Two brothers’ love of bowling and cooking feeds Aiea Bowl’s success
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.”
Aiea Bowl also employs four pastry chefs and sells about 50 cakes a weekend. Last Thanksgiving, it sold 250.
Glenn gets plenty of help, though. Part of the reason he moved back to Hawaii was to be close to his family. And The Alley is definitely a family business. “I spend six days a week here, 10 to 15 hours a day,” Glenn says. But, he notes, “My Mom is in this kitchen five days a week. She’s always tasting, making sure things are right. My aunties work here as well.” He points out that even his brother and co-owner, Gregg, gets into the act. “He’s a periodontist, but he works here two days a week. He cooks on the line in the kitchen.” Grinning, Glenn adds, “But he doesn’t bowl at all. We got him a ball, and there’s still no holes in it.”
Glenn doesn’t get much bowling in himself. “I haven’t bowled in eight months,” he says. But he clearly understands the powerful symbiosis that comes from combining good food, a bar and bowling. This combination is what’s allowed Aiea Bowl to cultivate its nightclub aura. Four nights a week, after 9:00 p.m., the whole atmosphere of the place changes. The lights go down for what they call “extreme glow bowling.” Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday nights are party nights at Aiea bowl, with live DJs, music, dancing, and food and drink.
Moonlight Mondays are particularly lively. “It’s targeted to the industry people,” Glenn says. “Waiters, bartenders, chefs. Level-H is here a lot. All the bartenders from Pipeline. We market to them.” The result is a huge party that’s been so successful that, on Monday nights, there’s a $3.00 cover. “In 18 months of ‘night club,’ we haven’t had a dead Monday yet,” Glenn says. “We average about 300 people in here every Monday.”
They also do one big theme party a month, usually a costume party. This month it’s called “Exotic Erotic.” Clearly, this isn’t your grandfather’s bowling alley.
Its size also makes Aiea Bowl a natural space for events, and that’s the area where Glenn and Gregg see the most potential for growth. For both events and the big theme nights, they collaborate with many of Hawaii’s most prominent producers. “We work with people like Rick Rock Productions, Level-H and No Way Out,” Glenn says. “We drive a lot of birthday parties and corporate parties here,” Glenn says. “Also fundraisers, like Big Brothers Big Sisters.” The combination of food and entertainment is crucial, of course, but it’s the capacity that sets Aiea Bowl apart as a venue. Glenn notes, “It’s a facility that can hold 450 people. Big groups, like Servco or Hyatt, will come with 350 people.”
Aiea Bowl is part of an industry trend away from traditional bowling centers and toward boutique bowling centers, facilities with 16 to 18 lanes that use music, parties and events to target the 21-and-over crowd. Joel Roussin, an expert who covers the California and Hawaii markets for industry giant AMF, believes Hawaii is ripe for more of these centers, despite the steady closing of bowling alleys here. “To open a bowling center,” Roussin says, “I normally want to have about 2,000 people per lane living within a five-mile radius. For a 24-lane center, like Aiea Bowl, that means a population of about 48,000 people.” By industry standards, then, it’s easy to see that Oahu is underserved. But it’s hard to weigh those numbers against the closings of Waialae Bowl, Kam Bowl, Kalihi Bowl and the impending closure of Pali Lanes. According to Roussin, that’s because these centers are just too old-fashioned. He says, “What people see is traditional bowling centers closing, so they think bowling is dying. But that’s not the case.” Of course, it remains to be seen if even a boutique center, like Aiea Bowl, can really make it in the Hawaii market.
Business at Aiea Bowl has grown faster than the Uyedas expected. Glenn estimates that they’ve roughly doubled the Mako’s gross income over three years. “I guess that’s an increase of about 25 percent a year,” he says. But that growth comes with its own set of problems. First of all, it’s expensive. Glenn’s brother, Gregg, points out that, at around $48,000 a month, the rent has probably doubled from what Mako paid. But, at least that cost is really fixed. It’s the steady rise in the other so-called fixed costs that hurt the most. “For example,” Gregg says, “in the past year or so, we’ve also almost doubled our electric bill, which runs between $15,000 and $20,000 a month.”
Both Gregg and Glenn say they’ve learned some valuable lessons in the past 18 months. Like his brother, Glenn believes the greatest challenge is keeping the cost of overhead down, not an easy task with 64 employees. “We’re really trying to improve our cost accounting,” he says. “We need to have a better idea where we’re making money and where we’re not.” But he wants to avoid false economies. “The thing I really believe in is marketing,” he says. “I’ve noticed that when I put a coupon out there, it comes back in volume.” The company devotes 10 percent of revenue to marketing, he says, advertising heavily in newspapers and weeklies and on radio. He also has a monthly cooking show on KHON-2. But he notes that part of marketing is also internal. “In the past, we had a lot of issues with service,” he says. “We’re really working on improving our customers’ experience.”
This focus on the customer is reflected in Aiea Bowl’s prices. “They’re charging in L.A. almost double what we charge,” Gregg says. Although he knows Hawaii’s economy is worsening and they’ll eventually have to raise the prices, for now at least, you can still bowl for $3.50 a game.