My name is Ben Terry
but at this point most people know me as BT
. I’m one of the three founders of Cages
, along with Dan Shen
and Andrew Stiff
We were sitting in a coffee shop on Dagu Lu a bunch of years ago, contemplating how we could get out of our day jobs and how it would be great to have a batting cage in Shanghai. I came to Shanghai with a land planning company, always traveling out to the sticks, so when I was in town, I would go out to play softball. I played in university and it’s kind of how I built my friend network in Shanghai.
I was like 25 at the time, didn’t know anything from anything, didn’t know Chinese, but we decided that we would look for a location for our concept. After like three months, Dan called me up while I was in Dalian, with a hangover from another baijiu work dinner, and he was like, “I found it.” It was an old warehouse on Changhua Lu
, a creepy creepy place, behind a parking lot, the signage wasn’t great. The rent was ridiculous. Ridiculous low. We figured we could at least break even, even if it was just our friends coming over to play. You kinda had to know about it to find it, which was part of the fun.
It didn’t have structural columns, which was the big thing we were looking for, so we could have dodgeball and put in the batting cages we imported from St. Louis. So we took it. That was November 2013. We opened six months later. I thought it would just be a bar, but Dan had some F&B experience so he suggested we add food. He brought that all together, which turned out to be the most important component: eating, drinking and socializing. Those three things are the core of what Cages is now. There’s one bar and batting cage in Chicago in the US but there’s no other place in the world that I know of that does what we do, with all the games, the bar and the food. Hell, we now sell over 2,000 pounds of chicken wings a month.
We really didn’t know who the customers would be. But we got lucky. That was when WeChat came out, Moments came out. It wasn’t any brilliant strategy on our part. But suddenly, we had all these Chinese customers who had never seen a batting cage before coming to try it out because it looked fun and they had seen it on their Moments. There was only one place it could be, at that time.
Since then, there have been about 40 copycats throughout China. Most of them have closed down by now. I don’t think they got the attention to detail, getting the right machines, making sure they are pitching at the right heights and right speeds, and then adding and adding more things for people to do.
Eventually, the government took back the lease on our original location (it’s now a parking lot or something) and we had to find a new one. We thought, okay, let’s look for 700-1,000 square meters. We walked by Jing'an Sports Center one day and saw all this gym equipment outside and realized the gym on the third floor was going out of business, so we went up to look. No central columns. We poked through the ceilings — high ceilings.
So we got in touch with the landlord. And they were like, “Yea, but do you have A LOT of sports”. Then they dropped the bomb on us: no subletting. The space is 3,600 square meters. We just looked at each other, crunched the numbers and were like… we…can…make…it…work. We gotta try it. We took it over in September 2016.
It’s been a long development. We didn’t always know what people wanted. We knew we wanted it to be about having fun, trying a bunch of stuff, not going to perfect your baseball swing. But now that we have the app, we have a lot more concrete information about what works and what people like and what they don’t, so we are constantly changing things. Two years ago, there weren’t any basketball games. The speed throwing and throwing accuracy is recent. Arcade games, the kids area, the jungle gym. We still have over 70 TV screens, though we have been adding more giant screens instead of small screens; the main screen is 25 square meters. Softball is still our number one but it’s just a big place, you want to appeal to everyone.
At the beginning, our customers were definitely female-driven. You’d see women come in who really weren’t scared to get in and try things out for the first time and drag the people they bought with into it. Now the main customer is whoever, but they are usually brought here by the leader of the friend group, who gets 10, 20, 30 people together.
People always ask us are you going to London or the US or the UK, and we’re like no we are not. You can’t mix baseball bats and beer in Scotland! But we don’t really have incidents here. To be honest, we turned down the speed on the machines so there are fewer mishaps. Do people get stingers from hitting the ball weird? Yea. But in general, we’ve been fortunate, no major incidents.
The government is our landlord. We didn’t know this when we first looked at the place, but they are tasked with promoting sport in Jing’an District. The first two floors get a pass. But the fourth floor is e-games and e-sports, the fifth is a swimming pool, and there’s badminton courts off to the side. They bring a lot of different sports bureaus from around Shanghai and around the country to come check us out.
Now that we have 3,600 square meters and Jason Oakley as our chef and partner, we’re like, we don’t have enough space. Jing’an Cages can seat 650 people and on big nights we get 1,000. But Oakley is a bad-ass. We gotta unleash him.
So we are going to do a mini-golf and food venue on Huaihai Lu. Will open this year. We have to tap into Jason’s talents and let him go wild on this one. It’s going to be focused on mini-golf and food. We have an American golf course architect on the case for the 18-hole mini-golf course, and will all have some fun one-hole challenges for people waiting for their tee times. I can’t say the name of the venue just yet, but the goal is to keep the fun Cages atmosphere and class it up to a point that if you take someone there on a first date, you might have a chance for a second.
The hardest thing about running this place, with my partners, is keeping it fresh. Raising the bar. Surprising the customer. You hear so many times in Shanghai, “oh that place used to be great” or “oh these guys just don’t care anymore.” We’re committed to not letting that happen. You have so many options in Shanghai. Such a vibrant and cool city. So we’ve got to continue surprising people in a positive way, and letting them know that these guys who dreamt up this idea in a coffee shop still care.