In April of 2010, financial advisor Paul Donato was giving a prospective client some guidance, or so he thought. The man sitting across the table from Mr. Donato had other ideas.
“I was cross-sold,” he recalls. “I thought I was sitting down with a guy to help him out with his finances ... and I went home to my wife that night and said, ‘Would you believe some guy tried to get me to invest in a bowling alley?’”
But the pitch paid off. Mr. Donato invested a month later, and in December of 2010 the 23,500-square-foot Ballroom Bowl opened on John Street in downtown Toronto, just off trendy Queen Street West.
Mr. Donato’s experience in finance gave him broad knowledge in risk exposure, and investing in a bowling alley at a time when many thought the game was on its way out was certainly a risk.
“But I looked into in and realized that it would be the only bowling alley in downtown Toronto at that time,” says Mr. Donato, who also owns a wealth management practice in Dundas, Ont. “So I hedged my bet on bowling making a comeback because, like the stock market, history repeats itself without fail ... and things come in and out of fashion.”
In perhaps the biggest risk mitigation strategy Mr. Donato undertook with The Ballroom Bowl, he ensured that bowling was not the only draw to the facility. Live music, craft beer, food that surpasses wieners on a stick, video screens showing sports and a rooftop patio were key. It was about creating an experience in a bowling alley.
“In the age of technology, people are hungry to interact face-to-face and we give them a place to do that in a unique setting,” he says.
Mr. Donato, who had partners initially but now is the sole owner, is not the only one who has come to this conclusion. Others have reimagined bowling alleys all over North America, too.
Once a place where professionals and league bowlers ruled the lanes, today’s bowlers are often in it for the entertainment and social value of the game, not its competitive side. This has pushed bowling alleys to reinvent themselves to accommodate the drastic clientele change. For boutique bowling alley owners, bowling is part of the entertainment, but it’s not the only game.
The trend began with the decline in bowling league membership and the resulting drop in the number of alleys in North America. In 1998, The United States Bowling Congress reported it had roughly 3.9 million league-sanctioned bowlers throughout the United States but just 1.4 million by 2018. In Canada, there were 845 bowling alleys in 1998 but 20 years later there are 476, according to Statistics Canada.
“That’s why bowling had to reinvent itself because before [the decline] you could open your doors and you could get by with an ugly bowling alley because league bowlers don’t care about aesthetics,” explains Bill Snoberger, national sales manager for US Bowling Corp., which renovates and retrofits bowling alleys throughout the United States and Canada. “They’re there to bowl their three games, and maybe drink a beer, and leave.”
Now the crowds frequenting the bowling lanes on a Saturday night are often younger and trendier, with a taste for local craft beer and vintage vibes. “But they want old-timey old, not stains-on-the-carpet old,” adds Mr. Snoberger.
Highland Park Bowl in Los Angeles was one of the renovation projects in which Mr. Snoberger was involved, and it oozes the charm and history that attracts the du jour bowling crowd.
Built in 1927, Highland Park’s 13,000-square-foot space is the oldest bowling alley in the city. But, for a time, this alley had another life entirely. In the 1980s when bowling fell out of favour, the eight lanes were covered up by a stage and "turned into a punk rock club,” explains Dimitri Komarov, co-owner of 1933 Group, proprietors of Highland Park Bowl.
In 2016, following an extensive US$1.5-million renovation, Highland Park reclaimed its bowling birthright with much of its Prohibition-era charm restored, including an elaborate bow-truss ceiling, skylights and a massive 1930s mural rediscovered along the interior brick wall.
“Once we peeled back the layers, we found that most of the place was preserved as a time warp,” says Mr. Komarov. “We were really fortunate that the majority of the lanes were mostly intact, same with the vintage ball returns.”
Market research and a keen eye on the neighbourhood told Mr. Komarov and his partners that a bowling alley would work as long as they didn’t design the space for the bowlers of the past. Like at other boutique bowling alleys, bowling is an element of the space but not the whole purpose.
“Our idea is that bowling is just an addition to the things that we’re offering in the space,” says Mr. Komarov. “First and foremost we’re bar operators.”
The idea of bar first, bowling alley second was also the evolutionary track of National on 10th in Calgary. It opened eight bowling lanes in its preexisting restaurant and entertainment venue five years ago.
Owned by hospitality company Concorde Group, the bowling alley and lounge take up about 8,500 square feet of the venue’s 23,000 square feet.
“We really wanted to get out of the nightclub business and we had this massive basement at the National that we weren’t using for anything but storage,” says Brad Morrison, chief operating officer at Concorde Group.
“We decided to take a bit of a gamble and open an eight-lane and lounge in the basement of the National, and it’s taken off.”
If it weren’t for this evolution in bowling, Trevor Stride may never have gone into the family businesses. He was living in Vancouver when the time came to decide whether he would take over Plaza Bowling Co. in Edmonton.
“[The business] wasn’t as strong as it had been in the past, so there was more risk involved and we had to be confident that we could reimagine the space,” explains Mr. Stride, who is now the third-generation owner of the bowling alley.
His time in Vancouver had propelled his love of craft beer and he thought small-batch suds could be the way to get people in the door, so he made a plan to take over and revamp the back-end of Plaza Bowling Co. Live music is occasionally offered and gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches are also on the menu.
“Everything is original from ‘59 and was so well kept by my Dad. He had resisted that global trend to renovate in the ’80s and ’90s, so we already had that retro feel,” says Mr. Stride.
More than 18 months after taking over the family operation, “Business has totally blown us away,” he adds.