Bowling lanes try upscale approach

Monday, June 6, 2005

ST. LOUIS -- From brightly hued bowling balls to champagne cocktails and scores displayed on plasma TVs, hip new bowling alleys have popped up around the nation in recent years, providing patrons with remarkably upscale spots to roll a few frames.

The venues typically combine a lounge-like atmosphere with an unconventional twist on food and drink. Think Pop Rocks-rimmed martinis rather than a pitcher of draft beer.

They have come to be known as boutique bowling alleys. While they've sprung up from Miami to Chicago, the St. Louis area has welcomed at least three in roughly the past year and a half -- Pin-Up Bowl, Moolah Lanes and Lucky Strike Lanes.

Boutique bowling alleys are usually small, though they don't have to be, and have offbeat features and atmosphere.

"It's taking off because restaurateurs and entrepreneurs are realizing that bowling is a great hook," said Scott Frager, editor and publisher of International Bowling Industry magazine based in Westlake Village, Calif.

While traditional bowling centers still draw dedicated patrons, boutique alleys are aimed at a "casual, young, partygoing demographic," Frager said.

At Pin-Up Bowl in the St. Louis suburb University City, original and new pinups of both women and men share wall space, commissioned by owner Joe Edwards to reflect more diversity than just the classic, sexy female designs. Edwards said he didn't know of similar bowling alleys when he developed his place.

But Pin-Up has become an area hot spot, where rap star Nelly held the high score for months. Among the fare, bowlers can order Campbell's soup, Pop Tarts and unusual drinks, like key lime pie martinis.

Another upscale alley, the Moolah Lanes, opened in January inside the renovated Moolah Temple near St. Louis University, originally built as a home for the Shriners in 1913. The building now holds loft living spaces, a large, single-screen movie theater and the eight-lane bowling alley, with a grill, a bar and digital jukebox. Leather booths and club chairs provide bowlers with a spot to sit, rather than the plastic or molded fiberglass seating many associate with bowling alleys.

"There is a niche, if you're dressed for dinner, to go out somewhere upscale, that's not just a bar," said Moolah Lanes owner Jim Barton.

Lucky Strike just opened at the St. Louis Mills Mall this week in suburban Hazelwood. It's the Hollywood, Calif.-based chain's seventh location with five more U.S. sites in the works.

The notion was to "take all the reasons why people don't go to bowling centers anymore and eliminate those reasons," said Bill Scheidhauer, chief operating officer for Lucky Strike Entertainment, Inc.

Lucky Strike has walls painted drumbeat red, artwork displayed on video screens and a restaurant that serves up offerings like tomato and cheese s'mores.

Bowlers can't get a pitcher of beer there, but they can order a $9 Pop Rocks-rimmed martini. And they have to adhere to a dress code that forbids athletic wear, excessively baggy clothing, even "exposed intimate apparel."

"We're targeting more of a social bowler as opposed to a serious league bowler," Scheidhauer said.

During the day, for instance, families are welcome, but at 9 p.m. the 20 lanes become off limits to the under-21 crowd.

Frager said boutique bowling alleys appeal to entrepreneurs for several reasons: they typically need less square footage for the actual bowling areas; they allow a business to differentiate itself from other restaurants and bars; and they draw customers willing to pay a premium to be in a place more comfortable to them.

Bowlers who like the stylish surroundings should be aware they might spend more money per game in lane rental costs, and upscale drinks come with an upscale price.

In Chicago, 10pin Bowling Lounge has been open for about a year, run by the HC Restaurant Group. It offers two types of bowling shoes, both traditional and "cool" shoes that rent for a dollar more.

The food at 10pin includes mini cheeseburgers with carmelized onions and chocolate chip cookies -- that come accompanied with a shot glass of milk.

HC's president, Grant DePorter, said the spot isn't aimed at bowlers seeking the traditional environment. "If someone's interested in that type of bowling, we're not the place for them. There's a niche for everything. You don't want to be all things to all people."

On the Net

International Bowling Industry magazine: www.bowlingindustry.com/

Lucky Strike Entertainment: www.bowlluckystrike.com

Pin Up Bowl: www.pinupbowl.com

10pin: www.10pinchicago.com

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