Savvy businesses turn a pizza/bowling split to their advantage
By Colleen Cross
Pizza and bowling seem to go together. They are both fun, shareable experiences that are easily customizable. Bowlers can take their families, friends can join a league, folks young and old can enjoy a date night at the local lanes.
Families can share a pizza, build their own, have it customized to suit their dietary restrictions, have it delivered to the lanes or pick it up at a shop.
Here we take a look at two business models that have successfully combined a sport and pastime everyone can enjoy with the food everyone loves.
PIZZA PROJEKT/FLEETWAY BOWLING
Jake Allison was approached by the Harvey Katz, owner of Fleetway Bowling in London, Ont., to build a pizzeria that would then supply the bowling centre with pizza.
Allison did something not many owner-operators can lay claim to: he literally built his pizzeria from the ground up. It now generates a healthy business for itself and for the bowling centre near the corner of Oxford Street and Wonderland Road not far from Western University.
Fleetway, which has been in business for more than 30 years, offers five- and 10-pin bowling, league bowling, indoor glow-in-the-dark mini-golf, a kids’ play area, a Playdium Lite arcade and billiards.
The job involved removing walls from a Canada Post depot that separated the pizzeria site from Fleetway, to make way for an entrance/exit between the two businesses, Allison says. This way, customers also can access the pizzeria from either the front or the inside entrance.
The bowling centre is a family-oriented facility that limits its alcohol offerings to wine and beer. Any food or beverage items purchased from the onsite Pizza Projekt and Dairy Queen restaurants can be brought to the lanes for customers to enjoy while bowling.
Allison’s concept has been in business for three years, and he says he lived at the pizzeria for two years. It turns out Allison, a trained certified engineering technologist by trade and former construction manager, literally built Pizza Projekt himself!
“I was building a new store for my mom, who is a Wendy’s franchisee,” Allison says. “Fleetway’s owner, a fellow franchisee, suggested I build a complementary pizzeria. It was a two-year process from conception to completion,” he says.
The pizzeria seats about 88 people with room for 24 more on the patio. Customers can order in house or from the bowling lanes.
With a diverse menu, his goal is to cater to everyone. They specialize in what Allison calls premium pizza. They refrigerate the dough for two days – three at the most – and it goes directly into the oven with no warming-up period. Customers can choose from a dozen signature pizzas, five deep-dish pies, or build-your-own creations with their choice of traditional, thin-crust, whole wheat or gluten-free crusts. About 75 per cent of customers choose to build their own pizza, Allison estimates.
“We make a unique pizza,” Allison says. “We make our own sauce, refrigeration creates a crust like Neapolitan but we use a conveyor oven.” They also provide vegan and vegetarian options and have seen sales from their vegan menu almost eclipse sales of other pizza. Popular sides include the apple pecan pear goat cheese salad, wings and batter-dipped mozzarella.
Because Fleetway is a family entertainment complex, Pizza Projekt sees heavy use by families. They appeal to young people, regulars in the over-40 age group and “pizza fanatics,” Allison says. They get a lot of university students as customers but would like to have more. “It’s a destination for date nights,” he says.
On the hiring side, they have 22 staff. High school students regularly approach them for jobs. “Hiring is never a problem,” Allison says. A typical shift he gives to students is 4 to 10 p.m. Daytime core staff includes a kitchen manager, closing staff and a quick-service general manager.
He recently finished training a manager and these days is stepping back – or trying to. He still works two shifts a week to keep his hand in. “It’s not that easy to keep your hands off,” he says. “I still do the numbers but the manager now is trained to do the books.”
There is cross-promotion between the pizzeria and bowling centre. They offer daily in-house specials and a popular bundled package on Tuesdays and Sundays, which Fleetway promotes: one large three-topping pizza, one hour of bowling, one pitcher of beer for $50 “*Shoes not included in price.” Allison prints out cards for tables advertising their pizzas. Bowling leagues, which run from September through April, receive discounts at the pizzeria, and his staff get free bowling passes.
His best marketing involves posting photos and messages on Facebook and Instagram. Referring to the early days of marketing, he says, “It was hard. We tried everything: Western University’s magazine, the London Free Press, the Yellow Pages, Eat and Drink magazine. At about the two-year mark, things clicked. I found that if you stay on top of your social media, it’s all you need. I go for mouthwatering photos that make people want to come in.”
The split between those who come for the bowling and those who come first and foremost for the pizza, is hard to calculate, he says. He provides a very rough estimate of 80 per cent bowling, 20 per cent pizza. His own split between dine-in and delivery is more pronounced and easier to assess: about 90 per cent of their customers eat in the pizzeria and about 10 per cent prefer their pizzas delivered.
Summers can be a bit slow compared to the rest of the year, he says. Christmas parties, corporate events keep them busy in the colder months, and sales jump by about 60-70 per cent during March break and on Family Day.
All three businesses are benefiting from the partnership. Despite competition from the recently opened Rec Room complex up the road, business at the bowling centre is up about 30 per cent since Pizza Projekt opened. Dairy Queen’s sales also are up, he adds.
“If the bowling alley is busy, we’re busy. If it’s not, we’re not. It’s as simple as that,” he says. “It’s a direct correlation.”
Pizza and bowling complement each other because bowlers almost always come in groups of at least four, Allison says. “It’s a shared experience. Just like pizza.”
