Every year worldwide, over 100 million people participate in bowling. In the United States alone, nearly 70 percent of that 100 million participate. Bowling is unique due to its long tournaments that can last up to four months at a time due to the large number of teams in each tournament with more than 2,000 teams regularly competing in national events.
Bowling interest peaked as it reached the United States in the 80s due to the bright neon colors used in the alleys mixed with the most popular music of the day being blared over the loudspeaker. Teenagers and young adults contributed to the rise of bowling by making the local alley the place to hang out. Bowling alleys served pizza, hamburgers, fries, fountain soda, and more that were very popular with the crowd. Alleys also participated in “theme nights,” where groups of friends would flock to the alley together dressed in pop culture related costumes or their favorite team’s jersey.
Bowling also became popular in the 80s due to televised bowling tournaments. During one televised event, Pete Weber, now known as one of the most famous and successful bowlers of all time, bowled a perfect score of 300. While several more bowlers have hit that mark since Weber, the randomness and potential to bowl a 300 kept the sport’s popularity at an all-time high.
However, with the beginning of the 90s grunge movement, bowling’s popularity plateaued into a family-friendly pastime and became mainly associated with teenagers hanging out on the weekends or children’s birthday parties.
As a result, several alleys nationwide were forced to shut their doors due to high operating costs and making little to no profits.
As time went on, more alleys were shutting their doors, or only operating on the weekends. In 2020, the alleys that were still open were hit even harder than before.
Let the Good Times Bowl
With the recent pandemic, most bowling alleys were having to change course and readjust long-term ways of production to keep afloat due to restrictions in place set by the Center for Disease Control (CDC).
Luckily, some bowling alleys had been offering entertainment other than bowling for decades and were there for smaller alley operators to look up to when it came to reforming.
One such alley is so famous, Tom Cruise took a group of friends there for a night out on the town.
Rock N’ Bowl in the heart of downtown New Orleans served as the inspiration for many facilities today and is also credited as the birthplace of the niche style known as “boutique bowling”, which puts a unique twist on the game. This often is to attract an older crowd and acts as a “must-do” for an after-work company event, corporate retreats, adult birthday parties, and even weddings. These alleys often have live music, meet and greets, and 21 and over parties. This style of bowling is also beginning a new frenzy for the activity as more alleys pop up nationwide.
John Blancher who owns and manages the day-to-day operations in the alley said it was long battle to get to where they are. “When I acquired the alley in 1988, it was defunct. We were making $29 dollars per day and people who worked there were excited when we made that much. I knew from the moment I bought the alley that I needed to adapt it if I wanted to keep up with the times. The alley had no automatic scoring as it was all done by hand, there were only above ground ball returns, and there was simply no ‘wow factor.’”
However, some alley owners like Blancher had large ideas and great opportunities.
As soon as Blancher’s first day as Rock N’ Bowl’s owner went by and he saw the small profit margin before his eyes, he knew immediately what had to be done to take advantage of its “great potential.”
“I saw a large room that could be used for a catering hall to host parties, wedding receptions, office gatherings, and more. However, to make all of this happen, I knew I had to have a draw in, so we started making food in house and serving alcohol,” he recalls. “We were not only selling basic alley staples like hot dogs, fries, and popcorn, but we were selling steaks and wine as well. We had a saying back then that we were only selling the steaks and beverages, but that the bowling was the real sizzle. This actually started what is known today as boutique bowling.”
It was not long before the residents of New Orleans were smitten with Blancher’s new alley.
“Immediately, we had increased attention. We then started hiring a band to play every Friday night which acted as the start for the fun dancing mixed in with bowling atmosphere we have now. In fact, demand was so high that we had to start hiring a Saturday night band, then a Thursday night band, and then before we knew it, we had a band booked every day of the week it seemed.”
For the last 30 years, Rock N’ Bowl has been such a New Orleans staple that other alley owners turn to Blancher for advice.
The owner of the Brooklyn Bowl, Peter Shapiro, was a self-proclaimed music lover per Blancher. “He was down here for JazzFest some time ago and strolled into Rock N’ Bowl. We had a great conversation and he mentioned how he had just bought his own alley in the New York City suburb of Brooklyn. He wanted to use the name Rock N’ Bowl as well, but to separate it from the New Orleans facility we both agreed it should be named after what it actually was and thus the Brooklyn Bowl we all know and love today was born.”
Blancher also adds the two will recommend great bands to one another to have playing in their alleys.
Other famous alleys taking on this boutique bowling style are The Painted Pin in Atlanta, Ga., Tavern and Bowl across California and Arizona, and the retro-style chain of Bowlero alleys.
However, even though Rock N’ Bowl has been a New Orleans staple and is known as the founder of boutique bowling, Blancher says it does not come without a price tag.
“Like many other businesses during the recent pandemic we had to figure out a way to safely reopen once the time came. We had to cut down on our catering since it was in house which was a big part of our revenue,” he said. “During the 2020 fiscal year we lost over 90 percent of our catering revenue, which was a big blow, however, our bowling revenue was higher. We placed a hold on bowling parties and instead used the lanes to the best of our ability. We socially distanced each group to every other lane and went from there.”
As of October 2021, Blancher says Rock N’ Bowl is now starting to get back on track. “Since we can now safely socially distance and we can serve some food again, it is giving our customers an idea of normalcy that once was. I am excitedly looking forward to our future and already have new things planned for 2022!”