New center opens

by Bob Johnson 0

On Christmas Eve, those who live and work in downtown Toronto got a nice holiday present: a new bowling center.

The Ballroom Bowl/Bar/Bistro spent the next month-and-a-half in “soft opening” mode, leading up to its official launch earlier this month. If the early buzz about the facility — which mirrors the Lucky Strike/Bowlmor business model — is any indication, The Ballroom could be a great success.

Brunswick provided the equipment for the bowling side of the operation, which includes nine lanes, the Vector-Plus center management and scoring system, GS-X pinsetters and Pinball Wizard bumpers. Striker Bowling Solutions, Brunswick’s distributor in Canada, managed much of the project.

In addition to the “private lane” areas that are now standard in “bowling lounges,” The Ballroom features 52 big-screen high-def televisions, seven 12-ft. by 6-ft. projection screens, ping pong tables, upscale bars and more. The facility encompasses 20,000 square feet on two floors, and was built out at a cost of approximately $4 million.

One local blogger gave The Ballroom a positive review, noting that the team behind it “has managed to wedge a boutique bowling alley underneath a mammoth sports bar, wrap the whole thing around a gastro-pub sheen and actually make it kind of work.”

One aspect that some of The Ballroom’s early customers have criticized in various social media postings has been the price structure. Whereas the Bathurst Bowlerama in suburban North York charges $23 per hour for bowling after 6 p.m. on weekends, the going rate at The Ballroom is $32.50 — per half-hour.

But even as some complain about the price, far more lament the long wait for a lane. It’s a classic case of supply and demand.

That demand was created by the lack of a bowling facility in Toronto’s downtown area. According to reports, downtown has been bowling-less for more than 30 years. Tenpin bowling in Canada has followed the trend seen in large American cities: away from the high-priced urban areas and out to the more affordable real estate of the suburbs.

The Ballroom’s location, at the corner of Richmond and John St., is in the heart of Toronto’s downtown entertainment corridor, an area that has met with mixed success. Numerous nightclubs in the area have come and gone, but none of them offered the mix of activities and entertainment that The Ballroom does.

“We knew that other world-class cities had these (types of facilities),” said Warren Needler, one of The Ballroom’s five owners. “London, New York, Los Angeles, Miami. And Toronto, being a world-class city, was lacking something like this for young professionals to do.”

Everything about the complex is upscale, including the menu, developed by noted Toronto chef Tawfik Shehata, formerly of the acclaimed Vertical restaurant. At Bathhurst Bowlerama, you can get a grilled cheese sandwich for $3.15; at The Ballroom, the grilled triple cheese (cheddar, brie and pecorino) goes for $12. At Bowlerama, a cheeseburger costs $4; at The Ballroom, the half-pound house-ground burger is $15, and cheese is $2 extra. And you can’t get Guinness slow-braised ribs at Bowlerama.

It’s basically the difference between a “traditional” bowling/family entertainment center and a “bowling lounge.”

And so far, downtown Toronto residents and those who visit the downtown entertainment district are keeping The Ballroom jam-packed on the weekends.

Bob Johnson

Bob Johnson has received more national writing awards than any other bowling writer — close to 70 over the course of his 40-year career. He began at age 16 as a staff writer and then assistant editor for the weekly Pacific Bowler newspaper in his native California, and within three years was writing feature stories for Bowlers Journal. He has written for the magazine ever since, except for a five-year span when he was hired as the founding editor of another magazine. He moved to Chicago in 2000 and spent 13 years in the Windy City, including five as Bowlers Journal’s Editor. In 1975, Johnson received the Robert E. Kennedy Award as California’s top undergraduate high school journalist. Five years earlier, on the lanes, he had shared the Bantam Division Doubles championship in the Orange County Junior Bowling Association Championships. Today, he continues to work full-time for Bowlers Journal as its Senior Editor, to write his popular “Strikes Me” column, and to edit Luby Publishing Inc.’s weekly business-to-business Cyber Report.

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