Wendy Alexander/The Madera Tribune
Britton Fiske of Valley Bowl said that in the brief period they were able to reopen they closed off every other bowling lane for social distancing.
Throughout the country, businesses have been hit hard because of government-mandated closures. One of the hardest hit sectors are locally-owned bowling centers like Madera’s Valley Bowl.
A fixture in the community for more than 60 years, Valley Bowl hasn’t been able to open since July 5 and is doing whatever it takes to stay in business.
“What’s happening all across the nation is the local, independently-owned bowling centers are struggling because they can’t open,” said Valley Bowl pro shop manager Chris Pitts. “Some have qualified for federal aid and some have not. Now, some are closing. We’re now at a point where if we’re shut down any longer and, without community support, there’s a chance we may have to shut down. There’s a bowling center that has been open for 65 years in the Fremont area that was forced to shut down. They made multi-million dollars a year and had to shut down because they weren’t able to open. There are many centers across the U.S. that’s happening to because they aren’t a major organization. The help they got only covered them for about two weeks.”
Since it can’t have bowlers, Valley Bowl has been sitting without customers for a month. However, manager Britton Fiske, son of owners Terry and Patti Hoban, has tried to think outside the box. There is a GoFundMe page set up to help Valley Bowl. Started July 26, the GoFundMe has raised $790 of an initial goal of $25,000 as of Aug. 10.
“We also started to-go food on Wednesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday just to get any sort of income,” Fiske said. “However, it’s not even enough to keep the air conditioning going, but it is something.”
Valley Bowl offered its usual menu, including hamburgers, grilled chicken sandwiches, nachos, French fries, among other items.
“We just started the snack bar last week,” Fiske said. “Saturday was huge, but Wednesday, not so much. We have that big back patio out there where people can dine in. I have it set up more than six feet between them. We got the word out by social media. It’s a little better than nothing.”
“The goal is to have a special each day,” Pitts said. “Wednesday was buffalo and garlic parmesan wings. Saturday, we did a Western bacon cheeseburger. That was really good. We’re trying to amp up the menu as we go, but have to be cognizant of the cost. We want to offer things to entice people to come and sit on the patio. We can do alcohol out there, as well. We’ve got a system for people to call in and leave their message for their order and what time they want. Their orders are ready to get over when they get here. It’s not a full-service restaurant. You can’t do everything. We’re trying to elevate the items we have to entice people to come out here and support the local business.”
Another blow to the local business was Madera Unified School District turning towards online learning during the pandemic. Usually, Valley Bowl lanes would be filled with Madera and Madera South physical education classes.
“We had PE classes coming in here during the day,” Fiske said. “We had everyone on the lanes and they got to bowl. We had the snack bar open for them and they loved it. They socialized, but got to bowl at least one game.”
“It generated consistent revenue when the bowling center isn’t usually open,” Pitts said. “We’re not open until noon, but we had the kids in here until 11. It was a good way to increase revenue without increasing payroll cost. That was huge.”
Valley Bowl was able to open for about three weeks a month ago and did everything it could to ensure the guests would be as safe as possible.
“We were doing everything we could possibly do to keep open during that timeframe,” Fiske said. “We were doing the safety tests needed like doing temperature checks, making sure everyone wore a mask and only doing half the house, every other lane, for people. We were doing all right. People felt safe here. We handed out all the bowling balls and shoes. We cleaned them first before giving them out again. We cleaned and disinfected the entire lane before we gave it out to other people. We did temperature checks right when you came in the door. We were only open for three weeks before they shut us down again. It’s hard because they bottleneck us into family entertainment when we’re not necessarily that. We were able to safely social distance everyone in here.”
Fiske is doing what he can think of to keep the center open, including a fundraising barbecue tri-tip plate that may be on the horizon.
“We’ve been thinking about doing a barbecue fundraiser,” he said.
“We’ve got a caterer that is willing to do it,” Pitts said. “It’s just about getting the word out and specifying a date to do it. It will probably do a tri-tip plate. The caterer is donating her cooking. We just have to buy the food, which is amazing.”
In addition to the food and GoFundMe, Valley Bowl also has hand-crafted pens for sale that make great gifts.
“Terry Hoban makes handcrafted wood twill pens that we sell out of the bowling center,” Pitts said. “We can do foods to go, we have the outdoor patio if you want to order food and have some drinks and we have these pens. He does a great job. It’s something small and he does some great work in these pens.”
However, Fiske is asking the community to help Valley Bowl in a way that Valley Bowl has helped the community in the past.
“We’re trying to get any grants and funding we can,” he said. “We got the first federal help, but that was used up before our first opening before we had to close again. Now, we’re stuck between a rock and a hard place because we can’t get it again. That’s why we are trying the GoFundMe and get the word out there. We’ve done so much for the community like Special Olympics and other fundraisers.”
In addition to Special Olympics, where they would host free practices, provide ribbons and host a tournament, Valley Bowl has supported a softball tournament, Madera Rescue Mission, Madera County Food banks, donated to schools with carnivals and provided a place for Girls Scouts and Campfire Girls to sell their candy.
The Hobans have owned Valley Bowl since 2004 and have developed lifelong friendships and bonds within the Madera community.
“This presence is a direct result of the Hobans’ commitment to community, youth, and the sport of bowling,” said a statement on the center’s GoFundMe page. “Valley Bowl has maintained relationships with local school districts to invest in local youth by providing a safe and encouraging environment for physical education classes and after-school clubs for students. The center has remained a source of family-centered fun, a critical offering to the city of Madera and surrounding residents. Open play, league offerings, and tournaments further bolster both the community and the local economy.”
In the end, Valley Bowl needs the community’s help to keep serving the community like it has for the past 60-plus years.
“The best way to help is by the GoFundMe, donate or buy food,” Fiske said. “Be on the lookout to when we can reopen again. We get calls constantly from people asking if we are open. People want to get out of the house and do something.”
For information about Valley Bowl, it’s GoFundMe page or snack bar specials, visit the Valley Bowl Facebook Page.