Tony Nicklow started seeing people walk into his diner last week absorbed in their phones — and then walk out.
Not being technically savvy, Nicklow said it took him awhile to learn the Pokémon Go craze had reached his business. The mobile game made Tony's Diner in Dinkytown a place where players could stock up on "ammunition" to battle and capture its animated monsters.
Across the Twin Cities just as around much of the country, businesses have been unwittingly roped into the game, which has attracted millions of players by uniting a made-up world with the real one. Many businesses are trying to figure out how to capitalize on the phenomenon, only to be uncertain whether they can.
"It's bringing people into the restaurant," Nicklow said. But he added, "I don't know if a lot of people are actually coming in to eat or get anything."
After debuting two weeks ago, Pokémon Go has quickly become a business and cultural phenomenon. According to SurveyMonkey data, just under 26 million Americans were estimated to have played the game last Thursday on Android and Apple phones.
In the game, Pokéstops are set up outside local landmarks, typically historic buildings and parks, for players to pick up digital ammunition and other accessories for the game. And "gyms" are places where players can "battle" other players for points. One of them is outside the Black Dog Coffee and Wine Bar near 4th Street E. and N. Broadway Street in St. Paul.
"I've definitely noticed people outside playing Pokémon," Sara Remke, the shop's owner, said. But that action hasn't led to a direct increase in foot traffic or sales inside the shop.
Best Buy Co. — one of the nation's largest sellers of smartphones and video games — welcomed more than 60 players to its corporate headquarters in Richfield last week to hunt for Pokémon and visit its two Pokéstops and gym.
Shakopee racetrack Canterbury Park hosted a "Pokémon Happy Hour" on Friday night and earlier in the week offered free admission passes for future visits to some players.
The Mall of America, which has more than 25 Pokéstops and two gyms, has embraced its role as a Pokémon mecca with several shops offering Pokémon-related deals and the mall featuring a "trainer lounge" in its rotunda over the weekend complete with a live DJ and phone charging stations.
Edina-based Dairy Queen fought off a rumor, fed by a faked photo that circulated online, that Pokémon Go players weren't welcome at its restaurants. "We absolutely want to encourage all of the game players to come into our stores and to enjoy it," said Dean Peters, a Dairy Queen spokesman.
Advertising agency Space150 has recommended to several clients in different categories such as finance and grocery on how to jump on the Pokémon Go trend. The agency, whose North Loop office is sandwiched between Pokéstops, has purchased lures itself to attract players.
"This phenomenon is very important for the people who are walking around your establishment," said Greg Swan, vice president of social engagement.
Jorg Pierach, founder of marketing agency Fast Horse, said the game is teaching consumers and businesses the power of mixing digital experiences with the real world, a development that is being called "augmented reality."
"It signals a new era of viable augmented reality mobile experiences, where real life is overlaid with digital experiences," Pierach said via e-mail. "The Pokémon Go craze will inevitably die out, but I think interest in other augmented reality experiences is very much here to stay."
Pierach said some of his clients were also interested in news that the game's developer, San Francisco-based Niantic Inc., will add locations inside the game that can be sponsored by retailers and other companies.
Tom Gabriel, chief executive of Gabriel deGrood Bendt advertising agency, said that a social phenomenon can provide businesses an opportunity to experiment and get involved in a conversation with consumers. The agency, whose sign outside its offices at the Northstar Center in downtown Minneapolis is a Pokéstop, has touted its Pokémon connections on social media.
"Play along," Gabriel advised businesses. "You've got to figure out a way regardless of what business you are in. There are always ways to play along and be part of it."