Bowling is banking on a more upscale image as it tries to grow in the 2020s.

League night still means sharing a few beers, but it’s craft beer that’s being downed between frames. And instead of some greasy fries or a slice of pizza for hungry bowlers, it’s a gourmet burger or some creative tacos.

At Bayside Bowl in Portland, there’s even a brunch menu featuring eggs Benedict.

Bayside Bowl, which was built in 2010 and expanded from 12 lanes to 20 three years ago, helped fuel the trend in southern Maine. But the upscale approach “wasn’t completely intentional,” said Charlie Mitchell, the owner. The business needed good food and beer to compete for people’s attention in Portland, he said, but still wanted to focus on bowling.

The dining room and bar at Sea Dog Brewing, which opened recently in what was originally Easy Day on Broadway in South Portland. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

Now, the idea of combining bowling lanes with gourmet food and craft beers has caught on and is part of the business model behind relatively new bowling centers in Gorham and Kennebunk, as well as a newly rebranded South Portland business.

Similar upscale bowling alleys have opened in recent years in other parts of the country, including New York City and Houston.

While that trend appears to be giving new life to the old pastime, it’s too soon to know if it will lift bowling’s popularity nationwide.

Nationally, participation in bowling hit a recent peak in 2007, when nearly 60.2 million Americans said they bowled, according to the online statistics site, Statista.

But the Great Recession took a big bite out of that number and participation fell to 45.3 million people in 2012, Statista said. Since then, it has stabilized, with the number of participants at 45.5 million in 2017, the most recent year for which numbers are available.

Tom Morris bowls Sunday at Sea Dog Brewing in South Portland. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

Mitchell, Bayside Bowl’s owner, said he was attracted to the business when he was in a bowling league at Yankee Lanes on Riverside Street, a more traditional bowling center. Bowling was a good social outlet for him during the winter, and when he saw the league grow from 12 teams to 22 in a year, he thought there might be a business opportunity in it.

Bayside Bowl has 117 teams in its leagues this year and has developed into a popular stop on the Professional Bowlers Association tour. The annual PBA stop at Bayside is broadcast nationally – initially on ESPN and now on Fox. Mitchell said the new network has brought increased visibility to Bayside Bowl, where spectators are known for their energetic support of the bowlers.

“We’re one of the most famous bowling alleys in the world,” he said.

Locally, Bayside is known for the quality of its food and beer almost as much as its busy lanes, Mitchell said. The venue recently opened a rooftop bar for those who come to eat and socialize and may not have any interest in trying to convert a 7-10 split.

Still, Mitchell said he and the managers try not to lose sight of their core mission. “There are plenty of bowling alleys that serve nice food and nice beer, but we’re really the only place that’s rebuilding bowling as a league activity,” he said.

The decor at Sea Dog Brewing in South Portland, where the general manager says the combination of bowling alley and pub has introduced patrons to new experiences. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

The recipe also appears to be working at Bowl-A-Rama in Sanford, a traditional candlepin bowling alley.

Candlepin bowling, which features smaller balls, pins and lower scoring, is “holding its own” in a sport that’s dominated by 10-pin bowling, said O.J. Martin, Bowl-A-Rama’s general manager. There are about a dozen candlepin lanes in Maine, he said, and the sport is still popular in New Hampshire, Massachusetts and eastern Canada.

Martin’s father bought the candlepin bowling lanes about 30 years ago. The family, recognizing the need to expand the customer base beyond league and casual bowlers, added an arcade, a full bar and expanded the food offerings from pizza to a full pub menu.

“The trend has definitely gone to having a bar with a nice place to eat and adding to the bowling experience with an arcade,” he said.

Jason Helps of Cape Elizabeth bowls Sunday at Sea Dog Brewing in South Portland. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

Leagues remain Bowl-A-Rama’s bread and butter, Martin said, although there is always some open play time for more casual bowlers.

“It’s not immensely growing,” he said, “but the fact that people are still coming out and enjoying themselves is great.”

At Bowl-A-Rama, the charge for walk-ins is $24 an hour, plus $2.50 for shoe rental. Bayside Bowl is a littler pricier at $30 an hour for a lane, plus $4 a pair for shoes.

Anecdotal evidence suggests the marriage of gastro pub and bowling lanes is generating some renewed interest in the game, sometimes by accident.

Sunday morning at Sea Dog Brewing Company in South Portland, a handful of families gathered at the bowling lanes at the location’s newly reopened brewpub. The bowling center on Broadway near Mill Creek was formerly called Easy Day.

Jeff Doughty helped his 5-year-old son, Chase, roll a ball between his legs, and watched as it headed, slowly but surely, down a lane. Doughty, who lives around the corner, is new to the game, he said, “but we love Sea Dog.”

“I think we’ll probably do this again,” he said. “It’s good fun, especially for kids 3 and up.”

Ryan Blouin, the general manager at Sea Dog’s South Portland location, said he has seen the combination of alley and pub introduce patrons to new experiences.

Ethan Wyatt, 9, of Scarborough bowls at Sea Dog Brewing. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

“A lot of people came to Sea Dog and realized, ‘Oh, there’s also a bowling alley,’ ” he said. Or (patrons have) stopped by to bowl “and realized, ‘Oh, there’s a full menu – it’s not just pub bites.’ ”

Other new lanes offering bowling and a step up from fast-food dining include Garden Street Bowl in Kennebunk and Bolos Kitchen, Cantina and Candlepin in Brunswick.

Ben Smith is banking on similar cross-pollination at The Junction, a 12-lane bowling alley he opened in Gorham in November.

Like many of the new alleys, his offers upscale food – fried Brussels sprouts, salmon, grilled sirloin – and two dozen beers on tap, plus an arcade to keep people around after rolling a few frames.

Gorham has lots of families, Smith said, but not enough entertainment options, so he pitched a bowling alley to his brother and sister-in-law when they developed a new building on Railroad Avenue near the center of Gorham.

“It’s very much a family town and seemed like a good fit, and so far, so good,” said Smith, 50, who worked in investments before opening the bowling alley.

Smith said league play just started at The Junction this week, with 30 teams. It will max out around 40, he said, and he also plans to pitch the spot as a place for corporate outings. The restaurant seats 120.

They made sure to offer an upscale menu, he said, as a way to enhance the experience.

“To me, it’s a little something for everyone in the family,” Smith said.

 


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