In early summer 2020, when Covid restrictions were loosening their grip, and many businesses were able to — in some measure — reopen and resume business, the five bowling alleys that make up Buffaloe Lanes simply wanted to prove they could be just as safe and sanitary as any other business.
It was March 16, 2020, when nearly the entire country shut down, followed by in-person, indoor gathering limits of no more than 10 people, which continued to keep bowling alleys dark. When, after two months, Buffaloe Lanes was still closed, the owners and management were left scratching their heads and asking questions.
“Why are some of these businesses open or open but operating differently, and we’re not,” said Brian Collier, who owns and manages Buffaloe Lanes in Mebane. “Our facilities are bigger, we can social distance better. We already standardized in our industry a lot of cleaning and sanitizing.”
Collier said he knew the pandemic shutdown would be more than two weeks, believing the bowling alley would likely reopen after about 10 weeks. He never thought Buffaloe Lanes would remain shuttered for half a year.
Wed Sept. 8, 2020, after six months of no gutter balls, strikes, spares, splits, turkeys, and revenue, Collier was finally able to again flip on the lights and set the pins. For the most part, anyway. Only nine of the 18 lanes could operate. Business hours were reduced, and the game room and kitchen would remain closed. The day before the original Covid-19 shutdown, Buffaloe Lanes had 23 people on payroll. When it reopened, only Collier and his assistant manager were on staff.
Collier also thought when Buffaloe Lanes opened its doors again, he would be greeted by enough local families eager to get back to bowling and have a good time to sustain the business until the limitations were fully lifted. While the bowling alley was kept afloat, Collier was mistaken about who would lead the comeback.
“There were some families coming in, but it was a trickle,” he said. “It was the league bowlers that kept calling and saying, ‘You know, if you put a league on the floor, we’ll wear the masks. We’ll do whatever we need to do. We want to get back into the game.’”
The leagues and their members also helped spread the word about the extensive efforts the small staff at Buffaloe Lanes were making to provide a safe and sanitary environment for bowlers of all skills.
“We didn’t have any house balls on the lanes, so when you went onto the lanes, we would walk you up there with a crate with the shoes,” Collier said. “We would wipe surfaces down in front of you and there’d be basically a mix of house balls, different weights and different holes, and we would sanitize them in front of each guest. One nice thing about opening up six months later is that we saw what was going on with other businesses, and we came in with a plan to sanitize right in front of people. It was a lot of extra work, but it put people’s mind at ease.”
It was June 2021, before the bowling alley was allowed to operate without restrictions in place. All lanes were opened, shields came down, social distancing signs were removed, and hours were extended. The staff was still lean, and midnight bowling may not ever return, but Collier said an earlier version has been popular.
The kitchen is still closed, but renovations are being made, and should reopen, possibly in August. Collier said he chose to keep the kitchen closed because the staffing shortage was already enough of a headache without having to find workers to prepare and serve food.
One of the biggest changes since Buffaloe Lanes has gotten the ball rolling again came when Collier officially took ownership of the business. Discussions for the change had been underway before Covid-19, but the pandemic accelerated those plans.
Collier has been employed with Buffaloe Lanes for 24 years, beginning his career with the company when he was 16-years-old and in high school. During that span, he’s been with the business through good times and bad. The original owners thought the best time to make the ownership change would be as it was fully reopening.
Coming out of one of the most challenging times ever faced by small businesses, it would have been understandable if Collier sought to tap the brakes on taking over Buffaloe Lanes. But he didn’t hesitate.
“Bowling is something I’m absolutely passionate about and I love,” he said. “Bowling is one of those very few things that you can do when you’re three years old, and you can do when you’re 103. We have leagues for people with special needs. Bowling is for everyone and there was no doubt that it was going to bounce back and it was going to bounce back hard. We’re in just a great community that has always embraced what we did when we (Buffaloe Lanes) took over here in 2013. I knew that people would come back. We’re really not just a bowling center; we’re a community center. There were quite a few people who wanted to talk me out of it, and I said, ‘No, I think this is the right move.’ You have faith in bowling.”
In 2019, Buffaloe Lanes finished the year with solid revenue growth. Prior to the pandemic shutdown in 2020, the bowling alley was on its way to a record year. February and March, traditionally are Buffaloe Lanes’ busiest months of the year, with a drop off at the beginning of summer, as people are eager to get outdoors after winter.
If the company is able to regain its momentum of early 2020, Collier said he’s hoping to pull the trigger on several changes that have been in the planning stages for some time. Those include relocating the front desk, repaving and re-striping the parking lot, purchasing more games and expanding the arcade by 20 percent. Another change Collier said may happen is to remove most of the bowling alley’s billiards tables and replace them with Duckpin Bowling lanes.
“It’s kind of more of a northern sport, but it used to be here in Alamance County,” Collier said. “We used to have Duckpin lanes at the YMCA in Burlington. It’s very much like bowling — the lane is the same length, same width — but the balls are smaller. The pins are smaller, too. We’re seeing a revitalization of it, and it’d be great for kids and even seniors.”
Even though he is optimistic about the future of Buffaloe Lanes, Collier said he is, for the time being, keeping staff levels low, if not understaffed, to better enable the company to adjust to bumps along the way, whether that be Covid-related or something else. He said he’s still seeing long delays for components to repair arcade games, and delays for merchandise to restock the prize selection.
“I’ve got a phenomenal staff,” Collier said. “It is exactly what I need. I’m extremely blessed. They’re talented, they’re hard working. If it wasn’t for the staff, and if it wasn’t for the community and especially the league bowlers, we wouldn’t have made it. It’s been an interesting journey.”