By MARIA VALIENTE
With the closing date for the South Burlington arcade and entertainment center Pizza Putt quickly approaching, the local community is coming out in spades to give the family hangout a proper sendoff. The entertainment center and restaurant has been packed since the March 4 announcement, with nostalgic adults, families and children crowding the arcade games, and even former employees punching in one last time.
Owner Anthoni Neri said he is overwhelmed by the outpouring of support.
“When we made the announcement that we were closing, a lot of former employees reached out almost immediately to say, ‘What can we do to help?’” Neri said. “It was very sweet.”
As it happens, Neri needed the help. Not only was he shorthanded following the winter school break, but he lost his kitchen manager the week before the announcement. Neri happily welcomed back what he calls the “Pizza Putt Alumni.” Past workers started coming in, asking Neri if he needed shifts covered or even asking to do a shift just one more time. After the doors close on March 31, Neri looks forward to hosting a free-for-all party for his past and present employees and their families on Tuesday, April 2, something he said he always wanted to do.
The news of the closing was met with mixed reactions from the public, some noting that the building needed work, others emotional over a staple of their childhood disappearing.
Local Susan Martin, for one, is sad to see Pizza Putt close.
“My grandson just turned three, so he’s a little young still, but my own kids certainly enjoyed it there with birthday parties and such. It’s a real loss,” she said, adding, “I wish someone would buy it and keep it going.”
Neri said he attempted to sell the business first, but ultimately the decision to auction and liquidate was made this past February.
“I sold the business more than once,” Neri says. “The factor that put the kibosh to the last two sales was the cost of the rent.”
The closest Pizza Putt came to not closing completely was when a specialist in liquidating entertainment centers and amusement parks attempted to bring in a national chain to take over. He put Neri in touch with Incredible Pizza, a restaurant chain based in Springfield, Mo., with additional locations in St. Louis, Tulsa, San Antonio, Oklahoma City, and Memphis, but once again, the rent cost killed the deal.
“The real estate market is so strong in the Northeast,” Neri said. “That’s why we don’t have a lot of Dave & Buster’s or Chuck E. Cheese’s. The revenue model doesn’t work. It’s too expensive.”
Combined with the effects of an embezzlement case from 2015, high rent is to blame for Pizza Putt’s demise. Neri said he was forced to sell the majority of the property to right his business financially after a trusted employee stole $80,000 over a period of 18 months.
An online auction will be taking place at www.BRamsey.com for the center’s inventory. Pre-bidding will be open for a few weeks prior, but the sale will go live, one item at a time, on April 17.
Neri also plans to hold a tag sale for memorabilia that hold sentimental value for those who grew up with Pizza Putt. Neri hopes to partner with a nonprofit, likely the Ronald McDonald House, to be able to do one final fundraiser for a charity. Several people have expressed interest in taking home a small piece of their childhood hangout.
Former Vermonter Matthew Trollinger was crushed to hear the news on Facebook.
“Growing up as a kid in Vermont, (Pizza Putt) was always the place to go,” he wrote. “Even as a teenager, it had a resurgence of popularity among my group of friends as a destination to go and pig out, play putt putt, and enjoy being able to drive. The place had a cheesy short of charm to it.”
Parents are the most likely to feel the hole Pizza Putt is leaving behind as great choice for a too-cold winter day or rainy summer afternoon.
Kate Goodwin of South Burlington is a mother of three.
“I feel like my kids are only now getting to the age where they can enjoy it and we haven’t taken them yet,” she said. “We’ll have to try to get there before they close. End of an era!”
Pizza Putt will remain open with their regular hours and weekly specials until March 31. They are now restocking their prizes daily, so Neri urges folks to come in with their gift certificates and tickets.