Orange County Register
Oct. 25, 2015
Updated Oct. 26, 2015 4:51 p.m.
By BROOKE EDWARDS STAGGS / STAFF WRITER
Kristin Pajares was working the snack bar at Tustin Lanes bowling alley in 1984 when 17-year-old Anthony Nitz walked in.
Nitz spied the beautiful girl handing french fries to a customer and became mesmerized. After a week of daily visits, he worked up the
nerve to slide a napkin with his phone number across the snack bar. Thinking it was trash, 18-year-old Pajares started to throw the napkin away until Nitz lunged to stop her.
“We spent the majority of the next year and a half at Tustin Lanes, whether it was working for me, bowling, eating or playing video games,” she recalls.
Nitz proposed at a nearby bus stop. The couple will soon celebrate their 30th wedding anniversary.
Theirs is a courting ritual that has played out countless times over slick lanes and cheap plates of fries in bowling alleys across the country. Unfortunately, so has the next part of the story.
After 38 years in business, Tustin Lanes closed its doors this month. It will be replaced by an Orchard Supply Hardware store. The bowling alley is the latest victim in an industry that’s been shrinking by an average of 4 percent to 5 percent every year for almost as long as the Nitzes have been married.
In 1990, Orange County had 27 bowling alleys. Today, there are 15 left.
Nationwide, there are less than half as many bowling alleys today as when league play peaked in the late 1970s and early ’80s, said Tom Martino, president of the Bowling Proprietors’ Association of America.
The remaining Orange County locations are split.
There are bowling alleys built from 1958 to 1990 that cling to their blue collar origins. Forest Lanes in Lake Forest still plays host to statewide tournaments, and Fountain Bowl in Fountain Valley pays homage to the cult classic film “The Big Lebowski” with its annual Lebowksi Fest.
Then there are chain-owned spots that have sprung up in shopping centers since 2003, with Orange’s Lucky Strike and Tustin’s Bowlmor luring the “Real Housewives of Orange County” set with sleek decor and craft cocktails.
The county’s newest bowling lanes are at Round 1 Bowling & Amusement, which opened in May inside Santa Ana’s Main Place Mall.
The City of Industry-based chain offers just 14 bowling lanes and one night of league bowling each week at its Santa Ana center, focusing on mall walk-ins by also offering karaoke, billiards and a large arcade.
“The main thing is the arcade games,” said Hector Martinez, a worker with the alley’s amusement staff.
“Bowling is sort of a side thing,” he said.
The attitude is similar at Costa Mesa 55 Tavern+ Bowl, which opened with 10 lanes at The Triangle in March 2014.
“We don’t call ourselves a bowling alley,” said general manager Marc Canzoneri, who has a background in bars and nightclubs. “We are a sports/bowling bar.”
Tavern+Bowl hosts trivia nights, airs UFC fights and has DJs on weekends. Bowling lanes, cued by iPads from comfy booths, fill up quickly on weekends. And the restaurant serves up dishes like lobster sliders and bacon-wrapped Kobe meatloaf with craft beer flights.
Rebecca Herrera, 26, of Santa Ana organized a team-building party for her Luna Grill co-workers at Lucky Strike in Orange on a recent night.
“This is more of a party atmosphere,” Herrera said. “It’s a little bit nicer. … And the food is definitely better.”
ADAPTING TO SURVIVE
At Tavern+Bowl, as with other trendy bowling centers, Canzoneri said only about one-third of its revenue comes from bowling.
That balance is reversed at traditional bowling centers, which report 60 percent or 70 percent of their revenue from bowling.
Declining league play continues to cripple that revenue. But a key factor that’s caused an industrywide drop in bowling alleys is that too many are now worth less than the real estate they occupy, Martino said.
A prime example was Kona Lanes, a Costa Mesa landmark that shut down in 2003 after 45 years.
The business was owned by Jack Mann, who also once owned Tustin Lanes and several other bowling alleys across Southern California. But the Segerstrom family owned the land beneath Kona Lanes. They wanted Mann to invest in pricey upgrades. He declined, and Kona Lanes was demolished to make way for a more profitable venture: the senior living complex Azulon at Mesa Verde.
Concourse Bowling in Anaheim, which recently marked its 25th anniversary, is the last freestanding center built in Orange County.
“Fixed costs are really high in this business,” said Aron Rainone, 35, who, along with his older brother, bought Concourse from their father, Bart, a decade ago. “Between the real estate and the cost of the equipment, which is astronomical, it’s a big risk.”
That means many traditional centers have been forced to get creative, adding other forms of entertainment to lure new customers while trying not to run afoul of league bowlers who’ve long paid their bills.
Concourse still serves traditional industry foods like pizza and burgers, for example. But instead of defrosted pies and patties, they’re made from scratch.
The center also invests in upgrades every year, Rainone said. They recently remodeled all the bathrooms, for example. A few years ago, they upgraded all 40 lanes. And 10 years ago, they remodeled the whole facility, adding new TVs and installing a DJ booth.
BUCKING THE TREND
Other traditional centers – such as Fountain Bowl, AMF Carter Lanes in Fullerton and La Habra 300 Bowl – continue to buck the trend.
“We probably have the oldest equipment in the county,” said Doreen Reyes, manager of Westminster Lanes, which only takes cash and doesn’t have a website.
But thanks to a talented mechanic and some of the most affordable prices around, Reyes said, the 37-year-old alley is booked nearly to capacity most days, with 70 percent to 80 percent of its business still from league play.
The oldest bowling alley in the county – family-owned Linbrook Bowl in Anaheim – was packed on a recent Thursday morning, with two leagues that took up all 40 lanes.
Friendship, healthy competition and free coffee have kept Dave Lautherboren of Garden Grove bowling at Linbrook with the Nikkei Seniors league for 20 years.
“This is not just a bowling league,” Lautherboren, 78, said. “This is a family.”
That loyal clientele is overwhelmingly senior, acknowledged Linbrook general manager Brent Supple. Though they still offer a youth league, Supple said, “Kids aren’t bowling like they used to.”
With vinyl and Pabst Blue Ribbon beer cool again, some owners remain hopeful league bowling might see the same revival among the younger set. In a nod to nostalgia, Martino’s friend recently opened a center in Florida with “pin boys,” where staff members replace pin-setting machines that took over more than 50 years ago.
If there’s an upside to the shrinking industry, it means less competition for the bowling centers that remain. Many Tustin Lanes leagues moved over to Irvine Lanes, with others trickling to AMF Carter Lanes or Concourse.
Another thing bowling has going for it is that it remains one of the few lifetime sports, Rainone said, recalling a recent day when he was hosting a birthday party for an 80-year-old woman and another for a 10-year-old boy.
“At the end of the day, it’s still bowling. It’s fun, family entertainment,” Rainone said. “It’s rewarding to be able to do that, and it’s fun. So we’re not in any rush to get out of this business.”
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