During Level One’s first year in business, Dr. Burkhart hosted his eight-year-old daughter’s soccer team party at the same time as a birthday for a patron turning 70. “It’s a pretty broad demographic,” he said.
A Pandemic Pivot
When COVID-19 hit in March, Level One—like businesses across the country—shut down. Bars and restaurants were allowed to open in May, but arcades didn’t reopen until June. As of press time, Level One was open limited hours with a bare-bones staff.
“We don’t have a lot of overhead because I use my own machines as stock,” Dr. Burkhart explained. Before the pandemic, the business employed 12, including a full-time manager, several bartenders, and barbacks. Now, it employs four.
“It’s a lot slower than it used to be, but we’re doing all the precautions and then some,” said Dr. Burkhart. “We have gloves for playing Skee-Ball, sanitizer stations all around the bar, and we thoroughly bclean tables between parties. There’s only one person allowed at a time at the bar, and the staff and customers have to wear masks when they’re playing and walking around. They can take them off only to drink,” he said.
Dr. Burkhart took a break from his pinball league this year but spent every Monday night for the last four years playing his favorite game. “Columbus has a lot of good pinball players, and there’s one local guy who ranks in the top 10 pinball players in the world,” he said. “There are several others who are world-class players. Out of 70 people, I’ve ranked in the top third.”
Dr. Burkhart said he has never wanted to sideline his medical career for full-time pinball, viewing the game and bar ownership as a fun pastime. His five children, whose ages range from 7 to 14, all enjoy playing, and some have joined him in pinball leagues. One son won a tournament in 2019, and one daughter took second place.
But Dr. Burkhart doesn’t think his kids will follow in his flipper-loving footsteps. “They enjoy pinball, but they’re also into their own things,” he said. “They’re not freakish about it like I am,” he said with a smile.
Cheryl Alkon is a freelance medical writer based in Massachusetts.