By allowing ads to appear on this site, you support the local businesses who, in turn, support great journalism.
Unlikely venture brings arcade production to Boro
Coastal Counter Tops diversifies behind new partner’s idea
arcade
Rick Priester of the Arcade Factory, rear left, is partnering with Ryland McLendon, front, and dad Dana McLendon of Coastal Counter Tops to build cabinets and assemble vintage style arcade games. - photo by By SCOTT BRYANT/staff

On an early October day last year, a man from Los Angeles came to Coastal Counter Tops in Statesboro with an unusual proposal.

Dana McLendon, who founded Coastal in 1979, wasn’t in his office at the plant on Hill Street, so Rick Priester left a message with a receptionist.

“’I know this is kind of a weird request, but we build video arcade machines and I’m looking for someone that’s got the wherewithal to cut the wood for us,’” was the note Priester said he left that afternoon.

McLendon got the message and was skeptical – at first.

“Of course I was going to be polite and return his call, but my original thought was ‘I have no interest whatsoever,’” McLendon said. “It didn’t make sense. Countertops and cabinets. What does that have to do with arcade games?  But I talked with my son Ryland about it and decided to call him. We can do this. We can do anything. Let’s hear him out.”

Now, a short four months later, McLendon and Priester have formed a partnership that has transformed both their businesses and brought an entirely new industry to Bulloch County.

The unlikely enterprise between two men who had never met prior to October 2020 has its origins in two distinct events: tariffs placed on imports from China and the COVID-19 pandemic.

Back in 2008, Rick Priester founded Arcade Factory, a Los Angeles-based company that imported upright and table-top video arcade machines from China. The machines are capable of playing hundreds of different games, including old favorites like Pac-Man, Ms. Pac-Man, Galaga and Space Invaders.

“We were getting containers shipped from China with the game machines fully built,” Priester said. “Our whole business model was taking the machines from China, sometimes making some minor modifications, but primarily just testing them to make sure they worked.

“After we tested them, they were put on a shelf in a warehouse and when we got orders, we shipped them out. Looking back, that was a really simple business model. I didn’t realize how simple it was until we actually got into the building of the machines.”

At its height, Priester said Arcade Factory was selling about 4,000 machines per year.

 

China tariffs

A Savannah native who has lived in Atlanta since 1991, Priester said he located the business in Los Angeles because it was a good place to import from China. That remained true, he said, until early 2019 when the United States announced it would begin placing tariffs on certain items imported from China.

“The tariffs came into play, so I knew our costs would be higher,” he said. “Because along with the cost of the machine, we were going to have to pay this additional tariff on top and the tariffs were scheduled to get higher.

“I began thinking that it sure would be nice if we could figure out a way to make the machines in the United States, but nothing seemed to gel.”

arcade 2
Bradley Burnside, top, and Noe Garcia of Coastal Counter Tops assemble cabinets for the Arcade Factory. - photo by By SCOTT BRYANT/staff

And that’s when a series of events started that led Priester to find Dana McLendon and Coastal Counter Tops.

“A good friend of mine from Savannah, who’s a real estate investor, approached me about an opportunity to purchase a property here in (Bulloch County) on Old River Road that used to be known as the Cooper-Wiss plant,” Priester said. “It was originally built as a JP Stevens mill for textiles back in 1965. It then became owned by this Cooper Wiss company that made scissors, shears and all different sorts of tools. They eventually sold it to Milliken, another textile company.”

Cooper-Wiss took over the plant in 1978 and manufactured hand tools, cutlery and other items there for 22 years before closing in 2000. At its height, Cooper-Wiss employed more than 350 workers in Statesboro.

Milliken remained the owner of the plant, which is located on Old River Road North, just east of Highway 301 North, but used it sparingly and it became vacant and unused. The plant is more than 260,000 square feet of under-roof space and it sits on almost 150 acres of property.

“My business partner had his eye on the property since 2004 and kept waiting for Milliken to make the decision to sell it,” Priester said. “Finally, Milliken agreed to sell it in 2019 and he called me and asked if I had any interest in becoming an investor with him. I looked at the property and said this looked like a good opportunity to store some of my damaged equipment in Statesboro.”

 

First step to Statesboro

After the sale closed in July 2019, Priester stopped renting warehouse space in Los Angeles, shipped five containers of equipment by rail to Statesboro and put it the newly purchased plant.

A larger plan then began forming in Priester’s head.

“The more I thought about it, the more I kept thinking, ‘if we’re going to do something made in the United States, it sure would make senses to do it in Statesboro versus doing it in Los Angeles,’” he said. “That just started making sense to me.”

Then, COVID hit his business before the first case was diagnosed in the United States.

“That December, before we even knew what COVID was, the China factories were shut down,” Priester said. “So I not only had this tariff thing, the supply chain from China stopped entirely. That was the final push to go ahead and say it’s time now to do what I wanted – let’s do the manufacturing of the arcade machines here in the United States.”

Priester began shipping all the materials and parts for his operation to Statesboro. As the pandemic firmly took root in the U.S., Priester had to adjust his timetable for getting the operation to manufacture the machines up and running in Statesboro. By mid-summer of 2020, he was ready to look for partners.

“Easier said than done,” Priester said. “First, let me find a place that can cut the wood. The machines are simply a wood cabinet with electronics inside.”

