Boston Bowl: Model of endurance

Boston Bowl on Morrissey Blvd. marked its 50th anniversary of operation in Dorchester last week, its longevity a direct result of maintaining value and the ability to adapt to changes in the business model, its owners say.

“Bowling is still a good value,” said Phil Strazzula Jr., vice president of the company. “When times are tough, many people stop taking trips or family vacations. But they still want to do things with the kids.”

And the sport itself has maintained popularity over many decades. “It is a timeless sport that transcends all ages and all abilities,” Strazzula said. “It’s a wonderful family activity. When you are bowling, you are engaged with each other. There is conversation. It’s very social.”

Boston Bowl does have a unique edge in the market, being the only bowling facility in the city that is open 24 hours a day, seven days per week. Since the center secured that license 40 years ago, it has been open every night every year save for Christmas Eve.

Even with that, the business has changed over the years to improve and provide new experiences for its customers.

It’s that ability to evolve that has been the most significant factor to the bowling center’s success over 50 years, Strazzula said. Indeed, the shift towards more entertainment has been a national trend in the industry, he added.

“The trend has gone from a bowling center toward a family fun center that offers video games, batting cages, miniature golf, and other activities,” Strazzula said “Food has become a big component of that as well.”

It’s also part of the owners’ business philosophy. “Everything has to change over time,” Strazzula said. “When you stay rigid and say ‘this works, why change it?’ you are destined to fail. You have to change the business model. You need to listen to your customers and give them good service. You need to adapt to the marketplace or you’ll end up out of business.”

The family business began with the establishment of the Phillips Candy House in 1925. The candy house continues to sell homemade chocolates in its store adjacent to the bowling center.

In the late 1950s, after the Southeast Expressway was built, the land around the candy house became buildable, having been separated from the Tenean Beach area waterfront by the new road. In 1958, the city held an auction for the land and the family purchased the site and decided to open a large bowling center, which became very popular very quickly.

During the day, brothers Matt and Phil Strazzula Sr., and brother-in-law Joe Sammartino Sr., would work in the candy store. At night, they would work at the bowling center where, initially, there were only ten-pin lanes. In the 1960s, they added candlepin.

The bowing center has evolved with technology and grew to include an arcade of video games, called G-Wizz, and a restaurant.

“We moved to overhead scoring when that was an innovation, using a system like a transparency,” Strazzula said. “Now with automatic scoring, it’s done with computers and monitors. Cameras count the pins.”

Earlier this year, the center’s restaurant, the Deadwood Cafe and Brewery, began selling its own beer, which is brewed onsite.

About 50 percent of the beer sold at the restaurant is the company’s own brew, Strazzula said. “Twenty-five years ago, you wouldn’t have expected to find that,” he said. “People are sophisticated today, especially when it comes to food and drink.”

The drive for innovation and better service has been part of the family’s philosophy since they started in business together. Today’s managers grew up learning those lessons from their parents. And they learned from the ground up.

“My dad and uncles believed that you cannot tell somebody what to do unless you’ve done it yourself,” Strazzula said. “Like many family businesses, you start at the bottom.”

Strazzula recalls his first job at the age of 8, scraping the papers at the candy store. When the candy was hand-made, it was set on a thick, wax-like piece of paper. Because the paper was re-usable, it had to be cleaned in order for the next batch of candy to be placed on it. “You would have to scrape the drops of chocolate off the paper using a plastic scraper,” he said.

From there, he moved on to the bowling center when he was about 12, working summers and Saturdays during the school year. On Saturday morning he would participate in a junior league, but in the afternoon it was time to work.

“I did cleaning, sweeping and pulling weeds outside,” Strazzula said. “As I got older, I moved on to work at the bowling desk, as a mechanic, and washed dishes. I got rotated around. There was no job I couldn’t do because I had done all of them. When people see that you did that job, they have more respect for you. That was the managerial philosophy.”

The family also stressed a high standard of performance, he said. “You had to perform 110 percent all of the time. That’s how you developed a good work ethic.”

While the family’s business philosophy has become a tradition passed on to the next generation, the business itself has become a tradition for many area families and individuals. In addition to strong numbers who come for public bowling, there are more than 30 candlepin and ten-pin leagues that use the facility.

The Morrissey Boulevard location has been a big driver, said Steve Nagle, a family member and manager. “Thousands of people drive by this location every day,” he said. “We are also constantly updating our center. We’ve always reinvested into the business.”

The late-night scene has been a mainstay for 40 years as college students and late night workers, such as restaurant workers, utilize the center, said Nagle.

Future growth will probably be in the establishment of additional leagues as well as other services like parties and corporate events. “We are doing more birthday parties and corporate events. It’s an activity that everybody can do,” Nagle said, noting that last year more than 1,000 birthday parties were held at the center while several hundred companies also held corporate events there. Fundraisers for nonprofits are also popular, he said.

In December of last year, the family purchased another bowling center, in Hanover, and named it Boston Bowl Hanover. The site offers similar services and is open to 11 p.m., carrying the family tradition to a new audience of bowlers.