When Peter Shapiro and his partner Charley Ryan stumbled on a 23,000-square-foot barn from the 1880s on a derelict corner in Brooklyn, they knew they’d found the perfect spot for their vision–a multi-purpose entertainment venue with a bowling alley, concert hall, bar, and restaurant.
A stage next to a bowling alley? What kind of band would want to perform beside such a noisy distraction? What’s more, 23,000 square feet was a lot of space to fill. While the old barn wasn’t far from the hipster mecca of Williamsburg, it was located on a desolate street across from a graffiti-covered abandoned building and down the road from a run-down navy yard.
Shapiro, already a music veteran, pressed on. When he was 23, he bought The Wetlands, a New York nightclub. By the time Brooklyn Bowl opened its doors in 2009, Shapiro had made two documentaries on The Grateful Dead, revamped the music magazine Relix, and collaborated with U2 on a 3-D IMAX version of their concerts.
Still, a healthy cohort of music industry pros were not shy about voicing their skepticism about the Brooklyn Bowl project, including Shapiro’s father. Admittedly, Shapiro himself wasn’t sure if he’d pull off the stage-next-to-a-bowling-alley feat, but he says he was willing to take the risk.
To date, Brooklyn Bowl has hosted a range of performers–from Questlove and Guns N’ Roses to former President Bill Clinton and Martha Stewart–to your average eight-year-old birthday party. Since the start of the year, Brooklyn Bowl has opened two new locations in London and Las Vegas. Shapiro says he is scouting other potential cities.
“A lot of people were warning me from the music business,” he says. “If I listened to them, I would not have built Brooklyn Bowl.”
Shapiro says he learned seven lessons early on that helped make Brooklyn Bowl the success it is today.
Shapiro says he wanted Brooklyn Bowl to be more than just a stage facing a bar like most other music venues. His idea for a bowling alley in the space didn’t come from a love for bowling insomuch as it came from his background in film. He knew people would get the best visual experience if they had to stand at a distance from the television screens they were watching. Putting a bowling alley in front of a stretch of eight screens created a distance of 120 feet that couldn’t be crossed. Lined up, the large screens stretched 100 feet from end to end, creating a panorama of images for the eye to take in. “It’s only possible to have a visual that’s awesome with the space,” he says. “The lanes enable that.”
Shapiro says he needed to find the right sound system to overcome the challenge of bowling noise bleeding into performances. The result is not just a cool visual experience, he says, but a space that gives people something to do besides just watching the stage.
Industry hotshots thought Shapiro was nuts to build a performance stage next to a bowling alley. But he was confident that once they saw the space, they would love it. No matter people’s convictions when offering advice to him, he’d always listen for them to say the words, “I think,” to remind himself that what they said was merely their opinion.
“A lot of people will tell you what they think,” he says. “They will tell you what’s right and wrong, but they will have the word ‘think’ in there.”
When Shapiro was drumming up interest in the venue, he contacted all of his industry connections. He called up Bob Weir from The Grateful Dead and Questlove, who started DJing on Thursdays and brought The Roots to the performance stage. He reached out to the Philadelphia jam band, The Disco Biscuits, who he’d known from his time at Wetlands. “I needed to call the favors in,” he says. “If I wasn’t able to do that, it wouldn’t have worked.”
Wetlands, which closed in 2001, supported an environmental protection activism center at Wetlands Preserve. Shapiro will be the first to admit that Wetlands didn’t practice what it preached. That’s why it was important for him to build a new space that stood behind its values.
“Wetlands was environmentally themed and all about issues that were not happening there,” he says. “When we created Brooklyn Bowl, we took that Wetlands belief and figured out how to integrate those benefits when you are building a venue.”
Brooklyn Bowl’s building was LEED certified; the concert stage floor was built using recycled truck tires, and the venue incorporated reclaimed materials like glass from the Brooklyn Navy Yard. To cut down on waste, Shapiro decided to sell local beer on tap rather than bottled beer.
The first concert at Brooklyn Bowl attracted only 150 people–a small crowd for such a large venue. Shapiro knew the space needed to build up some momentum before it really took off.
“At first it was a challenge to get prominent bands to play because a bowling alley has a certain stigma that people weren’t running to,” he says. That’s no longer the case, he adds. Bands are now lining up to get on the venue’s stage, including Guns N’ Roses, Elvis Costello, and Kanye West.
Shapiro wanted patrons at Brooklyn Bowl to have a high-quality experience with bowling, live music, and great food. Since Wetlands didn’t serve food, he had little experience in the restaurant business. Shapiro then decided to partner with the popular upscale New York chain Blue Ribbon.
Once the venue started hosting larger acts, Shapiro knew he had to ramp up his staff to keep up with the high quality. He expanded his production team, brought on a stage manager, and hired more servers. “On bigger nights you add staff if you really want to nail it,” he says. “The kitchen staff and everything went up–but so did revenue.”
Shapiro says he knows it’s the little details that make a difference. The toilet stalls in the upstairs bathroom at Brooklyn Bowl each have one-sided windows that overlook the bowling alley below. Security guards at the front door wear jackets that have “Welcome,” not “Security” on their backs. When big acts come into town, they have their own server in the band room to bring them whatever they want from the kitchen. It’s about setting the best vibe, Shapiro says. “Vibe is all management and team and creation,” he says.
Along the way, Shapiro admits he made his fair share of mistakes. He brought in the wrong bands, and he didn’t have the right staff in place for certain jobs. But they were the kinds of mistakes he knew he could learn from rather than let himself get hung up on.
“Making the first mistake, I don’t really get upset with myself,” he says. “It’s about being able to adjust. Put your head down and don’t listen to people telling you what’s not going to work.”