Bowling centers find ways to survive

A Thursday league competes at Butler Bowl. Bowling centers throughout northeast Indiana had to get creative to keep the doors open through the pandemic.

Just like every other business dealing with COVID-19, bowling centers were not immune to the many challenges related to the pandemic.

While bowling was shut down for several months, some centers that serve food saw increases with lunch business.

Centers in Auburn, Butler and Garrett were able to keep their doors open, and centers in Angola and Kendallville have fall leagues established or are making more lanes available for open bowling.

Bowling centers were able to reopen when Indiana’s Back on Track plan moved to Stage 4 in June.

Still, there wasn’t a clear category for bowling centers, which combine multiple functions into one, unlike a restaurant or bar.

“It hasn’t been easy. We were shut down for three months,” said Jeff Murphy of Garrett Bowl.

“Bowling alleys felt like we were in a gray area on we could do and what we couldn’t do,” Murphy said. “That’s because they mixed recreational and restaurant-type businesses in the same one. Those aren’t widespread.

“Bowling centers, being a bar, a restaurant and bowling, we were really hung out in a gray area. It was hard to get answers from the state, because they were so swamped with everything.”

“We lost pretty much 20 percent of our season, which is a large part of our revenue,” said Chris Toyias of Auburn Bowl. “We’re kind of a seasonal business. We only have about eight months of the year that we’re creating revenue.

“It was a huge hit for a small-town business,” he said. “We’ve dealt with it, we’ve followed the guidelines through the local health department, through the governor’s orders.”

“It’s been a real struggle,” said Brandon DePew of Butler Bowl. “We were probably in our prime, busiest time of the season this spring when the shutdowns initially came.

“At that time, there were a lot more questions than there were answers,” he said. “At the time, we were told we couldn’t have dine-in food or drink. We weren’t really told if we could have bowling right away, but the food and drinks going away pretty much kept us from having our leagues.

“We just postponed things temporarily, and then we realized we weren’t going to be able to open things up again right away, so we had to cancel about the last month of all of our leagues in the spring,” he said.

Butler and Garrett saw increases in their lunch meal traffic.

“We don’t have a very strong carryout business,” Toyias said of Auburn Bowl. “99.9% of our food is all dine-in. We’re usually closed during the summer in a normal year.”

“For the majority of the summer, we weren’t really allowed to have bowling, so we shifted our focus here to the food business,” DePew stated.

“We had already been open during lunch time hours the last couple of years, so that didn’t really change,” he said. “We had to focus 100% on outside customers instead of maybe 25% of outside food sales versus inside sales.

“From probably the beginning of April until the end of June, it was 100% restaurant,” he explained. “We had delivery, drive-through and pickup food.

“We worked pretty hard to try and increase that, and did a really good job with that,” DePew said.

The food business also picked up at Garrett Bowl, with increased carryout orders.

“We went to the sidewalk sign, the whole works, and that’s seemed to help out a lot,” Murphy said. “People didn’t know we did carryout. Opening for lunch was helpful too.”

Garrett Bowl took advantage of the shutdown to make some updates at the center. Murphy said manual bumpers from a closed bowling center in Bay City, Michigan, were installed on all 12 lanes at Garrett.

“At least we got something accomplished,” he said. The new bumpers replaced field tile formerly used and are now on every lane.

Bowling centers reopened June 12 when Indiana entered Stage 4. Auburn Bowl hosted a 10-team summer league and maintained one lane separation for social distancing. At Stage 4.5, Auburn Bowl initiated remote ordering for food and bar items. Butler Bowl held a small summer league, following capacity guidelines.

Cleaning and making customers feel safe has been a top priority.

While Auburn Bowl has gone “above and beyond the means of sanitizing and cleaning and making sure our tables were at a safe distance,” Toyias said, that comes with a cost for labor and supplies. The number of league bowlers is down from a normal year, with some choosing to hunker down to avoid contracting COVID.

“It’s tough, but we’re doing OK,” he said. “We’re running on a thin staff, but we’re still able to hold our leagues.”

“With our cleaning practices, we’ve had to change some things to make people feel a little bit more comfortable, or at least hope you do,” DePew said. “That’s been kind of a big change.”

Most league bowlers returned without reservation, he explained. Birthday parties are starting to trickle in.

“As we go, once football season winds down, that’s when open bowling picks up,” he said. “Until we get to that time, we won’t know how much that’s been affected.”

“People really missed bowling,” Murphy said. “I think a lot of it was there wasn’t really anything else to do yet.

“We’ve set up a regular schedule for cleaning,” he said. “At least every two hours, everything is scrubbed down, door handles, bathrooms, score tables, chairs, tables, the whole works. We’re all in the habit of it now of really scrubbing everything down.

“Business has been moderate to good,” he said. “There’s not a lot to do right now, so people are starved for something to do.

“Most of it is groups and families who use a couple of lanes together,” Murphy said. “It’s been an experience.”

At Garrett Bowl, bowlers are staggered with one lane separation when possible. All leagues are up and running, he said.

There have been positives through the pandemic.

“Our youth league is at a record number right now,” Murphy said. High school bowling participation also has increased.

Garrett Bowl also hosts a women’s league on Tuesdays, a mixed league on Wednesdays, and Sunday has an adult and youth league.

Butler hosts a mixed league on Tuesdays, a men’s league on Thursdays, youth bowling on Saturday mornings and church league Sundays. New this year is a mixed league every other Saturday afternoon.

10 Pinz center in Kendallville is in the process of opening four additional lanes for bowling. When completed, 12 lanes will be available.

Open bowling at 10 Pinz is available 4-9 p.m. Thursdays, 4-11 p.m. Fridays, 1-11 p.m. Saturdays and 1-8 p.m. Sundays. A co-ed league bowls Wednesdays, and Special Olympics bowls Sundays.

Angola Bowl hosts league bowlers with a mixed league on Mondays, Moose Lodge on Tuesdays, women’s leagues Wednesday and Thursday, men’s league on Fridays and youth league Saturday mornings.

“All in all, we’ve been able to maintain all of the directives from the local health department and the governor,” Toyias stated. “People can come in, have a good time and feel safe.

“We’re down in sales, just like every other retail business, but we’re maintaining and still serving up the good times that we always have.”

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