In the struggle to stay alive and relevant, bowling alleys have had to up their game and become more of a family entertainment center. Danville’s Riverside Lanes is doing just that in recent years.
Kyle McKinney, manager and mechanic for the bowling business, said bowling alleys have been closing around the nation since the 1980s, but the successful ones have transitioned successfully by adding other attractions like arcades or laser tag.
Riverside Lanes decided to develop its snack bar into something more.
“We have tried to make it into more of a bar and grill,” McKinney said. “We have upped our craft beer game and ingredients, and that has become our identity. We want people to say, ‘I want to go to the bowling alley and eat.’ Or even to get to-go orders.”
He said a lot of craft beer drinkers come in regularly to drink but then 70 to 80% of them bowl.
“We try to offer local craft beers and right now have seven on tap made in Danville or Virginia, as well as 10 craft beers in cans from the East Coast,” he said. “We also have cider from Richmond and have been having cider and beer events every month.”
McKinney said their quesadillas are a really “hot” item and some people even say that they are the best in town.
“Our chicken wings are also popular, and we sell a lot of funnel cake fries,” he said. “We don’t buy a can of cheese for our nachos, but we actually make our own out of Velveeta cheese and salsa. We try to go a little better.”
Shirley Powell purchased Riverside Lanes around 2012, according to McKinney, and began to renovate the business.
“In 2012 we put in new synthetic lanes and electronic scoring systems,” he said. “The building is old and still has the same machines, though, but they are reliable and there are lots of used parts available to keep them working. New machines have lots of expensive parts.”
McKinney called bowling a “spontaneous activity” in which people see or hear about bowling and ask “When was the last time we went bowling?”
Then they go.
Riverside Lanes tells its story on Facebook, Instagram and on a website.
Decline of league bowlingSince the 1980s league bowling has declined, leaving bowling businesses scrambling to find new ways to bring bowlers in.
From 1998-2013, the number of bowling alleys in the U.S. fell to 3,976 from 5,400, or by about 26%, according to the 2015 USA Today article “Is bowling in its final frames or will it roll on?”
The article attributed several possible reasons to the decline of the popularity of bowling in the last few decades: a general decline in social activity and community engagement, a change in people’s tastes and a lack of time to commit to bowling and bowling leagues.
Regardless of the reasons, however, the article states that 67 million Americans bowled at least once in 2014.
McKinney said although competitive bowling has been shrinking for a long time, recreational bowling continues to grow.
“It used to be a sport, but now it’s a game,” he said. “People can entertain themselves so easily now on their phones. They don’t think about bowling until they see an ad or have a thought or a memory of bowling. We now have to become a thought in a person’s head because we are competing with more entertainment options.”
Even with league participation dropping off, Tuesdays and Thursdays still are league days at Riverside Lanes from Labor Day through spring break each year with 500 unique league bowlers, he said. Thousands more come in for open play.
“To replace league bowling, we have added parties, fundraisers, corporate parties, summer camps and daycare participation,” he said.
He estimates 100 special needs bowlers come in during the summers on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
“Then from Halloween through spring break, we have the Spares and Strikes special needs league from Stonewall Recreation on Wednesday afternoons, which is lots of fun,” he said. “A lot of them have their own balls, and they are serious. We have wheelchair ramps and ball ramps for them to use.”
Each day of the week offers its own specials.
McKinney believes bowling is in Danville to stay and doesn’t worry about Riverside Lanes closing because it’s a big enough “entertainment center” for Danville — a little too big for Danville’s population, in fact.
Bringing bowlers in
Since a lot of people come in to bowl after shopping or after a movie, McKinney misses K-Mart next door to bring customers in, but is excited at the possibility of a casino opening in Danville.
On a hot summer afternoon recently, Gwen Williams had brought in a group from her nonprofit organization, which promotes reading, to spend time bowling.
“I wanted to see if they would enjoy working as a team and cheering each other on,” she said. “It was our first time here and they loved it, loved it to life.”
It seems like bowling is here to stay, maybe not the bowling alleys of the 1950s and ’60s but a fun few hours with friends and family nevertheless.
Elzey is a freelance writer for the Register & Bee. She can be reached at email@example.com or (434) 791-7990.