The beauty of bowling is you don’t have to be a pro to throw a few games and have some fun. Bowling also packs a lot of value into one activity, it’s interactive, gets you moving and is still relatively affordable. Adding to its widespread appeal: you don’t even have to leave the building for food and drinks. “Leagues now are made up of a lot more people who care more about having fun and less about their score,” said John Miller, owner of a Bevinco franchise, who has provided beverage inventory-management systems to bowling centers in the St. Louis, Mo., area, for nine years. “A bowling center is no different from bars and restaurants,” said Miller, whose father managed a bowling alley, “where people are asking for more specialty drinks.” At every bowling alley there are serious league bowlers, people on dates, families, friends, and party guests that all want to eat, drink and be merry. And bowling centers across the country are stepping up their game to maintain their entertainment market share, some even crossing over into nightclub and gastropub territory.
Keeping it Real
Tweaking the menu for the summer is the plan, said Terry Saracino, general manager of Ely Enterprises/Pinstreet Entertainment Centers, based in Sparta, N.J., though she’s always ready for surprises.
“Even though the patrons ask for healthy fare, they continue to order a large amount of the fried foods we offer and pass up the healthy fare we have tried to carry,” said Saracino, who runs five centers (three in New Jersey, one in New York and one in Florida), with food and beverage sales and profits of approximately 30 percent.
She speculates fried foods rule because most patrons order food to eat at the lanes while they’re playing and view snack food as easier to handle in that situation. So the best-selling menu items at most centers, she said, are French fries, mozzarella sticks, chicken tenders and burgers.
In the beverage world, she said, domestic beers, both regular and light, reign, though craft beers are rapidly growing. And the centers with fewer league bowlers and seniors have stronger sales of mixed drinks and shots, with Rumple Minze, Jäegermeister and BlackHaus fueling it.
Saracino recently updated the bar in one center that has a larger area “in the hopes to attract outside patrons.” Beyond the menu changes for summer, the overall plan is to update aging equipment, revamp some signage, train food and beverage staff to up-sell better and test out some new promotions.
Currently, all the centers offer bowling-food packages during slower times and a few centers have discounted pints and half-price hot dogs on certain nights.
“We are hoping to test Flip-Night at several of our centers soon,” she said. On Flip-Night, a patron will flip a coin to see how much he or she will pay for one drink or more. She plans to tailor Flip-Night to each market and run it on different days with different products.
Keeping it real and knowing what works where is what Saracino is about.
Tapping into Everyone’s Inner Bowler
Knowing what people want from their bowling experience is Joe Scarnaty’s goal. Scarnaty, vice president of food and beverage for AMF Bowling Centers, based in Mechanicsville, Va., channels that collective bowling experience and puts it on the menu at its 300 bowling centers nationwide. And with food and beverage representing about a third of AMF’s revenue, according to Scarnaty, keeping things interesting for guests while delivering on their bowling expectations is priority number one.
“I think that customers have a notion of what a great night of bowling means to them, and the traditional answer to that craving is usually pizza and draft beer,” said Scarnaty. “You can, therefore, imagine that these items have to be all about quality. So we pride ourselves on our pizza, made to order, and an excellent selection of ice cold beer.” For the most part, he said, AMF’s “traditional” centers have snack bars and lounges and all 300 have full-service “restaurant” operations with wait staff and bartenders. And upgrading the menu, from raw ingredients to plated presentation, is an ongoing process.
“We are constantly looking at new equipment that will improve execution consistency and finished product quality,” said Scarnaty. “Each year we analyze our menu mix (both food and beverage offerings) and determine which items should be replaced.” Scarnaty also listens to guests’ comments for product improvements or menu additions. And, over the past several years, AMF has worked with KOR Food Innovation, a food-service agency based in Ashland, Va., to help with everything from food photography to food and beverage materials and multimedia as well as developing new menu items and promotions. To up-sell, lane servers are encouraged to make suggestions during limited-time offers, which AMF runs about four to six times a year. A contest also rewards servers for suggestive selling, he said.
“The [limited-time offer] program focuses on our top menu sellers and gives us a platform to introduce new items, keeping offerings fresh and interesting,” said Scarnaty. “No news is never good news in the restaurant business.”
Raising the Bar with Luxury
Nightlife and gaming are key at Foxwoods Resort Casino in Mashantucket, Conn., so it makes sense that High Rollers Luxury Lanes and Lounge has the martinis, appetizers and décor that people expect from an upscale nightclub. This is a bowling alley with chandeliers, marble finishes, French Champagne and a grand piano. And when resort guests want a break from the casino, they can roll with it at 20 regulation bowling lanes, six of which are VIP lanes. “Seventy percent of our revenue comes from food and alcohol sales, with 30 percent coming from bowling, shuffleboard, billiards and video games,” said Randy Greenstein, partner in Boston, Mass.-based Big Night Entertainment Group, which opened High Rollers in September 2010.
