Where the Menu Fits the Mood
November 1, 2012
Bowling Centers Offer Fun with Food
Bowling centers around the nation are no longer offering snack bars as pure amenities. They are using them to draw business by adding creative items or expanding them into full-service restaurants in the hopes of attracting more customers, even those that might not want to bowl.
The simplest way to increase sales and draw new business is to update the menu frequently while never forgetting popular staples patrons desire.
Wraps seem to be the latest trend. The sometimes-healthy alternatives to fried foods and burgers are popping up on bowling center menus around the country.
“Wraps are the craze right now,” says Karen Kleber, assistant manager at East Windsor Bowling and Recreation Center in East Windsor, N.J., a middle-class neighborhood full of families. “The chicken Caesar and buffalo chicken wraps are really popular, but we also offer a veggie wrap because there is a big Middle Eastern following here.”
Dick Lee, manager of Almanor Bowling Center & Golf in Chester, Calif., agreed: “We recently put a spinach wrap on our menu, and it does absolutely great,” he said of the center, which is situated in a resort area where a small community of mostly affluent people live and many more wealthy people travel to. “We like to keep things seasonal, so we recently added a teriyaki salad. We try to keep things fresh and simple that don’t require a lot of cooking but are items that people really enjoy. We get a lot of locals, and many come here right after work, so our goal is to be able to serve them quickly but offer good, light food that they can eat before they start bowling.”
The Playdrome Bowling and Entertainment Center in Cherry Hill, N.J., offers a full-service café and catering facility that is always adding new items to the menu. Recent additions include offering a pre-made, frozen funnel cake that is made in a steam convection oven and “comes out perfect,” said Events Director Maggie Parker; cheesesteak egg rolls; quesadillas such as chicken, cheese and bacon ranch, and the newest – a cheeseburger quesadilla.
“You have to broaden the horizons as to what people would expect from a bowling center,” said Parker, whose bowling center is in a middle-class to affluent area with a large Jewish clientele. “So another thing we are doing is offering team-size trays of fun, like super-sizing. So we have three different choices of trays with four appetizers for a big combo tray of food that is great for families or tweens hanging out looking for finger food.”
Old reliable appetizers remain staples that most bowling center managers would never consider taking off their menus: fried ravioli, mozzarella sticks and chicken fingers.
“But you can keep adding things there, too, to make it interesting,” Kleber said. “We have macaroni and cheese bites that are really popular, and we also have little bite-sized corn fritters that are very good.”
Lee said you also have to experiment with the staples.
“We have the best burgers in town,” Lee said. “But we also started making sliders, which are a big hit with the younger kids who don’t want a big hamburger, but they like two smaller ones. And then we also have party trays with fried food so five or six people can buy one, have a drink and be happy.”
Many bowling centers are trying to become much more than bowling centers by offering miniature golf courses, arcades and expanding snack bars into restaurants.
East Windsor, for example, is currently changing its snack/bar restaurant into a Ground Round, a national food chain specializing in American comfort food.
“We have a very nice-sized restaurant here and it probably wasn’t being used to its capacity,” Kleber said. “So I think that’s probably the reason the owners are going for a chain. The name Ground Round will certainly draw people here who just want a great dinner, but hopefully when they step in here, they will also bowl. The owners are changing all of their centers’ restaurants into Ground Rounds because they think that will make us stronger.”
DiDonato’s Family Fun Center in Hammonton, N.J., recently completed a huge conversion to include a full-service restaurant, bar and grill with six 60-inch flat-screen TVs. Instead of concentrating on typical bowling center food, Owner Steve DiDonato and his staff are tapping into his neighborhood’s mostly middle to upper-class Italian heritage by offering fresh, Italian cuisine as well as some other interesting items.
“We’re doing a menu with all homemade stuff such as broccoli rabe and pork sandwiches with provolone; calamari with Asian flavors; flatbreads and pizzas; fresh 8-ounce burgers; steak sandwiches; firecracker cheesesteaks with long hots,” DiDonato said. “These are menu items you won’t find in any bowling center around us or maybe anywhere. Of course, we still have things like mozzarella sticks, hot wings and tenders, but we are concentrating on a restaurant here that people would come to whether there was bowling attached to it or not.”
Changing to a chain or expanding into a full restaurant includes keeping that menu fresh, as well.
“We already have some people, especially seniors, asking us about specific items they know from the Ground Round menu and they want to know if we will have them here, too, which we will,” Kleber said. “I think the menu is a perfect fit for our demographic.”
“We will change our menu quarterly,” DiDonato added.
Parker said bowling centers can’t just live off bowling anymore.
“We always hear, ‘This ain’t bowling alley food,’ ” Parker said. “It’s about a whole experience. You don’t just go bowling; you go for a complete experience. And we offer restaurant-quality food. You come here just as much to eat as you do bowl. You have to be like a themed restaurant. We pride ourselves on offering great food. And that means upgrading the menu every six months to try and add new things. We also offer chalkboard specials to allow customers to experience something and then we can see if we want to add it to the menu permanently. Right now, for example, we have a fried chicken basket. And then for Lent during Easter season, we try to offer lots of seafood and be compassionate toward their needs.”
Beale Lanes, located at Beale Air Force Base in California, does extremely well with specials and themed nights. For example, it’s BBQ night on Thursdays, where $8 nets patrons ribs, steak, chicken, Polish sausage and two sides. Other specialty nights include spaghetti, taco salad and Philly cheesesteaks.
“We go after a bit of everyone, and our specialty nights help us do that even more,” said Marie Sullivan, food and beverage operations manager. “Our chef will use vegetables from the area, where there are a lot of local farms and orchards. And we even have a salad bar.”
With 60 years in business, DiDonato’s has certainly changed and adapted to the trends, offering a 9-hole mini golf course and a trackless train ride.
“The business has changed,” he said. “You used to have a bowling center with a little lounge and snack bar and you could make a nice living. Now, they want to come in and have dinner and maybe bowl a game. They want to make it an evening destination. They don’t want to jump around from place to place.”
Selecting the right items for bowling center menus can be tricky, since the sport draws such a large demographic, including children, teens, adults and seniors.
“You really have to cater to all of the above,” Parker said. “It literally comes down to the time of day. In the morning, you see the ladies; in the afternoon it’s the seniors and after-school kids; then there’s leagues; then there’s late-night bowlers. It can be difficult to diversify the menu, but you have to. So you take a piece of chicken and say, ‘How many ways can I prepare this to please the healthy eater, the not-so-healthy eater, ladies, men, seniors, children.’ …So we try to do that well. We have 10 different ways you can eat that piece of chicken, in a salad, on pizza, in a quesadilla; we have six types of wraps, 13 different types of burgers.”
“You have to please people from 4 to 84,” DiDonato added. “The younger ones want to play golf and bowl and maybe the adults want to have dinner while the kids do their thing. It’s an evening where people can come here and go their separate ways if they want and they can all be happy.” -