But after looking around the Savannah area, Priester decided to hone in on the home of his plant – Statesboro.

“I’m in Statesboro,” he said. “It sure would make sense to do business with someone here. So, I got on Google and found Dana and Coastal Counter Tops. I came into his shop and left my message.”

Despite his skepticism about how video games and his business could work together, McLendon called Priester about his proposal.

“Dana was very proactive and called me the next day so I knew I was dealing with someone who was a go-getter,” Priester said.

But unlike Priester’s business, the pandemic did not negatively impact Coastal Counter Tops.

“COVID did not affect our business,” McLendon said. “We supplied cabinets to Lowe’s, Home Depot. In fact, with everybody home, they decided to do a lot of remodeling, so we got pretty busy.

“But the idea Rick brought to us was very intriguing. I like a challenge. And I liked Rick.”

 

Partnership begins

The first thing Mclendon and his team did was reverse engineer the machines to determine how to construct the cabinets that would encase the machines.

“We looked at every single cut, every single piece of it, figuring out how that gets programmed into the appropriate equipment to cut everything to precision,” McLendon said. “Once we got that settled, we were ready to go.”

So, the original plan was for Coastal Counter Tops to only cut the wood and bring it to the plant on Old River Road.

“I thought, well I’ll just hire some people and we can put the wood together, put the equipment in them and build them out at our facility,” Priester said.

But that did not go as planned.

arcade 3
Bradley Burnside, left, and Noe Garcia of Coastal Counter Tops assemble cabinets for the Arcade Factory. - photo by By SCOTT BRYANT/staff
“Coastal Counter Tops has been here since 1979. They have employees, they have a crew and they knew what they were doing,” Priester said. “Frankly, we didn’t know what we were doing. We thought just taking wood and assembling it, what’s there to that? We found out we were pretty much falling on our face with it.

“Then, one Saturday, Dana and his wife said they wanted to come out to the plant to see what we were doing. I toured them around and I could tell Dana was a little bit appalled. He didn’t say that. But he knew we didn’t know what we were doing.”

The next day, McLendon called Priester and offered to fully construct the machines, minus the electronics.

 “I thought, ‘I’m never going to make any money because he can’t finish them quick enough for me to do anything from the sales viewpoint,” McLendon said.

So, the partnership grew to now include Coastal cutting the wood, assembling the arcade cabinets and then bringing the empty cabinets to the plant where Priester’s crew would put in the wiring.

“And we soon found out that we were falling on our face with that part of the project, too,” Priester said. “The orders were pouring in and I was floundering. Dana was bringing out truckloads of cabinets ready for wiring, but we couldn’t wire them fast enough.

“All these orders were coming in for Christmas and I sent Dana kind of a desperation text. ‘I just don’t know what to do. I’ve given it everything I’ve got but I think we might just have to refund the customers’ money.’”

 

Dana to the rescue, again

The next day, Priester said he was at the plant and looked over his shoulder.

“There was Dana. He said, ‘OK, let’s get started.’”

The next challenge for McLendon was teaching some of his crew at Coastal how to properly wire the machines. Priester said he had moved one man from Los Angeles to Statesboro who was a technician.

“As I was trying to build my own crew of people, I thought it might be nice to have a training video made. So I had a professional video made shadowing the technician putting the electronics in a machine, not knowing I actually was creating some training materials for Dana.”

With a number of eager and talented employees looking to earn some extra Christmas money, McLendon’s employees used the video as a guide and quickly picked up how to install the electronics in the finished arcade boxes.

Soon, the first complete arcade machines were finished and shipped out to start filling the backlog of Christmas orders. In fact, Priester said they just shipped out the final orders from Christmas about two weeks ago.   

Most of the machines are sold to individual buyers, who are looking for something unique in their own game rooms. Priester’s Arcade Factory acts as the wholesaler that sells the machines through various distributors.

“Rick was such a nice guy and his story was very intriguing to me,” McLendon said. “My employees were a bit apprehensive at first, but soon they adapted and jumped right in. Our main business is kitchen countertops, but a little diversification never hurt anyone.

“It also is a great feeling for all of us to know we actually took something away from China. Rick can now proudly label his machines ‘Made in America.’”

Also, Coastal Countertops is not the only local business benefitting from the Arcade Factory partnership. Action Signs is creating all the artwork (“Much better than anything we ever got from China,” Priester said.) for the machines and X-Treem Automotive on Highway 67 is assisting with the electronics of the machines.

 

The future

The initial goal is to produce and ship about 1,000 machines in the next few months with the goal of matching Arcade Factory’s pre-tariff and pre-COVID output of 4,000 machines in the near future.

To that end, McLendon said he is planning to build a 20,000-square-foot building on land he owns across Hill Street from his Coastal Counter Tops manufacturing center dedicated to the production of the arcade machines.

The future may hold even larger expansion possibilities, but Priester said, for now, he marvels at the business partnership that has sprung up in the past four months.

“The evolution of the process began with me just looking for somebody to cut and prepare the wood. That was step one of the process,” Priester said. “Dana, thankfully, agreed to that one step and I don’t know that he or I envisioned how it was going to continue to progress to where we are now and the possibilities to come.”

Sign up for the Herald's free e-newsletter