“Each lane is set up as a mini living room, allowing guests to eat from a large cocktail table in front of their lanes,” he said. Plus there is full menu of appetizers, salads and shared plates. The bestsellers are the house-made Philly cheese-steak rolls, Buffalo chicken Rangoons and pizza. Greenstein said the martinis are the cocktails of choice at High Rollers and the watermelon martini is the most popular. On tap, there are more than 12 beers, six of which are craft beers.
Having a server on every lane helps up-sell food and beverages. “It is rare that a guest would not order something when a server comes over to assist them,” he noted. “We also sell lane-side packages: in order to reserve a lane, you need to reserve a package with food and beverage.”
Like most bars, High Rollers has something going on nightly, including happy hour on weekdays and ladies’ night on Thursdays. The bowling nightclub also combines all-you-can-bowl with half-priced pizza on Wednesdays. And craft-draft night brings them out on Sundays.
Destination Bowling Alley, and Then Some
Bowling centers are not just for bowling anymore. With karaoke nights, live bands and an outdoor dining area overlooking Monterey Bay, Boardwalk Bowl is a destination for locals, league bowlers and visitors alike. And food and beverage accounts for more than half if its profits, said Willie King, director of the Santa Cruz, Calif., bowling center. And the biggest profit driver is Coasters, its lounge.
Back in 2001, the bar was expanded and a performance area was added with the goal of increasing the bar business and streamlining the food operations. And, said King, “it’s worked. We have one of the top bars in all Northern California bowling centers.” Then, five years ago, the outdoor patio was added in order to grow the restaurant business in the summer. “There’s nothing like eating outside on a warm summer day with a view of Monterey Bay,” he said. Though everything on the menu sells well, from pizza and sandwiches to salads, it’s the cheeseburgers that top the list. “There’s really nothing like the great American cheeseburger,” King said.
Draft beer is the drink of choice at Boardwalk Bowl. Eight are on tap and Newcastle Ale leads the pack. “Recently, we put on Shock Top, and that beer has shown huge growth,” said King. “It’s no wonder: it’s a great-tasting beer, and, with a nice orange slice, makes for a terrific presentation, too. I wouldn’t be surprised if Shock Top becomes our bestseller in a year.”
King takes a low-key approach to promotions, choosing instead to focus on the quality and experience the venue offers bowlers and non-bowlers alike. “We don’t bother to up-sell. Everything moves, especially our premium brands,” he said. “We don’t believe in having 107 tequilas, but having five or six good ones, prominently displayed on the back bar, we believe helps move the product. Patron is easily our bestselling tequila.”
The bar and restaurant keep things traditional with a daily special, a beer of the month, happy hour with food specials. “The biggest promotion we offer is giving our patrons something to do while they are at the bar,” he said. “We have karaoke five nights a week, and on Fridays and some Saturdays, we’ll feature live music. Daytimes you can find a game or two on the televisions. We believe in being a destination.”
Attracting the Locals and Resort Guests
More of a gastropub with a sports-bar vibe than a traditional bowling center, Daly’s Pub and Rec Room offers four lanes of regulation bowling as well as a menu heavy on locally sourced ingredients, gentrified pub fare and local brews.
Just opened in December 2010 at the Montage Deer Valley ski resort in Park City, Utah, Daly’s already has garnered a local following, though resort guests are its primary target.
“It’s a great amenity for the hotel, with games for families,” said Tim Flowers, vice president of food and beverage for the resort. “It’s something for guests to do after they get off the slopes. And they don’t have to leave the property and go into town.”
Right now, Flowers said that food and beverage sales at Daly’s are split about 70 percent food and 30 percent beer, wine and spirits. Guests have to pay to bowl, though they can play foosball, Wii, darts, billiards and shuffleboard for free. The pub also has retro video games, such as Donkey Kong, Ms. Pac-Man, Centipede and Frogger, which cost a quarter to play.
There’s a dedicated server for the bowling lanes and the open kitchen with a brick oven for pizzas helps keep the food on guests’ minds.
Flowers worked with the brewmaster at Wasatch Brewery in Park City to develop Montage Mountain Ale for Daly’s, which is only served at the resort and is its bestselling draft.
The beverage menu lists only the beer (10 to 12 local or regional brews), wine (10 wines by the glass and 50 bottles under $100) and Daly’s signature drink—its pub cocktail, a mixture of Captain Morgan’s, pomegranate and fresh citrus served in a pewter julep cup. With the smell of pizzas fresh from the brick oven, it’s not surprising that pizza rules here. Not to mention, its quality—dough made in-house, local mozzarella and a chef from Brooklyn, N.Y. “Everything is made from scratch, even the French fries,” said Flowers of the menu.
As far as promotions go, Daly’s, being in Utah and subject to state laws, can’t offer happy hour. Flowers is banking on the approachability of the pub, even though it’s at a luxury resort, as well as the quality of the food and service. He also relies on servers to make suggestions of apps to share, or desserts, like its homemade ice cream and root beer floats, to order as snacks or after a meal.
Then there’s the whole novelty of Daly’s to factor in. “There are not too many ski resorts with bowling at 8,300 feet,” Flowers said. –