East Hampton Bowl: Strikes and Spares for the People
Emily J. Weitz
A few years ago, if you wanted a casual evening out with a few beers and a pizza, you might have gravitated towards East Hampton Bowl. It would have been a reasonable assumption to make that you wouldn’t need an Amex Platinum card to throw a few strikes. But you would have been wrong. Like everywhere else in the Hamptons, the prices at East Hampton Bowl had become so inflated that you could have chosen between a night on the lanes or a night at a fancy restaurant and come home equally broke. But no more. Manager Ian Grossman, who came to revamp the business eight months ago, has taken the “Hamptons” out of East Hampton Bowl, and has made it what it was meant to be: an unpretentious local place to kick around a casual conversation, and a little friendly competition.
Grossman came to East Hampton Bowl to help longtime owner Craig Patterson make the business profitable again.
“I used to be a fixer,” says Grossman. “I’d sign a one or two year contract with a bowling center… I work with businesses that are close to closing and I take hold and make modifications where necessary.”
At East Hampton Bowl, this meant creating specials to draw in more clientele and changing a bunch of staff, among other things.
“The specials make the prices more friendly to the community… We want to give people an inexpensive option.”
Specials like Monday Madness, when it’s $10 to walk in the door, and then all games, shoes and sodas are a dollar. Or Sundays from 2 p.m. on, when $50 will cover up to six people on a lane, and will include shoes, pizza, popcorn, and a pitcher of soda. Every day of the week there’s a special like these, intended to get people out of their houses and into the bowling alley.
And then there are the leagues, which have historically been the anchor of any bowling alley’s business. Across the country, leagues have suffered in recent years.
“League bowlers drop at a rate of 6 to 10 percent a year,” says Grossman. “It used to be almost everybody bowled. Now with computers and video games, kids aren’t getting into bowling. They’re sitting at home playing video games. That caused a big attrition in league play.”
Even with these grim statistics, Grossman has managed to turn things around for East Hampton Bowl.
“Here, for the first time, league is actually up 13% in the past year.”
How did he manage to combat the mighty Home Entertainment Center? He started to look at what people really wanted.
“Before all you had to do was unlock the door,” says Grossman. “Now you need to be more market savvy. If you don’t give them what they’re looking for, they’re not gonna come.”
So he thought about what people really enjoyed about bowling. It wasn’t just the game itself; it was the social aspect of it. A few beers and some good conversation was what would get people out of their homes.
“I got the league play up with the Bowling and Beer League,” explains Grossman. “You and a partner bowl two games each, and shoes and a pitcher of beer are included.”
Now, on Monday nights, twelve teams come to play in the Bowling and Beer League.
There are different leagues playing almost every night. Then, on Saturdays, Grossman and his wife decided to create a junior scholarship league. Instead of playing for cash winnings, twelve teams of two compete for scholarship funds.
“They can use the scholarships for either college or trade school… Education is so important, today more than ever. The economy is not in good condition, so I wanted to make sure there was some money for some kids who wanted to be involved. Every little bit helps.”
It’s not just the bowling that is starting to draw crowds looking for a reasonable evening out in East Hampton. Grossman has also opened the massive space up to musicians, comedians, and other performers who want to utilize it. And consistent with the philosophy of accessibility, he offers the space for free.
“My lounge is open to anyone that wants to rent out the space,” he says. “I don’t charge anything to play here, and I don’t pay them. They can charge at the door, and we make the money at the bar. We stay out of each other’s pockets that way.”
And the public benefits too, because performers don’t have to pay a massive fee for the space. Shows rarely cost more than $10, and often this includes a drink.
“At the bar, I’m booked through April on the weekends,” he says. “I just watch the phone ring.”
Between the growing number of regulars at the bar and the weekly bowlers, East Hampton Bowl is now pretty happening every night of the week. But you can never quite anticipate who is going to walk through the door.
“We get a very eclectic group of people,” says Grossman. “Right now, I have the Montauk teachers, a kid’s birthday party, a few groups of guys, and a few families.”
Everybody seems to be having fun, as Grossman describes the bumper runner lights flashing up and down the lanes, the black lighting on, and “How Low Can You Go?” on the brand new speakers.
“Hey, someone just got a strike on Lane 9!” he says with genuine enthusiasm. Then his voice grows more serious. “What I’d like people to know is there have been a lot of changes here, not just with pricing, but with customer service. This isn’t a chain center. Rarely in a chain center will they get to know you. My wife and I go down to the lanes, we talk to people. We want this to be an extension of their home.”