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How one of Chicago’s original bowling alleys is staying true and making money
In 1967, there were 91 bowling alleys in the city of Chicago, according to the United States Bowling Congress. Now, as rising property values squeeze renters and owners alike, only 15 remain. Bob Kuhn’s Timber Lanes Bowling Alley, located at 1851 W. Irving Park in North Center, is one of them.
Start-up costs: Kuhn started working at Timber Lanes Bowling Alley in 1982. He used $50,000 in savings to buy a 25 percent share three years later.
In 1993, after one business partner left and the other passed away, Kuhn took over as sole owner. Since then, he’s been in charge of Timber Lanes Inc., which includes the bowling alley, two adjacent buildings, and other rental properties. Most recently, the corporation added another bowling alley in Arlington Heights. Kuhn’s not shy about expansion. “The more that we can feed into the corporation, the stronger the corporation is,” he says.
Expenses: Kuhn thinks of himself as “a numbers guy,” and rattles off his primary expenses quickly and easily. Timber Lanes’ largest fixed costs are property taxes and employee medical insurance. He spends $4,000 a month on taxes and business insurance. After that, his largest expense is his liquor license, which costs $4,400 every two years. Bowling pins are all replaced every two years, at $130 a case for eight cases.
Kuhn has four full-time and two part-time employees whose salaries add up to about $100,000 a year. He pays about $800 a month to maintenance and cleaning subcontractors.
Foot traffic: Leagues account for 75 percent of Kuhn’s bowling-related revenue. After that, it’s events—Timber Lanes holds five or six a week and charges $450 for three hours. During open bowl, a lane costs $20
Profit engine: As with many business owners who shell out for liquor licenses, Kuhn makes his money on booze. About 60 percent of his total sales come from the bar.
Location: Timber Lanes has benefited from a rising tide. The North Center alley has gotten safer as surrounding property values have gone up. Kuhn used to tell people, “We’re two muggings from the El.” Now, he uses a different unit of measurement: “We’re 125 feet from the El.”
Branding: Kuhn’s not afraid of keeping up with the times—his 40-lane bowling alley in Arlington Heights has automatic scoring — but he keeps Timber Lanes much as it was in 1945 to appeal to the nostalgic. Bowlers play music on a jukebox and keep track of score by hand.
Marketing: Most of Kuhn’s customers are long-time regulars. He spends just $200 a month on advertising, mostly in church bulletins and the white pages. “We don’t have anything that you desperately need,” he says. “We’re not a doctor, we’re not a dentist.”
Friction point: Managing his employees. According to Kuhn, good help is hard to find. “There’s always something out of whack. My dog died. I don’t feel good. I gotta go to my aunt’s… whatever. It’s just one thing after another,” he says. Despite this, Kuhn claim to have a low rate of turnover.
The bottom line: Kuhn’s doing well enough to resist the allure of the big cash out. He was offered $2 million for the property on which Timber Lanes sits, but turned it down. “I’d rather play the game,” he says.