Along South Broad Street, there is a six-lane bowling alley tucked away in the basement of a building that is owned by a nonprofit organization. This bowling alley has only been open since 2009 and employs a staff of only nine people. The advertising budget is based on how much the general manager can spare from his own pocket.
Yet, PEP Bowl has not only maintained daily operation, it has succeeded in having a positive effect on the neighborhood and the organization upstairs, Programs Employing People.
Philadelphia Magazine even named it one of the top bowling alleys in the city in 2012.
“My staff treats customers right,” PEP Bowl General Manager Dan Ciecka said on how his alley has succeeded. “I try to keep the place clean and as new as possible within reason because of the expenses. I think all of that helps build a good customer base.”
The organization upstairs and the bowling alley downstairs have a good working relationship.
Programs Employing People provides a broad array of services, including employment in the bowling alley and elsewhere in the community, to hundreds of adults with intellectual disabilities. It also provides vocational training, basic literacy education, arts classes, recreational camps and adult day support.
Four of the nine employees in the bowling alley are from the PEP program and PEP provided the space for the alley. In return, PEP has benefitted in multiple ways.
“The [bowling] center has afforded PEP much needed additional revenue for program operations,” PEP Executive Director Graham Gill said. “It has afforded the general public an understanding of people with disabilities and their potential for contributing to a successful business. Our venture into PEP Bowl has been a very positive experience for both PEP and the bowling venture.”
The bowling alley and building actually date back to 1954 when the local chapter of the Sons of Italy social organization owned it. PEP was originally down the street, in the basement of the Calvary Saint Paul Church on South Broad in 1969. A few years later, PEP was granted use of the current building but the bowling alley was more of a storage closet at that point. In 2006, with a struggling federal and state economy, PEP looked for ideas to generate revenue. So it campaigned to restore the bowling alley for community use.
“In the nonprofit world, there is always a need for increased funding,” Gill said. “Our entrepreneurial spirit took over and we planned the reopening of the bowling center. We felt the community would respond well to an affordable, secure center for family and friends to recreate.”
Renovations were completed in early 2009 and since then, Ciecka has been focused on giving every customer a good experience in hopes of gaining a good reputation in the community and adding customers via good word-of-mouth reviews.
“Every time someone comes in, I want to assume it’s the first time they’ve ever been in here so we help them with bowling tips and doing everything we can to make their experience pleasant,” Ciecka said. “If someone walks out of here and thinks the place is awesome, they’ll tell a few people. But if someone walks out and thinks it’s horrible, they’ll tell 50 people.”
Ciecka, a 1991 Temple University graduate, had previous experience with the bowling company Brunswick and said he noticed things at other bowling centers that he didn’t want to happen at PEP Bowl. This included better customer service.
“It seemed like a lot of the people working at front desks were rude and it was just the way the bowling industry was,” Ciecka said. “So one thing I tried to do when I came here was really gear toward customer service.”
The PEP Bowl experience is aided by a ‘Bring Your Own Beer’ rule on weekends. They sell T-shirts and there is a food stand. PEP employees offer a warm greeting at the door.
“We do have expenses but after the expenses, all profits go to helping what they do upstairs,” Ciecka said.
Ciecka spent just $500 last year on advertising and that was on sponsoring a local softball team. Such a low advertising budget would cripple most businesses but Ciecka, the employees and PEP make it work.
“The community at large has grown to like the center and all we do at PEP,” Gill said. “Having made the decision to open PEP Bowl has ended up being a win-win situation for all.”