The newly renovated Bowlero Mar Vista and the prospect of change at Westchester’s El Dorado Lanes usher in a new era for bowling, but is it a game up everyone’s alley?
By Rebecca Kuzins
Under the theme of a 1950s-era road trip from L.A. to Baja, Bowlmor AMF reopens the former Mar Vista Lanes on Venice Boulevard today as Bowlero Mar Vista — a retro-modern facility with fine dining and cocktails, classic arcade games like Pac-Man and Donkey Kong, billiards tables and 28 lanes of state-of-the-art black-light bowling.
The 54-year-old alley’s dramatic facelift underscores the efforts that Bowlmor, which took over three Westside bowling alleys after the bankruptcy of former corporate parent AMF, is undertaking to make America’s classic indoor sport relevant — and profitable — in the 21st century.
“Our goal is to elevate the bowling experience; to make it more modern, relevant and fully engaging for all our guests,” said Bowlmor CEO Tom Shannon. “Incomparable service and outstanding design are just two of the core values that inspire our efforts to transform entertainment, and there’s no better illustration of that mission than Bowlero Mar Vista.”
Not everyone is on board, however — especially the hundreds of Mar Vista locals who demonstrated against the remodel last May due to the corresponding eviction of Pepy’s Galley, a beloved neighborhood diner that leased space inside the alley for 44 years.
Now the company is again drawing criticism on the 5,300-member “Save Pepy’s Galley” Facebook page after word spread that similar renovations would come this summer to El Dorado Lanes in Westchester, which Bowlmor also owns. This time, it’s KJ’s Diner & Restaurant that is believed to be in jeopardy.
Shannon confirmed that the Lincoln Boulevard alley will be remodeled, but countered Facebook reports that KJ’s was ordered out by saying no one on the property had been evicted.
“AMF is proud to be a part of the Westchester community. In order to continue to provide a place for local residents to bowl and enjoy time with friends and family, we will be renovating our facilities in the future in order to enhance the bowling experience,” he wrote in an e-mail last week. “At this time, renovation plans are not confirmed and we have no timeline for when such changes might be made. In addition, no eviction notices have been issued to any businesses on the property.”
KJ’s owner Marcel Handoyo referred questions to attorney Kevin Lipeles. The El Segundo-based lawyer confirmed that he had been hired by Handoyo and KJ’s but said he could not provide further details “because this litigation is in its infancy.”
In addition to the black-light lanes, trendy vintage-style furniture, brand-new digital video screens, upgraded audiovisual system and a deejay booth, changes in food service and bringing culinary operations in-house is intrinsic to the Bowlero Mar Vista concept.
An in-house executive chef will prepare what Bowlmor describes as “inventive culinary creations and signature cocktails,” with waiters bringing these items to bowlers while they are playing instead
of bowlers placing orders with a tenant restaurant.
Located on Pico Boulevard across the street from the mothballed Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, Bowlmor Santa Monica — the first of its three alleys to undergo a conversion to the Bowlmor concept —now also offers lane-side food service and a retro-modern theme.
There’s plush lane-side seating, black lighting, a fully renovated bar, a state-of-the-art scoring system, and a new sound system that plays music while players bowl. Some of the screens display a light show reminiscent of 1960s rock clubs, while other screens show music videos. Bowlers play with glow-in-the dark balls in neon-glow colors of chartreuse, turquoise, orange and purple.
It’s a scene that’s quite all right with 24-year-old Tanner Grant, a former Mar Vista Lanes league bowler who on a recent evening was knocking down some pins with friends at Bowlmor Santa Monica.
Grant says he likes the “vibe” of the remodeled alley: “There’s good music, good friends, good drinks. You can’t complain.”
But complain Mar Vista did when Pepy’s was evicted, though Shannon maintained that renovating the timeworn facility to make for decades of neglect and bringing food operations in-house were necessary to make the location solvent.
“The entire infrastructure is old, dated, unreliable and uneconomic. I can think of no other business that has operated with success after 54 years of basic neglect. The facility does not earn enough to pay a market rent,” Shannon wrote in a letter distributed at Mar Vista Lanes during a rally against the eviction of Pepy’s Galley.
Bowlmor acquired the three Westside alleys from owner AMF when the two companies merged in 2013. AMF, the world’s largest bowling operator, had declared bankruptcy in 2012, and its merger made the newly named Bowlmor AMF the world’s largest operator with 272 bowling centers.
Bowling industry analysts maintain that renovations by Bowlmor and other companies are necessary to keep bowling out of the gutter.
The years between the end of World War II and 1958 were the golden years of the sport, with 2,000 new alleys built in the United States, according to Bloomberg Businessweek.
By the 1990s, however, bowling no longer was on a roll. In 2012, the United States had 4,061 bowling centers — a 25% drop since 1998, Bloomberg Businessweek reported. Bowlers had become typically older, blue-collar workers who belonged to leagues, with fewer occasional bowlers, families, young people or more upscale customers finding their way onto the lanes.
The Santa Monica bowling center was built in 1958 and Mar Vista in 1961. Bowlmor did not know the year El Dorado was built, but the facility’s architecture is vintage late-1950s or early-1960s.
To keep the game alive, bowling operators around the country began reimaging the sport, morphing the old bowling alleys into one-stop entertainment centers featuring billiards, laser tag, rock-climbing walls, go-karts and other activities. They brought in more sophisticated food and drink options as well as high-tech screens, sound systems and scoring systems.
Bowlmor’s Shannon was one of the early adapters in this upscale transformation. He purchased Bowlmor Lanes, located in New York City’s Greenwich Village, in 1997 and installed video screens, glow-in-the-dark lanes and lane-side food service. By 1999, Bowlmor Lanes was the highest-grossing bowling alley in the United States, according to the company, and Shannon began purchasing and revamping other bowling centers.
Industry analysts say recent renovations to bowling centers are reaching the intended market, bringing renewed interest in the sport among a greater range of customers.
In its overview of the bowling industry, Sandy Hansell & Associates, a Michigan-based bowling broker, concludes that “Bowling now ranks as the most popular participatory sport in America for those 18 and older,” adding that “the level of bowling’s participation clearly outranks golf, fishing, tennis, billiards, bicycling, roller and ice skating, jogging and hunting by wide margins.”
Hansell maintains the traditional blue-collar and lower- to middle-income image of bowlers is no longer accurate. Instead, “bowling is clearly moving upscale,” with consumers in households earning more than $100,000 a year the largest market for bowling centers.
While some longtime league bowlers may be uncomfortable in the new environment, many others are receptive to the experience.
Craig Savage has been bowling in a league at the Santa Monica bowling center for five years and also bowls at the El Dorado Lanes. He said the newly designed alleys have taken the game to a higher level.
“The upgrades such as the music, videos and lighting make it a lot more fun and enjoyable. You can have a nice bite to eat, as opposed to sticking with traditional bowling alley food like burgers, and the servers come to you, instead of having to order at the counter,” he said. “The new additions also make bowling more enjoyable because you no longer have to sit back down right after you bowl. You can get up, walk around and enjoy the environment. The bowling experience is better as a whole.”