Two brothers’ love of bowling and cooking feeds Aiea Bowl’s success
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Aiea Bowl's owners Gregg and Glenn Uyeda
Standing out front of Aiea Bowl at 9:30 on a Friday morning, it’s hard to see why chef Glenn Uyeda would have chosen this as the place to put his Cordon Bleu training on display. The exterior of the old bowling alley is plain and drab and a little desolate. In fact, it barely looks like it’s still in business. The parking lot, though, is full.
And when you step inside, the cacophony of the bowling alley—the roistering of the crowd, the crashing of the pins, the balls rumbling down the maple lanes — it all starts to make Uyeda’s decision seem pretty sly. Because, when Glenn Uyeda and his brother, Gregg, bought the place three years ago, they envisioned a different kind of bowling alley — one that blended the retro charms of bowling with quality food and a nightclub atmosphere. As chef Uyeda puts it, “Our goal in this place wasn’t just bowling and wasn’t just food; our goal was to create entertainment.”
The first thing that strikes you, of course, is the bowling. Even at this hour of the morning, all 24 lanes at Aiea Bowl are full. Senior leagues commandeer the facility every day from 9 to 11 a.m, and today the place is packed with hundreds of blue-shirted members of the Aikane Bowling Club. In the afternoons and evenings, the lanes are given over to youth leagues and open bowling. In fact, the bowling side of the business is booming. Glenn attributes that success largely to Mako Kobayashi, the former owner, who has managed the place since 1970. The Uyeda brothers put him on the payroll when they bought the alley. Bowling has increased and Mako still runs three leagues and the tournaments. He also has years of knowledge. Glenn says, “I can ask, ‘Hey, Mako, can we do this or that?’ and he can tell me.”
Yet, for all its popularity, bowling doesn’t pay the bills at Aiea Bowl. “A bowling alley can’t support any business in Hawaii,” Glenn says. “Even right now, without the restaurant, this bowling alley would close. Guaranteed. Even if we still had Mako’s set-in-stone lease from 25 years ago, you would still have to charge around $9.50 a game to break even.” So, although the center of attention at Aiea Bowl is definitely the lanes, the restaurant is its bread and butter. “We probably make twice as much money on the restaurant side,” Glenn says. That, and the growing reliance on income from special events are probably the biggest changes since Glenn and his brother bought the place.
Those changes came at a cost, of course. “We bought this place about three years ago,” he says. “It took about 18 months to remodel.” He gestures toward the front of the building. “We tore all this out completely,” Glenn says. “This was all just a cement floor.” That space now houses the kitchen, restaurant and lounge on one side, and the pro shop, locker area and a small game arcade on the other. The build-out was expensive, but the Uyedas knew a new restaurant and bar lay at the heart of their business model. That’s what would allow them to do events and sustain the nightclub atmosphere that keeps the joint hopping in the evenings. “And then we remodeled the lanes,” he says. “We upgraded the machines. We updated the scoring system. In all, we spent about $1.5 million.”
When he came back to Hawaii, Glenn knew he wanted to build a restaurant, but he didn’t like the odds at the high-end, gourmet side of the spectrum. “I decided I was going to go maybe try this middle route,” he says. And, in keeping with its bowling alley location, his restaurant, The Alley Bar and Grill, is certainly modest—just a few banquettes and a couple of four-tops, with a full bar off to one side. Still, as you would expect of a chef from Le Bernardin in New York, the food at The Alley is a little better than a neighborhood plate lunch. “Everything is made from scratch in this kitchen,” Glenn says. “Even my hamburgers are made by hand.” Familiar, homey dishes dominate the menu. His most popular dish is Tasty Chicken, an upscale version of Korean fried chicken, crunchy and piquant, with a heavy load of red-pepper flakes. “Tasty Chicken is half my sales,” Glenn says. Keeping up with those sales has been a pleasant challenge. “I only anticipated a quarter of the business we’re doing,” Glenn says. “Now, it’s about a 10-person waiting list every day at lunch.”
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