Chris Keller’s big fear used to be having to close his bowling center, The All Star, for a day because of a snowstorm. That’s almost laughable now after being closed for five months during the pandemic. "I can’t believe we are still here," says Keller.
His 28-lane, boutique bowling center in Riverhead has a game arcade, six private VIP lanes and Smitty’s All Star Grill. It remains, while many bowling alleys couldn’t withstand the pandemic’s blows.
Much is to be said for Keller’s perseverance. He applied for and got a PPP loan. He applied for a grant from the Barstool Fund, which offers financial assistance to small businesses impacted by COVID. The nearly $30,000 a month that he started receiving earlier this year and will continue to get until the end of the pandemic, pays the business’ mortgage. That lifeline, plus innovations like updating the air conditioning filtration system, keep them afloat.
He shared his story with Newsday.
How did you win the Barstool Fund grant?
Maybe it was the video I submitted the day after Christmas. I told them my situation. I have a big place, my taxes are $120,000, the electric bill $6,000-$8,000, and the mortgage is just under $30,000 a month. We had no income and I fell behind on the mortgage. I shared that I lost my 92-year-old dad to COVID and my mother almost died from it, too. But I think what counted a lot is the fact that even when we were closed, I continued to pay my 28 employees.
What are some of the new things that are in place since the pandemic?
We constructed private booth space at each lane for social distancing. We updated our air conditioning filtration system for safer air quality and added a UVC sanitizing procedure for our bowling balls and rental shoes. In order to better manage the capacity restrictions and properly sanitize the lanes between use, we also improved our reservation system on our website to make it easier for our customers to reserve a lane or private party. We don’t want them waiting around or standing in a line outside. They can prepay online so when they come in, they get their temperature taken and go bowl. We added temperature and sanitation stations. We added everything we could think of to help make people feel comfortable.
You made a lot of tweaks to the business, what issues cropped up?
The cost was significant. I spent around $40,000 to prepare to reopen. Then there was the issue of the availability of things. Those first several months of closing, it was difficult to find things we needed like plexiglass, and we waited a couple of months to get hand sanitizing stations.
What kept you going through this difficult time?
I joined with other bowling proprietors to lobby in Albany and Long Island to get the governor to please let bowling alleys reopen. It was a tough time. We were having some of our best months in business before COVID. We were thriving. It’s like the faucet was turned off. But I am a longtime bowler. I bowled in college. I love the business of bowling. I love what I do, my employees, my customers. That love is what kept me going. I take nothing for granted.
How is the business doing?
We’ve been operating at 50% since reopening in August of 2020 and will soon be allowed to operate at 75%. As people get vaccinated, they are starting to come back. Bowling will be back. I see the light at the end of the tunnel.
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