Welcome to One Year In, a feature in which Eater sits down for a chat with the chefs and owners of restaurants celebrating their one-year anniversary.
[Photos: Aubrie Pick]
Aiming to devise a bowling alley devoid of bad lighting, mediocre food and claw machines stuffed with unachievable plush animals, the former Mini Bar team of Sommer Peterson and Molly Bradshaw opened Mission Bowling Club in March 2012. In their quest to create a six-lane bowling palace with quality food and drinks that was SF's first in more than four decades, the duo teamed up with Mission Street Food and Commonwealth impresario Anthony Myint to develop their menu, and sought a special liquor-license dispensation from the city. Eater recently met with Peterson and Bradshaw, as well as executive chef Chris Kiyuna and event planner Jillian Horn, to talk about their first year and their plans for the year ahead.
When you opened a year ago, what were your expectations for the space?
Sommer Peterson: Well, we thought [the space] was huge, and now we feel like it's really small. We get pretty crowded. Overall, we're pretty happy with how we have our restaurant and it's really its own entity. You can still walk in and just grab a drink at the bar, like you're at a neighborhood bar. With the bowling, everyone can hear and see all the action going on, but it's still its own little area. It's nice having it compartmentalized, though we wish we had more lanes. We thought six was perfect, but we realized that there are a lot of people in this town who want to go bowling, and they pretty much all want to do it at the same time. Jillian wants something separate for private events.
Jillian Horn: The demand has been really exciting.
Chris Kiyuna: I expected to be surprised. I've helped with other openings, and you always have your ideas of how people will perceive a conventional restaurant. When you walk in the door here, you see the bowling lanes, it's a big space, there's a bar. There's just so many ways that people can read the space. None of us had worked together, either, so I was expecting to be surprised.
SP: We just held hands and jumped in. Here we go! It's funny, still, when people come here for the very first time. They walk in and they're like, "What do I do? I'm here!" or "Is this really a bowling alley?" We ask, "You want to bowl? You want a cocktail? Come on in!"
Molly Bradshaw: I think that's what's fun. There are people who still walk in here and are amazed. "How is this hidden in the middle of the Mission?" And I'm like, are we really that hidden? I guess we are. We're kind of tucked away.
CK: When people ask for directions and I say 17th and South Van Ness, they stop and I say "You know the gas station?" and they're like, "Oh, yeah, the gas station!"
You mentioned being surprised. What sort of things have surprised you?
MB: I think we all can say we've never owned a bowling alley before. [Laughs.] The mechanics of it and just working in a bowling environment were surprising, but awesome. We all came in with different backgrounds, and because of that, we were able to tackle it and thrive.
SP: We didn't anticipate needing a full-time mechanic for only six lanes. But there's a lot of work that goes into maintaining the lanes, and minor things that can stop everything for five minutes. Somebody needs to know how to get a pin jam out. So we've learned a lot about the technical aspect of bowling. Whereas in our planning, we just thought, bowling is awesome! And it is.
The biggest and best surprise has been the demand for our events. Bringing in Gillian full-time, and now an entire team under her, has been great. We knew people would want to have parties here, but we didn't quite grasp how much of a need there is in San Francisco for people to have a great place where they can really do something fun and interactive. A place that's not just a bar.
JH: The guests can really feel like they can have ownership of the venue when they're here for their private parties. The size definitely works to our advantage, in that sense. It's been nice how many different walks of life come in for parties. Big companies, small companies, birthdays, engagements. All different types of celebrations. Everybody can find something here. It's unique. There's so many different ways to cater to each guest.
SP: Yeah, from a two-lane party for 12 people, to a whole shebang for 200 people, where we make them speciality cocktails and they can bring in banners. Like the Espolon tequila event. We had Day of the Dead face-painters, photographers showing their images on the big screen with our projector, live art, painting on the patio. It was like a mini-festival. Chris put awesome food together, a huge spread. It's fun.
CK: That's one of my biggest surprises, is people eating with pins crashing and screaming in the background.
SP: And what they want to eat while they bowl.
CK: Yeah, it's been really interesting. We opened with a menu that we thought was the basic mindset of what people will eat at a bowling alley. And now I feel like we've really pushed the envelope, and it's a restaurant as well.
