For bowling alleys across the country, the COVID-19 pandemic has been like a brutal stretch of gutterballs — day after day, month after month, 2020 into 2021.

Bowling is, at its heart, a social sport, said Ginger Almer, a co-owner of Jack’s House on Highway 25 in east Brainerd. It’s not like the average player wants to stop by and play a couple rounds in solitude, she noted; instead bowling has always been an event — a spontaneous getaway for some, a weekly ritual for others — where gatherings are to be expected and competition is the glue that binds a culture of comradery the world over.

“It’s a place where you can go with babies to 80 year olds and everybody can enjoy themselves and do activities together,” Almer said of Jack’s House during a phone interview Wednesday, May 12. “Bowling is the No.1 participation sport in the world. It’s meant for everyone.”

None of this, however, mixes well with COVID-19.

When much of the state went into lockdown in March of last year, bowling alleys took a beating. Unlike other small businesses in much of the hospitality and tourism industries, the kind of funding to help businesses — like the Paycheck Protection Program — proved to be woefully ill equipped to keep bowling alleys afloat. It was a matter of how the money could be used, Almer said, as well as how far this money could be stretched in a multi-faceted entertainment center like Jack’s House.

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Jack’s House features automatic scoring, a lounge and restaurant area for 150 to 175 people, a pro shop, a large arcade with virtual reality golf, firearm and archery games and a locker room, as well as a lounge and a deck bar open for warm weather seasons. Upstairs, the facility incorporates banquet facilities for about 600 people. All in all, this means Jack’s House is a place meant for people to congregate, whether it’s a friendly game between friends, or, on the other end of spectrum, a venue for wedding receptions and the like.

As such, the complex maintenance and upkeep of these different amenities means Jack’s House’s owners and three employees have to be jacks-of-all-trades, skilled and willing to undertake any number of tasks involving heavy, complex machinery, a litany of cleaning, and culinary preparation, among others.

The problem is that the money also has to be able to cover all these needs as well, said Almer, who also serves as the president of the Bowling Proprietors Association of Minnesota. After what happened in 2020, it’s abundantly clear that state and federal funding for bowling alleys just wasn’t enough. Even if there was enough funding in place, there’s also the looming worker shortage that has left Almer and her business partners pulling double shifts to pick up the slack.

“Bowling has been an overlooked industry during COVID-19,” Almer said. “(As president of the Bowling Proprietors Association of Minnesota) I'm privy to a lot of emails and calls from other centers and they're mortgaging their homes, they're taking out their retirements. It’s a pretty sad story.”

The result is that many bowling alleys had to shutter their doors forever, she added, while those that remain — like Jack’s House — have to find a way to survive until things return to normal. Even as the state reopens, with the slowest, most quiet months of the year ahead, bowling alleys will have to hold on just that much longer than most.

“We just want to make it through the summer and hope the leagues will all come back stronger because our leagues were down about 46% due to COVID. People were afraid to come in,” said Almer, who noted there are some good omens on the horizon. “In February and March, we definitely saw an upswing and people coming. I think that they're ready to get out of their houses and they've got the vaccine and they're feeling more comfortable being out in public.” Almer has seen her fair share of highs and lows. Jack’s House is one of two bowling alleys she operates, along with Wadena Lanes in Wadena, and her breadth of experience stretches back decades. Long before she founded Jack’s House in Brainerd in 2003 with her now business partner Kevin Lorentz, she’d been active in the business since 1990 and her family had a stake in bowling alleys as far back as the early ‘80s. With 40 years of family history invested in bowling, it’s natural Jack’s House is the namesake of Almer’s father, Jack Almer. Now, Jack’s House is a joint venture between Ginger Almer, Kevin Lorentz, and Ginger’s brother, Mike Almer.

Society was shifting long before COVID-19 hit the scene. This manifested in a shift from structured league-oriented bowling to social, spontaneous gatherings, said Almer, who noted that 10-15 years ago it was the former that predominated, now it’s the latter that largely pays the bills. This has necessitated a shift in how Jack’s House does business as well. She and her business partners had to be more proactive in the mediasphere, Almer said, with advertising, social media, and old fashioned word-of-mouth all a focus.

So, if people are itching for something to do, Jack’s House is ready and waiting, Almer said, and they’ll likely discover that bowling is only the tip of the iceberg.

“Even if you're not interested in bowling or participating in the summer activities, we got great food. Try it out,” Almer said. “It has been a joy to be a part of the Brainerd community, and we hope to stay here many, many years from now.”

GABRIEL LAGARDE may be reached at gabe.lagarde@brainerddispatch.com or 218-855-5859. Follow at www.twitter.com/glbrddispatch.