In a time when everyone experiences their lives and each other’s lives through Snapchat, Instagram and beyond, bowling alleys are a place where people can go to put their phone down, roll-up their sleeves, and high-five their friends. Ten-pin bowling, as opposed to candlepin bowling, popular in New England and Canada, is experiencing something of a resurgence, in part because of new, modern bowling outlets like Brooklyn Bowl, and renovated locations of the Bowlmor AMF Corp like Bowlero.
Charlie Mitchell is the owner-operator of a new kind of bowling alley in Portland, Maine. It began eight years ago with a to endure the long, frigid Maine winters: Mitchell founded a bowling league called Bowl Portland, a means to get himself out into the world and hang out with friends. By the second year he started making plans to open his own bowling alley. It worked.
There aren’t many jobs that involve daily Big Lebowski references. “This isn’t ‘Nam, there are rules.” Nor are there many jobs where you want to come back and hang out off the clock; many of his employees come back on their nights off to bowl in leagues. Bowling puns run rampant. The food is good, music is good, the beer is awesome, the bathrooms are clean. Bayside Bowl is a new kind of leisure destination, it’s a place where likeminded people go to compete, hang out, and have fun.
Owning a bowling alley seems like the dream: you get to bowl all the time, hang out with customers who are bowling all the time, and bowl all the time. We were lucky enough to catch up with Charlie Mitchell and it really does seem like he’s living the dream.
Can you first tell me a little bit about your life pre-bowling alley? Where was your career heading and what did you go to school for?
Well, I was a legislator and lawyer to begin with. I did AmeriCorps after college, then ran for office at 23 while starting law school. After graduating [law school], I worked in Washington as a privacy lobbyist. I wanted to get back to Maine so I took a job as a legislative counsel for the Maine Community College System. When I did move back to Maine, I was terrified of returning to the long winters, so I decided to start a bowling league despite not having any bowling skills.
So when you decided you wanted to open a bowling alley, what was the first step in the process? Did you find investors, write a business plan? And how might your previous experience prepared you for that?
For me it was a numbers game. I spent a lot of time working on pro formas (ed note: financial statements) to decide if I could make the business work. I did meet with a few potential investors who helped me polish up my numbers. Then I discussed the plan with one of my league members who shared my vision and decided to be the primary investor. While I had no experience in the business, [my] legal training and lobbying certainly helped make a strong case for my vision and a persuasive pitch for investors.
You co-own the business with state Sen. Justin Alfond, but you are more involved in the day-to-day operations. Can you describe your typical day at Bayside Bowl?
Ha, I actually can not! I think most people who run small businesses enjoy that part of it the most, the fact that each day brings such variety and new challenges. I do everything from payroll and HR to bartending, I run the leagues, I run our marketing, hire and manage staff, book bands...
Bayside Bowl has been up and running for, I believe, six years. Can you talk a little bit about how things have changed in those years, and some things that may have come as a surprise?
When we opened we were kind of the place for less serious bowlers. While we [worked on making] Bayside Bowl a great restaurant and music venue, we did everything we could to create a world class bowling facility as well. Now the more serious league (and national) bowlers have gravitated to us but under our rules, adding fun and music to the competitive bowling side of things. In the last few years Bayside has put itself on the national bowling map. We began hosting the PBA tour and immediately became a player favorite because of our younger crowds and the absolutely crazy, high energy atmosphere. It's been fun to watch that [part] grow. Since we've opened bowling has absolutely exploded in the Portland area among a pretty young crowd. We have 100 league teams in the winter in just a 12 lane center. Tons of bars and restaurants bowl in a league, and the demand has grown so much that multiple other small bowling alleys have opened in the area trying to model themselves on us, and we are building a new expansion to double in size.
That’s awesome! What is your current bowling average, and has it changed since the doors first opened?
I think the first season I started the league, I averaged around 140. My best season average is now a 210, and last year I was around 195.
What are some of your best memories doing this job? Worst?
Well I proposed to my wife at Bayside Bowl, and had my wedding reception there, those were both pretty amazing moments. Having ESPN in and seeing our little center on national TV was special. Last year watching new pro bowlers come in and sort of walk around in awe of the place, and knowing that we've become a bit of a legendary bowling destination in such a short time really was a powerful moment.
There have been some lean times which were very stressful, particularly in the early years. I don't miss the 80 hour work weeks that I had to do in the beginning! I also never really enjoy firing people, those have been some bad moments, but on the flip side employing 25 people, offering health insurance and solid pay and a respectful work environment in the service industry is a good feeling.
What is the pay like?
The pay depends on the season and how the business is doing since I am an owner. I took a 33% pay cut from my last salaried job, but have never regretted that. When I need extra cash I work some bar shifts, the tips help out.
What are the hours like?
Bowling alleys are a somewhat seasonal business, with summers being very slow and winters providing the bulk of the income. That's a pretty nice set up living in Maine since it's the opposite of most other businesses and affords me free time during the gorgeous Maine summers. In the winter I usually work 60-70 hours a week now, but in the summers it's a leisurely 30-35.
For those that want a career in bowling but may not have the resources to build from scratch, assuming there are no geographical limitations, what kinds of opportunities are available? Would it be better to take out a business loan to buy a tiny candlepin bowling alley in Small Town, New England, or start in middle management at someplace like AMF, the world’s largest bowling corporation?
That's a tough call. I had no experience in the industry, and while that meant we spent a lot of needless money learning some expensive lessons, we also built something totally unique and that is part of why we are successful. I guess I'd try and split the difference and get some exposure to the industry, but at a smaller place. The large chains tend to be pretty top down in their management, where as at a small center you have to learn a bit about everything no matter what your title is.
Do you have any resources about bowling? Blogs, books, websites on the subject?
The USBC (United States Bowling Congress) runs a website with tons of information on the sport itself. The BPAA (Bowling Proprietors Association of America) is a trade group that has more information related directly to the business operation side.