Do they still make pinball machines? They do, in a huge new factory near Chicago -- with most selling to the 1%

Christopher Borrelli, Chicago Tribune on

Published in Lifestyles

CHICAGO — Due west of O’Hare International Airport, there is a neighborhood — formally, part of Elk Grove Village — that isn’t much of a neighborhood. It’s warehouses, drab gray offices. It’s Gertrude Stein’s point about “no there there,” a place so devoid of character, you long for a big-box logo. Companies here use “Solutions” in their names. Also, “Logistics” and “Global.” Everyone seems to be hiding something yet it’s nothing you’d actually care about.

Still, next time you’re in the neighborhood, glance over at 1001 Busse Road, a towering block of a building that’s so long and large, its slate facade meshes into the cement sky.

A company of 500 employees here makes one of Chicago’s greatest exports: pinball.

Seth Davis is planning to erect a great big sign out front soon — one that would announce this enormous building as the new headquarters of Stern Pinball, the leading pinball machine manufacturer in the world. Davis, president and CEO of Stern, with the upswept head of hair of an archetypal CEO and the lanky vibe of a Timothy Olyphant, also wants to put a huge pinball ball out front — a sort of playful, spherical kin to the Bean.

In fact, lately, there’s been so much pinball-centric activity coming and going from this single gigantic block of Elk Grove Village that you may need to stop and ask yourself:

They still make pinball machines?


They do, and Stern is not alone: There’s also Jersey Jack Pinball of Elk Grove Village, American Pinball of Palatine, Chicago Gaming Company of Cicero, as well as several others, in Wisconsin, Texas. But none as large as Stern these days. Stern, by several assessments, controls at least 75% of the pinball market now, internationally. It’s been so successful the past few years, the company has doubled its workforce since 2019 and sold enough new machines that they need to upgrade from a nearby Elk Grove Village factory of 100,000 square feet to this new one, with 160,000 square feet.

There’s cultural continuity to this.

“Yes, there’s a renaissance, or maybe a resurrection,” said Roger Sharpe, an author, pinball historian and former Stern designer in Arlington Heights, often credited with saving the game in the 1970s from censorious civic leaders. “But none of that is a surprise; it’s not the first time that people assumed pinball was over and done with.”

Pinball arrived in the world through a small, competitive network of North Side factories; it grew here in the 1940s and mostly died here by the 1980s with the advent of video games. Twenty-five years ago, the only pinball maker left was Stern, and for decades, its factory floor stayed busy in fits and starts, shutting only during the pandemic. The irony was, the pandemic pushed the business in the direction it was headed: With few arcades left and fewer bars making room for pinball, 70% of machines today are sold directly for players’ homes (and at least 30% of Stern machines are exported internationally). The company is not publicly traded and doesn’t offer sales stats, though others in the industry say a successful game means a few thousand machines sold. It also means games costing between $7,000 and $12,000, tangible beasts full of animatronics, video and more intellectual property than Disney+. Davis himself came to Stern after a couple of years at Disney+.


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