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Let's go bowling: From competitive to casual, there are still lanes to spare

There's never been a bowling alley in Los Altos, and there probably never will be. With land so scarce and valuable - this is, after all, the place where homes have been priced as high as $27 million - it's doubtful even the most brazen businessperson would build one.

So what is a Los Altan jonesing to drop pins and devour greasy foods in rented shoes to do?

It all depends on what you want.

If it's old-school bowling you seek, nearby Palo Alto Bowl fits like a custom bowling ball. There are league nights, a snack bar with pizza and Buffalo wings, birthday-party packages and a pro shop.

If you're after a hip place to hang out that's more about the lounge than the lanes, there's newly opened Strike Cupertino. No leagues or pro shop here, but it does offer a full-service restaurant offering Chinese and American cuisine, a sports bar plastered with plasmas, corporate packages and a large game room.

Strike's opening last month at Cupertino Square (formerly Vallco Fashion Park) was a bold statement that bowling is not dead in Silicon Valley. Although bowling hasn't been cool since the 1970s, if it ever was, and several aged alleys have subsequently closed - replaced primarily by housing or retail that generates significantly more revenue - Strike is betting its business plan will work as well here as it has in other parts of the country.

"Very few (bowling alleys) are opening because it's a pretty big bet," said Strike Holdings CEO Tom Shannon, whose company spent $9 million to launch the Cupertino location, its first on the West Coast. "But our business model works. It's mainly corporate driven and is built for sophisticated clientele. The differences between what we do and what traditional bowling alleys offer are in the design and aesthetics - we build it for whom those things matter. It's the difference between a boutique hotel and Holiday Inn."

Don't expect to see Strike filled with people donning shirts with their names embroidered on front and specially designed bowling gloves on their throwing hands.

"League bowlers are not interested in what we offer," Shannon said.

This isn't the place to roll a 300, but rather to roll into for a casual game or two between chatting up people at the bar, playing pool or watching football on the big screen.

"We don't even consider ourselves a bowling alley," said Dave Gneckow, general manager of the 38,000-square-foot Strike Cupertino. "We're a sports bar that's just big enough to have a 32-lane bowling alley."

A sports bar that has a cover charge ($5) after 9 p.m. and is open until 2 a.m. Thursdays through Saturdays.

Strike's concept may seem innovative, but Rex Golobic said it has been done before. The president of Bowling Management Group, which owns Palo Alto Bowl and two other alleys on the Peninsula, Golobic saw it first-hand when his family opened Hollywood Recreation in the 1930s.

"It's going back to the entertainment business again," he said, comparing Strike to the bowling alley his father built at the famous intersection of Hollywood Boulevard and Vine Street. "Hollywood Rec had very little league play and more parties. We had a billiards room, a cocktail lounge, a bar and a coffee shop. They were building them like that in the 1920s - it's a bar with a bowling alley attached."

Golobic, who's been in the bowling biz for 70 years, said the industry is in flux. "It's evolving across the country," he said. "The market changes."

It has changed considerably since bowling hit the peak of its popularity in the late 1970s/early 1980s. League participation has declined 50 percent since then, according to Golobic, from 4 to 2 million people nationally.

Today's patrons are mainly recreational bowlers. So while Golobic still caters to the competitive players, it's those rolling more gutter balls than strikes who pay the bills. Palo Alto Bowl is promoted as a place to host parties and bring families. Its 32 lanes are often filled with children on summer days and Stanford University students at night during the school year. A game typically costs about $8 with shoe rental (Strike runs close to $10).

Palo Alto Bowl's days are numbered, however. Its lease of the 33,000-square-foot building on El Camino Real (just blocks from the Los Altos border) expires in 2010. Golobic said he would like to stay, but the new landlord has other ideas.

"The people who bought it are in the development business, high-rise residential, and we can't compete with that," he said. "But the city decreed a long time ago that it wasn't going to be; they changed the zoning eight to 10 years ago. The city says it's looking for recreation, but it's really looking for revenue."

The quest for more revenue - by cities and property owners - has led to nearby bowling alleys falling like pins: Sunnyvale Bowl in the late 1980s, El Camino Bowl (Mountain View) and Cherry Chase Bowl (Sunnyvale) in the 1990s and Saratoga Bowl just a few years ago. There are rumblings Homestead Lanes (Cupertino) and Cambrian Bowl (San Jose) could be next.

"The old model won't support market rates," said Shannon, who noted that 200 bowling alleys close each year in the United States and only a handful open. "It's a function of real estate. The old-timers who own the land are making $100,000 a year and they can sell it for $10-$20 million for development. It makes much more sense than sticking with it and operating the business."

Golobic said "the revenue stream won't support a traditional bowling center without an incentive," such as discounted rent to anchor a shopping center or mall.

For Cupertino Square, Strike and the 16-screen movie theater that opened in the spring are seen as saviors for a mall that practically had tumbleweeds blowing through the lower level.

"I think we benefited from not knowing the history," Shannon said. "The reality is that there's no other space to do anything like this in Silicon Valley. It's an ideal location - in the middle of everything - and there's plenty of parking."

So far, Strike has drawn plenty of patrons. Shannon estimated that 1,000 people attended the July 19 VIP launch/media preview - at which actress Angela Kinsey of NBC's hit show "The Office" rolled the ceremonial first ball - and about the same number showed up for the public opening the next night.

"People are so hungry for the next anything to do, and a facility like this is blowing them away," Gneckow said of Strike, where every lane glows in the dark and has a large video screen at the end of it. "You should see their jaws drop as they walk into the place."

Golobic's 39-year-old Palo Alto Bowl may not have the same effect on customers, but he is confident that there's a demand for both types of facilities. And Golobic hasn't given up on finding a new locale for Palo Alto Bowl once his lease runs out

"Sure, I'd build one if I could find a place," he said. "If the real estate market settles down again and it's cost-effective to build one, I will."

And if he builds it, Golobic is sure people will support it. There's something about bowling that keeps them coming back for more.

"It's relatively simple to learn and hard to master," said Golobic, a charter member of the Pro Bowlers Association. "If you get pretty good at it, and you want to get better, the harder it is to get a little bit better."

For more information about Strike, call (408) 252-BOWL or visit www.strikecupertino.com. For more information about Palo Alto Bowl, call 948-1031 or visit https://fun2spare.2gobowl.com.

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