Insights on Bowling Food Service

Best Operating Tips from the Nation’s Centers

Food and beverages typically account for a full one-third of bowling center revenues. Regardless if they are snack bars and luncheonettes or full service restaurants and lounges, all bowling centers face the challenge of serving customers engaged in bowling across many lanes. From menu selection to service models, here is how some in the industry are making sure that they deliver what customers want.
“It really starts with the center manager and how involved they are in food and beverage operations,” said David Ely, corporate food and beverage director for Bowl New England based in Vermont. With 18 bowling centers, like Holiday Bowl in Groton, Conn., he directs food and beverage operations across a range of venues. He explained, “We go from one end of the spectrum to the other. We have centers that have truly small kitchens to one in Colchester, Vermont, that will do $1.2 million in F and B this year.”
According to Ely, “If you have a center manager who is completely focused on bowling and doesn’t look at any of the ancillary sources of revenue then you have basically turned your back on a third of your revenue. That’s a problem because day to day managers have to look at the entire operation.”
It requires paying attention to the fundamentals. As Craig Wilke, the manager at AMF Silver Lanes in East Hartford, Conn., said, “For me, the most important things are that you have to have a good menu, a good kitchen, and good customer service.”
It also means looking for ways to answer the questions of ‘How are we doing?’ and ‘What can we do better?’ As John Fatigati, the general manager at Jersey Lanes in Linden, N.J., noted, “Our snack bar is currently a walk up operation, but I am definitely looking at working out some kind of system for lane delivery. It’s a big problem for bowling centers like us, especially since we make everything to order. People don’t have time to wait in line or for their hamburger to be prepared.”
Setting yourself apart can also be part of the solution and help set patron expectations. “Our menu is casual dining,” said Ed Kinsley, owner of North Bowl in North Attleboro, Mass. But he explained, “We try to take the quality of the food we are serving up a notch from what people might expect from a bowling alley so that they are getting more what they might get at a Friday’s, Applebee’s, or someplace like that. We have items like an Angus steak burger and gourmet pizzas and both have been remarkably successful.”
Kinsley added, “People are not necessarily looking for the cheapest food they can get. They are expecting casual food and not things like prime rib or shrimp scampi. But they want something that’s quality and tastes good and is reasonably priced. I think that a lot of bowling centers make food as inexpensive as possible and believe that is the solution to a successful operation.”
How it’s served up also matters. Carol Doan, who manages the family-owned King Pin Lanes in Colorado Springs, Colo., said, “We have a snack bar, but we try our hardest to deliver to the lanes, especially during league times. Our menu is fairly stable, but we do try different things and run a weekly special.”
“During the busier times we have servers going out to the lanes to serve cocktails and food,” said Kinsley. “And during the slower times we do it as a quick-serve restaurant where you go and place your order and get a pager. Then you come back and pick up your food when it’s ready.”
While bowling centers provide great value for customers since they can eat and enjoy entertainment in a single venue, that very uniqueness requires an effective approach to make sure things go smoothly. Toward that end, how you serve is paramount.
“Employee training is very important,” said Ely. He added, “Especially when you evaluate who you are and how you ensure customer service. For instance, are you running a big center that you have servers in the lanes? Suppose you had 48 lanes then the customer in lane one may be literally 45 lanes away. Wouldn’t it be productive to have a server on during busy times to serve that customer rather than having them get up and walk all the way down and place an order and go all the way back? Then wait for the order and have to go back to pick it up.”
He further noted, “If you let customer service be your guide I think that impacts how you train and impacts the way you look at your customers. It gets a little tricky when you get into big operations when you speak with the managers we have who have a restaurant or a sports bar built into the complex as a separate, but linked venue because it impacts menus and kitchen layouts and service. Those who manage each need to be in concert and not just focus solely on food or bowling. In that 6 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. block where you have a league come in and you’ve got 36 lanes of five so that your 60-seat restaurant just grew by a function of three. Now it’s 180 seats. So there is that aspect of how you feed people.”
He cautioned, “There are also a myriad of laws out there, which goes back to training and who does what and how. In some states, for example, a bowler can’t walk up to the bar service window, order a beer and then take it back to his or her table because it has to be served.”
Demographic differences like socio-economic and age groups impacts what you offer and how you deliver it. As Ely added, “There is such a dichotomy between the small center and the big monster center that not only is it the physical plant, but as you move through regions different things are popular and sell. Hush puppies may be hot and sell in the South but not New England, for example. So, you have to factor that into the mix. Sometimes even the same menu in close proximity will not work because of these differences.”
For a stable and healthy bottom line, knowing who drives your business is essential to develop and implement ways to deliver what they want. Said Ely, “A league bowler, for instance, may commit from 31 to 33 weeks a year. That’s a big commitment. We are very aware of these customers and know they are one of the building blocks of our business. And, that customer has to be catered to and price point is typically a big deal because they are not only paying for their prize fund, but are very conscious of the price of a draught beer and food. We address this by giving season bowlers 20 percent off their food bill and that is a big number for us. But it does reward them for making that commitment to our center and being involved with our business, as opposed to a competitor.”
Finding the right balance and integrating the elements of what you offer, quality, price and service are key. This has to be tempered with careful evaluation of what your center is capable of delivering, a management that is dedicated to all parts of the business, smart staffing and scheduling to maximize service, and training at all levels to make sure it all works seamlessly.
A common misconception in the business is that the type of restaurant or snack bar you have determines the level of service. Not true. What is true is that it may determine the type of food and how you provide service but not the level. Management and staff need to strive for great customer service regardless of the type of food operations. Studies show that by far and away the number one reason you lose customers is not food quality or competition, but an attitude of indifference on the part of staff, especially order takers and servers. Accordingly, set expectations and standards and train your staff well. –

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