Though a successful fit, meshing the two businesses has its challenges. “It takes a tremendous amount of co-ordination when you have two owners, two managers, two sets of staff,” he says. “You absolutely have to work with them to succeed. It works both ways and it’s challenging. You have to be one cohesive unit.”
PIZZA PLACE/THUNDERBIRD BOWL
Thunderbird Bowl in Brandon, Man., represents a different model of operation. It’s a cluster of restaurants built around a bowling hub. Brother-and-sister team Trevor Peters and Debbie Nadon are co-owners of the 28,500-square-foot recreation centre, which houses five- and 10-pin bowling for both leagues and individuals, the 130-seat lower-level Huggy’s Family Restaurant, a 99-seat Huggy’s Neighbourhood Sports Bar and Grill on the second floor.
The Thunderbird Bowl, which opened in 1962, was previously operated by their parents, Alex and Susan Peters, who took over from the original owners in 1973.
The bowling and entertainment centre fits into the current trend of family entertainment centres, or FECs, Trevor Peters says. “You used to have the typical ‘pizza box’ that sold pizza. Then in the 1980s alcohol was added,” he says. Menus got reworked and people were looking for new options. Soon there was table service and point-of-sale ordering capabilities.
To complement the bowling centre, they brought in Manitoba institution Pizza Place to help them feed hungry bowlers. “We were looking for the eighth day of revenue,” he says of the decision to follow the franchise playbook.
Peters, a bowler since age 6 and member of the board of industry association Bowl Canada, said they bought into the nearly 60-year-old franchise in 2003, to have a turnkey operation to supplement their existing business.
As for marketing the business, he says they are selling an experience. On the website they play up league bowling, company parties, school outings, birthday parties and fundraisers. The foodservice part of the business represents roughly 60 per cent of sales, and the bowling represents about 40, Peters estimates. “Food is a very important cog in the wheel.”
The complex contains a kids’ play structure, glow-in-the-dark bowling and space for private meetings for organizations.
Pizza Place, a franchise owned by Steve Logan with several locations in Manitoba, boasts a history going back to the 1960s. Its catchy jingle and logo featuring the Leaning Tower of Pisa are well known to Manitobans. On reopening in 2003 after being closed for about a decade, Peters says they put a lot of money into the relaunch. That Italian-style jingle really resonated with customers, he says.
Their signature pizza is the pepperoni, which features pepperoni from Old County Sausage in Winnipeg. “The pepperoni is on top and it’s curled and lightly burned at the edges,” he says.
They cross-promote with Dash Delivers, a local business they contract to handle off-premise delivery. They have had success combining food with bowling packages – bundling.
“We’re fortunate because we can bundle things together differently than what a lot of other places can. We can throw free games of bowling on a pizza box or offer a special where you get a half-hour of bowling free and try to drive that customer and make them a bowling customer and vice versa.” For example, the “No Brainer Bundle” includes an hour-and-a-half of bowling, two medium two-topping pizzas and pop for up to five people. The regular price is $89.95 per lane, shoes and taxes included, but customers can reserve and prepay online to save $10 per package.
“We do a lot of things the typical ‘pizza box’ can’t do.”
“When we opened it in 2003 we dedicated kitchen space, bought ovens and did what we had to do to make it happen. But really it was just an inclusion of the existing staff that we had here in the back of the house. We have a couple of kitchen managers and a team of about 13 cooks and prep cooks in the kitchen.”
Their head kitchen chef and manager has been with them for 10 years. “You’ve got to try to keep good staff just for synergy and to keep the train on the tracks,” he says.
Peters’ secret to doing that? “Treat them right. Try to meet their needs. They are human people too – they have lives. What we’re finding is that money isn’t always the answer – their time is very important to them and time with their families. We try to be as accommodating as we can.” Although they can’t always loosen the purse strings – “I don’t know too many people who can do that” – he says they try to pay attention and provide perks like dental and health plans that employees can’t get everywhere else.
“My message to a franchise that has a pizzeria and to a bowling centre that’s looking to offer better food options: Partner up. Let the pros do what they do best.”
Partnering with a franchise has suited his business well. “I would gladly give up five or six per cent in royalties to seek out that next thing that can take my food and business to the next level and have all the systems in place,” he says.
“A friend in the restaurant business once told me, if you are an absolute god in the food and beverage business, you might get seven to 10 per cent to stick to your fingers. And that’s not a very big return for the amount of effort that you’re going to make. He wasn’t far off.”
Peters suggests it makes sense for independent pizzerias to team up with bowling centres in smaller markets. As a board member for Bowl Canada, he sometimes hears of these partnerships.
“A lot of little bowling centres are in small markets where the big guys aren’t,” he says. “Maybe the relationship is already there and it makes sense to buddy up.”
Pizza and bowling go together, says Peters. “I’m not going to say bowling is recession-proof,” he adds, noting that the bowling business is shrinking because with the real estate owned, it’s becoming more lucrative to sell out. “But the ones that are surviving are doing very well.”
“It’s just one of those pastimes that everyone can do, whether they’re 3 or 93. It’s that comfort game where you don’t have to be an athlete but you can go out, have fun and be able to participate with Grandma and Grandpa and the kids. Pizza is one of those comfort foods that are universal – it accommodates everybody. It’s just a good fit and a good combo.”