Story By Will Fairless / Photos Contributed By NERDtorch Cafe
The NERDtorch Cafe’s blackout curtains and door that is locked during Business hours do not betray the welcoming environment that lies behind them.
Located in downtown Opelika, NERDtorch, as advertised on the street side of those curtains, is a place for video games, cosplay, tabletop games and food.
The overarching term for what the café celebrates is “Nerd Culture.” Nigel Mongerie, who owns the place with his wife, defines Nerd Culture like this: “Basically people who are interested in comic books, video games, anime. Those are our three staples for what Nerd Culture involves. From there you have subcultures, like in all three of those you have cosplay.”
The inside of the cafe is a nerd’s paradise. Two of the walls are plastered corner to corner with comic book pages, movie posters and video game posters.
There are TV screens and computer monitors lined up around the room and through its center, each hooked up to a gaming console or PC and facing out at chairs and corresponding controllers.
Off of the main room is a studio for live streaming, video editing, music production or anything else that fits into Nerd Culture, however loosely.
“What we want to be known for is being an overall community center for people who are interested in Nerd Culture,” Mongerie said.
The café offers food for its patrons, the constantly shifting menu currently including burgers, fries, pizza, nachos and milkshakes; as Mongerie put it, “typical gamer food.” He explained that the menu has to change frequently because a large portion of his customers are regulars who spend a lot of time, and eat a lot of meals, in NERDtorch.
“Unlike most businesses, probably like 90% of our customers are regulars,” Mongerie said. “The majority of people that are here, we see them every day.”
That fact, the overwhelming majority of this business’s patrons being regulars, is unusual among most businesses, yes, but it’s also unique in the Nerd Culture business.
NERDtorch operates somewhat like a gym or a club. Typically, meaning when coronavirus is not a concern, patrons can pay $10 for an all-day pass,which covers the café’s 4 p.m. to 12 a.m. business hours, or $25 for a monthly pass.
Mongerie described the typical gaming business model of selling 30-odd-minute passes to customers.
“[Other gaming venues] focus too much on the games,” he said. “It’s like you bring them in, you take the money, and you kick them out so the other people can come in and you can take their money. We don’t want to do that.”
Mongerie recognized that the online communities of gamers, cosplayers and Nerds in other capacities were massive and that there was no business catering to them.
“A lot of times they don’t even really have the opportunity to meet and cross paths,” he said. “[We thought,] ‘What if we gave people the opportunity to be around people who have like-minded interests?’”
He added that technological advances in gaming have driven people away from in-person interactions.
As games’ frame rates and processing power requirements have increased, the gatherings in front of one screen have become less practical. Gamers are more likely to interact only online, when each player can be sitting in front of his own television, playing on his own console.
Mongerie said people in NERDtorch’s demographic are often introverted and that his business helps them overcome that.
“We had one person come to us, and she couldn’t talk to anyone,” he said. “Fast forward a year later, and she’s the life of the party. We even have parents come to us and let us know that they can see changes in their kids … that they’ve never seen their kids be social before, and we’ve given them the opportunity to grow into that.”
Mongerie wants his business to grow, but never at the cost of the community feeling he’s worked hard for. Instead, he plans to do more for the community he serves, including finding a space that will accommodate larger events, planning more trips for those of his regulars who want to experience new things and using his film industry experience to encourage more content creation from his patrons.
For now, as he works on those developments in the background, he wants to ensure that NERDtorch remains a home for Nerds of any kind.
“If someone new comes in, everyone’s welcoming, everyone’s helpful to that person,” Mongerie said. “When you come here, you don’t feel like you’re alone. And I feel like that’s what a lot of people in our niche have a problem with.”