SP: Now you're in a restaurant with six lanes. And the restaurant has really taken off. Chris has done a wonderful job.
JH: In the beginning, we wouldn't have guessed that guests would come here to eat. They would only have reservations for bowling. Now they're like "I don't have one, I just want to eat." It's flipped a bit, and [the restaurant] has become a destination in its own right.
So once people realized you had a great menu...
SP: They were surprised by how great the food was. And they're like, "Oh, I can just come here for dinner?" And we're like, "Yeah, of course." And now they are. But I think we had to change that perception in the very beginning, because people just thought bowling alley.
And bowling alleys are associated with gross nachos.
CK: Nothing wrong with gross nachos! [Laughs.]
SP: There's always a time and a place. We love bowling. We love that feeling and that experience. But how this whole idea came to be was that we felt you shouldn't have to be punished in order to go bowling. The horrible fluorescent lighting, the gross food.
That lighting. That's the worst part.
SP: I know, it's punishing. You walk in and you're like, "Am I really yellow and gaunt? Oh no, it's the fluorescence." But yeah, you don't have to be punished to do this. You can be comfortable, have amazing food, great cocktails, local craft beers, and a great experience.
Food-wise, how did you decide what you wanted to have on the menu and what you thought was appropriate for what people crave when they bowl?
SP: Now that we're offering entrees, we're trying to deliver them up there [at the lanes]. Since people can't really eat them while bowling, we have a little designated communal area. We want people to sit and enjoy their meal.
CK: Snacks have become a regular part of most menus now, so it's not too much of a departure to have finger foods and quick bites of that nature. It's a natural extension.
SP: Smaller bites. The fried chicken, people love to get and share. What else?
CK: The mushroom fritters.
SP: Those are new, and people are buying them a lot. And all the burgers of course, and sandwiches.
Do you have a menu favorite?
MB: [Chris] does such a good job of changing [the menu] that he takes away my favorites.
CK: I know. What was your old favorite?
MB: I really liked the short ribs.
CK: It's warming up. But it will get cold again.
JH: I liked the chicken roulade. That's one of my favorites.
MB: Apple-cider risotto.
SP: That was so good.
MB: I would get it whenever I had a chance to eat. We run around a lot.
Who are your customers? Do you have a group of regulars?
SP: We have regulars. It's cool, because our customer base is so broad. which we love. We don't want any one type. We love that we get all walks of life.
JH: Every element has developed its own regulars. We have a fan base for food and a fan base for bowling.
MB: We have leagues on Sundays, and that was a result of seeing people's faces over and over again. They'd say, "We'd like to come in and do something more organized, and compete." So we developed leagues, and that's been really fun.
Are you guys really good at bowling now?
SP: I wish we had more time to bowl.
JH: I once almost got a turkey. It was the middle of the day here, and nobody was here to see it.
SP: Yeah, right.
MB: Tree falls down in the forest.
JH: Other than that, no, I'm not good.
MB: I've progressed, though. I was a solid 99, and now I'm a solid 115. Next year, 200.
SP: I feel like if you break 100 in the house, you're a pro. [Laughs.]
G: And we still have the TBD cocktail.
MB: Yeah, we opened with the TBD, which was the To Be Determined cocktail that we'd name for the first person to bowl 300 here. It will be the TBD forever.
Do you ever read reviews?
SP: People send us reviews all the time. They're like, "Oh, great article," and we're like, "Awesome!" It's nice.
But you don't seek it out?
SP: Not really.
CK: I don't. Not unless there's something really egregious.
JH: I'm curious. I usually look.
MB: I'm okay with not reading it. People tell me.
CK: As long as someone in the house is reading it. It doesn't have to be me.
SP: We always appreciate it, but you never want to get skewed or jaded by anything you see or read. People are in the house having a good time, there are smiles on their faces, you know, we're doing our job. And the other stuff is all kind of peripheral. We don't live or die by what we read.
CK: It's like the Yelp curve or whatever. You have to read all of it. Because what's the majority? Three stars or four stars. "I had a great time." And then there's some where people say, "I hated it because I couldn't find any parking. One star."
JH: You have to take it with a grain of salt. I do most of the bookings for the lanes, and I deal with customers one-on-one, so I need be aware of what is being said about us and monitor that, and monitor the private parties and the guests.
