Plonczynski said the village has approved a liquor license for Stella's Place, which the state requires for a business to offer video gambling. Laredo Hospitality Ventures is also seeking a liquor license for Maxine's, he said.
One of the principals behind the company is Pincus, the former head of Zynga, an Internet game developer headquartered in San Francisco. The company operates online gambling in the United Kingdom but recently abandoned efforts to start online gambling in the U.S., according to news reports.
Pincus hung up on a Tribune reporter and did not return subsequent phone calls. Neither did his partners Gary Leff and Charity Johns. Leff founded the Stir Crazy restaurant chain and serves as lead design and development adviser for Rivers Casino in Des Plaines; Johns has held high-ranking positions with Starbucks, Cosi and Jamba Juice, according to Laredo Hospitality Ventures' handout.
Public records obtained by the Tribune show that Pincus and his company, WorkPlay Ventures LLC, which owns more than a third of Laredo Hospitality Ventures, are named on liquor license applications for Stella's Place locations in a host of towns, including Bartlett, Fox Lake, Minooka and Chicago Ridge.
Whyte said Pincus' success in building games such as FarmVille and Zynga Poker has given him a wealth of data on who plays social games.
"I suspect he's taking a lot of that experience and using it in a bricks-and-mortar way," Whyte said. "I think it's incredibly significant. He's going to get women that were playing his online game for 15 minutes and 50 cents to go to his cafe and spend three hours and $150."
Officials from Blackhawk Restaurant Group LLC in Oakbrook Terrace have also obtained a liquor license in Bartlett for Betty's Bistro.
The owners include the owners of the Elmer's Restaurants chain in Oregon, which features video gambling as well, said sports finance and administration specialist Michael Thiessen, who teaches at Northwestern University.
Blackhawk Restaurant Group has nearly 40 cafes, mostly in the Chicago region, awaiting approval to operate video gambling machines at Betty's Bistros and at three other cafe concepts — Jena's Eatery, Emma's Eatery and Penny's Place, records show. Thiessen said Blackhawk Restaurant Group is "a restaurant company first and foremost" but offers video gambling machines as an amenity.
Officials for Lucy's Place and Dotty's say they appeal heavily to women, the bulk of their customer base, but dispute specifically targeting women.
"I don't know that we target anyone," said Dan Fischer, CEO of Dotty's, which has more than 150 locations in Oregon and Nevada. He currently has 20 locations ready to open in the Chicago area once he receives approval from the Illinois Gaming Board. He said he would like to open 150 locations throughout the area.
Fischer said that 70 to 80 percent of his customers are women over the age of 35, a selling point for the company when he approaches local governments.
"I always like to tell folks that we're a great business because we have an adult customer that isn't focused on alcohol and likes gaming versus a traditional bar," he said. "We are relatively problem-free for a local police department."
'Not her thing'
Attorney Matt Hortenstine is part owner of Lucy's Place LLC, along with Christopher Stone, Jim Reimer Jr. and several other partners. Stone and Reimer operate Government Consulting Solutions Inc., a Springfield lobbying firm that represents alcohol distribution giant Southern Wine and Spirits, power company Ameren and other major clients.
Stone said he and Reimer were hired to advocate for video gambling in Illinois before the legislation passed in 2009 but did not push for language that would open the door for these types of gambling sites. After the bill passed, they visited other states that have these types of businesses.
"We started doing some research," Stone said, "and we're just like, 'Wow.'"
The company's video gambling terminals have yielded nearly $1 million since the first store opened in Marion in April, Hortenstine said. Under the law, about one-third of the money goes to Lucy's Place. The rest is paid out in state and local taxes and fees to an unrelated company that operates the terminals and another that monitors the games.
Hortenstine said he is skeptical of any suggestion that businesses like his contribute to an increase in problem gambling.