2017-12-08 / Front Page

A new game rolls into town

Garden Street Bowl opens in Kennebunk
By Wm. Duke Harrington Staff Writer


John Nelson, one of three partners in the new Garden Street Bowl, stands at the head of the bowling lanes that now grace what had once been a grocery store. The site, which opened this week and also features a game room, full bar and 45- seat tavern specializing in “comfort food,” (Duke Harrington photo) John Nelson, one of three partners in the new Garden Street Bowl, stands at the head of the bowling lanes that now grace what had once been a grocery store. The site, which opened this week and also features a game room, full bar and 45- seat tavern specializing in “comfort food,” (Duke Harrington photo) KENNEBUNK — If the special preview night held Sunday, Dec. 3, is any indication, the new Garden Street Bowl in downtown Kennebunk is more likely to roll a strike than toss a gutter ball.

About 200 people crowded the new 10- lane bowling alley and game room, as well as its 45-seat tavern and 22-seat taphouse, which boasts a like number of spigots spewing a wide variety of craft beers.

The following morning, co-owner John Nelson was a little weary from the late night, but otherwise beaming with pride.

“We’re very happy, and very relieved to finally be able to unveil what we hope will be a great year-round draw to the downtown,” he said.


John Nelson, one of three partners, sits backed by a wall of bowling shoes at the new Garden Street Bowl. Excitement is high among local officials, as the bowling alley fills an downtown building that had been vacant since 2010. (Duke Harrington photo) John Nelson, one of three partners, sits backed by a wall of bowling shoes at the new Garden Street Bowl. Excitement is high among local officials, as the bowling alley fills an downtown building that had been vacant since 2010. (Duke Harrington photo) Nelson is partners in the project with chef Jake Peterson of Kennebunk, and Dan Hardy, a Wells native who will run the taphouse. The three have worked together in the local restaurant scene for more than a decade, at the Cape Arundel Inn and, most recently, the Village Tavern in West Kennebunk. Between them, they’ve logged more than 50 years in food service.

“If you’ve been in this business any length of time, you’ve got to love it. You’ve got to love hospitality. You’ve got to love people,” Nelson said.

And, as often happens for those who make their living serving others, late nights after work are often spent commiserating over a drink, winding down and discussing how to do it better.

“It was the Friday after Thanksgiving two years ago, we were talking and having a beer when Jake asked, what is it this town needs? Dan and I both answered at the same time, ‘A bowling alley.’”

However the trio agreed the concept needed to be a bowling alley for people who don’t bowl — a gathering spot with lanes and an overall atmosphere designed to be more recreational than competitive.

“The idea was to create almost like a cruise ship on land, where everyone can do their own thing, whether it’s enjoy a great family meal, or some fun, stress-free bowling, or play bocce ball, or relax in the VIP couch area, or just sit and watching a sports game, and yet still feel like they are part of the whole and feel that connection,” Nelson said.

Local officials are hoping that connection with spill over to the wider downtown area, given the history of the site.

Garden Street Bowl is located in what was the longtime home of the Garden Street Market grocery store, a 15,000-square-foot anchor business in Kennebunk — at least until it closed in 2010. When it shut down, a vacuum in the downtown shopping scene was created and has persisted ever since.

There were several false starts in filling the space. However, the big stumbling block, according to former economic development director Mat Eddy, was that Hannaford Supermarkets took out a 25- year lease on the property from its Brunswick based owner, Hadcar Corp. According to Eddy, the grocery giant was paying about $65,000 per year in rent just to keep any other grocery store from going in on the site.

“They’ve actually been a tremendous help in all of this,” Eddy said last year, as the bowling alley was winding its way through the planning board. “In return for a no-compete clause, they agreed to relinquish the lease and let the building be sold.”

Eventually, Nelson said, he and his partners sank $3 million into the project — about twice their initial estimate. The process was long and laborious and the trio probably succeeded in large part because they jumped in without knowing it couldn’t be done.

“We are all three naive thinking this was something we could do,” Nelson said. “Many times we felt like we were going to give up because it was just such a gigantic project. There really was a lot involved. In the end, we all felt like we ended up getting an MBA out of this process. If someone had told us in the beginning the all obstacles we would face, we probably would not have even tried. We would have given up, because, coming from the service industry, none of us are rich. And now we’re millionaires in debt.

“But we’re very lucky to be here, and the reason we did succeed is because of the community,” Nelson said. “The town was tremendous. So many people came in to help us out. A lot of times we just didn’t know what to do, but there was always someone who’d come around with advice, whether town officials, or just someone who had experience and expertise in a particular hurdle we needed to overcome.

“So, we really feel like this is a community bowling alley,” Nelson said. “Because Kennebunk built this. We don’t think we could have done this in any other town. We think in another town we would not have gotten to this point.”

Now, over the hump of getting a new business up and running and back in their mutual milieu of running a restaurant and taphouse — albeit one with an attached bowing alley and game room — Nelson said he and partners are looking forward to doing what they do best.

And their timing is serendipitous. Nelson and his partners have hired 51 employees, with 16 coming over from David’s KPT, which shut down recently.

Nelson said he expects Garden Street Bowl will thrive in the winter then quiet down during the summer when other area businesses are booming.

“We’ll do some things like have a band, or trivia nights and other things to attract tourists and summer residents, like wine tastings and meals made with items from the farmers market that will continue to operate just outside our door,” Nelson said, adding, “And, of course, we think we’ll kill it on a rainy day.”

“We also plan on doing weddings, big parties, corporate functions and team building,” Nelson said. “And want to get involved with the high school and parks and recreation. We hope very much that we will complement the Waterhouse Center as a big draw to the downtown that offers something for everyone in the community.”

That is exactly what so many with a stake in Kennebunk’s success are hoping for as well.

“As heartbreaking as it was the day Garden Street Market closed, is as joyous as people are today with the opening of Garden Street Bowl,” said Laura Dolce, executive director of the Kennebunk, Kennebunkport and Arundel Chamber of Commerce. “The new owners have not only breathed new life into the space, they’re breathing new life into our downtown. I believe this will make a difference to neighboring stores and bring more people downtown in the evening, all of which will contribute to a new vibrancy.”

“Certainly the Garden Street Bowl is a welcome addition to downtown Kennebunk,” said Dick Morin, chairman of the Kennebunk Board of Selectmen. “The building sat vacant for way too long and was a sad reminder of both a sluggish economy and the challenge of negotiating a new life for the building.

“The numerous changes in our downtown have occurred for various reasons to be sure, however, I continue to see small yet consistent progress being made filling storefronts with the Garden Street Bowl likely now the most significant. I hope that it will become a centerpiece for the community by drawing visitors from the North and South of the town. The three villages each offer something different for visitors. We are fortunate to have the diversity and must continue to remain attractive to those looking for shopping and dining, the excitement of a harbor and waterfront or the quiet of a more rural environment. Kennebunk delivers on all three.”

“We are humbled and very grateful to be in the position we are,” Nelson said. “We recognize this is something new and there are going to be some mistakes. But the owners are always in the building and what we will work for is what we have always done — making sure our guests are smiling and happy.”

Staff Writer Wm. Duke Harrington can be reached at news@kennebunkpost.com.

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