For the next year, what are your plans or goals?
MB: Everyone wants to get a 300.
SP: We all want the TBD named after us! [Laughs.]
MB: Just keeping things fresh and fun. I get a lot of inspiration from Chris. Keeping the bar seasonal, but also looking out for new products and listening to the customers and what they want.
SP: Year one was so much discovery about who our customer is. Although that's broad, we know what the expectations are. Everyone wants to have a good time and be taken care of really well. We're looking forward to really growing that and really continuing to get into that path.
JH: This past year, we were able to see the kind of demand the customers are bringing to us. In terms of the parties, I know what works now, and I know what's not as popular, perhaps. And I just want to keep catering to the guests and really having their expectations be met, not just with bowling and drinks, but really working at those extra elements to bring the whole experience together.
CK: Goals for the next year? More everything. More people, more fun. Just always trying to get better. We'd love to be reviewed on the food side. Just keep improving. Those are the goals, but we'll see what happens. [Laughs.]
When did you see the restaurant really become its own entity?
JH: It was pretty early on. Maybe, three months?
SP: I think the first month was probably the most challenging, with people coming in for the first time and not understanding that we were a restaurant, because we don't do advertising, really. It's a lot of word-of-mouth. The media was really great, really strong with us and supportive. We went through a lot of hurdles opening this, what with the permitting process and being the first bowling alley to open in SF in 40 years, all this stuff. So we had a lot of media support. A lot of people already knew about the bowling part, so it was up to us to educate them when they came in and show that they could have an amazing drink and wonderful dinner experience too. It took a couple of months.
CK: Maybe three or four [months]. We added brunch, and brunch got settled in. Hours got to what they are now. The menu just filled out at about that time.
What inspired you to open a bowling alley, as opposed to a mini-golf course?
CK: Great idea! [Laughs.]
SP: The idea came from me bowling with my grandparents. My grandfather is 89 and still in a league. So whenever I visit him, that's what we do; we take him bowling. Molly and I co-owned a bar together already, and we thought, what's next after this bar? I wanted to do something else. And it just totally hit me like a ton of bricks: that's it! Let's do a bowling alley, but let's do it with really good food, not the horrible lighting. Great drinks. The whole feeling of bowling is, it's fun and everybody has a place in their heart for it from their childhood.
My mom was in a league when she was nine months pregnant with me. So I was in her belly, bowling. There's that emotional connection, too. But we just wanted to make it more comfortable. You still have that feeling, because that feeling is the best. So to answer your question, it wasn't like we wanted to do a business with an activity. What is that activity? It was bowling! Now how do we make it happen?
Do you have a favorite moment from the year?
JH: For me, it was during the holiday season, definitely. We did back-to-back parties. Long, long, long days, but as an event planner, it was the peak for me. People are so happy. We did this for them. We have this place, this environment and they love the food, the drinks, the service, everything, and that brought it all together for me...we've already booked parties for next holiday season.
SP: It does feel good knowing we created something that people love, and they feel good. There's emotion. They didn't just go to a bar and get trashed. It's so cute when people come in with their little costumes and are matching.
JH: People in actual bowling-pin suits.
SP: Or the black-tie bowling, when they all came in in full gowns and ascots, and they got our bowling shoes and had little pom-pom socks.
CK: For me it was New Year's Eve, at the end of the holidays. It was really fun. Early in the night we did a three- and four-course dinner, and then kind of near the end of the evening, we cleaned it all up and set it up for a party, had snacks, great music. Also it was the end of the year and the holiday season was over, so it was like, "Yes!" [Laughs.]
SP: I think my favorite [moment] was when I finally got my grandparents to come down here [from South Lake Tahoe]. I cried the whole time. It was their big thing to to see their granddaughter, and I had been talking about it for so long. I don't think they really could grasp what we were doing, because they just know their bowling alley. It's very old-school, an old place. Very traditional. And my grandpa is like, "Are you sure? Do people bowl anymore? In my league, people are falling out." But he's in his late 80s. Sometimes people can't do it anymore. When he finally came he looked all around and just the look on his face, baffled. "Is this bowling? This is what she was talking about?" It was just so emotional. I couldn't stop crying. I was so happy. I was worried they were never going to make it down, and they finally did.