I walked away from the elegant, richly-stocked bar under a swarm of hanging industrial lights, like floating spheres of illumination. To my left, the gorgeous sunlight of the first 80 degree day in Rochester poured through the windows, highlighting a beautifully simple but stunningly sharp dining area, complete with metal chairs, tables and retro-style couches. Moving quickly to the back of the building, the sun seemed to follow me wherever I went, and the unmistakable sound of bowling pins crashing to their fateful end grew louder. Two people walked by me with food that I could not identify, but could tell was perfectly prepared… and oh did it smell amazing.
In an open room, I stood spinning as dozens of people bowled on one side, and others took to beautifully simple lawn games in an open turf-carpeted area on the other. The far end of the room was flanked by ping pong tables, skee ball and foosball.
I’ve been in a lot of bowling alleys. I bowled a lot when I was younger, even have a 300 game to my name. This wasn’t a bowling alley… it was something very different. It was a place that touched on so many of the things I loved as a child, and so many others I love today. This was something totally unique, unlike the cookie-cutter entertainment venues that abound. This, was Radio Social.
The name pays homage to the building’s manufacturing history, producing radios during World War II. While the industrial character of the building shines through in the exposed ceiling, the experience is entirely fun, comfortable and unique.
“I had a vision for reinventing the business model here in Upstate New York, said owner Dan Morgenstern. “That model was one that would make our environment year round, enjoyable and fun for people to come to in any for season and revisit on a regular basis, and not let it get stale. We were looking to create a place where lots of activity was taking place, we wanted elevated food and beverages, not at all what you’d expect out of the typical bowling center.”
“The bowling alleys built in the 50’s and 60’s have that cave-like, cavernous feel to them… this was more about creating a bright place with a high level of social activity, where people would interact and there would be a lot of kinetic energy. It’s really about creating a social environment, I really come back to that word a lot.”
“You’ll notice as you make your way around the facility that virtually everything we have here requires social interaction… you can’t do these things by yourself, or probably wouldn’t want to. It requires you to participate with at least one other person, and often times 4, 6 or 8 people. That was our goal, to create a place that wasn’t just bowling, it wasn’t just great food and drink, it was a place that truly brought people together.”
Call Radio Social a bowling alley and anyone who works there will kindly remind you it’s “an entertainment center.” While there are over 30 lanes for bowling, it is only a component of what makes this place special. Attention to details abound, as does the opportunity to play traditionally outdoor lawn games like “corn hole” and even “life-size Jenga” in several open turf spaces, making these American summer classics a year round activity. Then there are the bowling “pits..” you know, the awkward areas of uncomfortable plastic chairs surrounding the ball return? Yeah those have been replaced with comfortable 1960’s lounge style seating, offering a cozy, laid back experience as you bowl. Staach and LivesStyled in Rochester were instrumental in the implementation of design and style for Radio Social, and truly hi the mark.
The venue’s location is one of the most interesting. It takes center stage in a developing neighborhood between several quietly thriving areas on the East side of Rochester. It creates a sort of “bridge” of growth, taking on the all-important role of physically extending and connecting positive development and local vibrance.
Back to the experience… One of Radio Social’s most obvious departures from the traditional bowling center (other than the amazing menu, incredible beverage selection and a thousand other amenities) are the massive windows which give a summer-soaked feel to the whole experience. Even indoors, the sensation is one of warmth, of basking in the sun’s rays while experiencing all the indoor facility has to offer. It is a decidedly casual, comfortable social environment, hence the name.
Owner Dan Morgenstern continued telling me about his vision and the story behind Radio Social.
“When we had our sneak preview Sunday, I remember walking up to our food and beverage director saying ‘Chuck, look around, how many people do you see have their phones out?’ And he looked around and said, ‘I don’t see anybody on their phones!’ We had 300 people in here and nobody was on a cell phone. When was the last time you were anywhere and saw that? So in our first real day, we hit our goal…to create an environment where people felt so comfortable to interact with each other that they didn’t have to use their phones,” Morgenstern said laughing.
“I live in the Saint Paul Quarter in downtown Rochester and I’ve been there for 12 years. I am committed to Rochester, I’m committed to the rebirth downtown. My hope was to bring something [like Radio Social] into the city limits. It was a really difficult process, almost impossible. I am committed to restoration and revival, not tearing things down… I am committed to that rejuvenation. When considering everything I wanted to do, this was the location that was right.”
“It was very difficult to get the lease done because [the building] had a long history as a manufacturing site. It was difficult to get the ownership structure to understand what we were trying to do. I was rejected three times. The fourth time, I went to the president and really explained the benefit it was going to bring to the property. It’s going to reinvent the property, re-position it as something new and different, and we are going to make such an attractive place that others are going to want to come here. Since we signed on, that’s happened… there are like 3 or 4 leases now, including a the Comedy Club moving next door to us! They are in construction right now.”
Dan highlighted a well known construct when talking about innovative urban ideas. These innovations can be met with an exhausting series of barriers, from zoning to funding, changing minds and sharing visions. Not at all simple tasks. But as Dan also pointed out, new ideas that do break through can also remove barriers to growth that transcend the walls of the business being created.
Speaking of transcendent, another key to Radio Social’s success will be the “elevated” food and beverage. Listening to Dan talk about the food gave me yet another insight into the level of intense thought that went into every detail.
“A key component of this whole business model is that we are going to elevate the food and beverage. We knew we couldn’t just survive as a bowling alley, we have to do other things. For this to work, we had to create an experience that wasn’t hot dogs and french fries. So it was really critical for me to team up with Chuck Cerankosky. He is one of the principles of Good Luck and Cure… I knew he understood the industry from the perspective that I wanted. I approached him and told him about the idea and what I wanted to do and he really liked the idea and got on board.”
“Chuck has created a great bar program and an amazing food program. We knew the flavor profile we were looking for. I am Israeli by birth, I love Israeli foods, Arab foods… it was a high risk idea but Chuck loved it because it was something that had’t been done here. He brought on [head chef] Steve Eakins from New York, who has just a remarkable resume, but this flavor profile was new to him. So I sent Steve and my son, who lived in Israel for 7 years and is a bit of a foodie, to Israel, and all day and all night, all they did was eat the foods, taste the flavors. They went into the markets, into the spice shops… Steve just absorbed the whole flavor profile and fell in love with it.”
“This whole things is about elevating your experience. It’s that experience you had [bowling, playing lawn games] as a kid, or maybe with your friends… now it’s a place you can go with your husband or wife, or with your friends now that you’re a little older and not feel as though you’re going to a dark, dirty place.”
“In creating Radio Social, we wanted to simply create a place where someone from New York City might walk in and say ‘I didn’t expect this in Rochester.’ I believe that’s what what we’ve done, and we are all very excited.”
Radio Social is one of those rare business ventures that have the ability to change an urban landscape. It is this kind of outside-the-box thinking that creates both a hub for city dwellers of all walks of life, and entices visitors from outlying areas. With ownership that is based in Rochester and invested in the growth of the city, Radio Social is set up to be a shining example for city business innovators to follow. Like a good game of urban chess, the location, the food, the entertainment, the unique look and feel… all these pieces are strategically in place for a Rochester win. Stay tuned to this station, as Radio Social opens in about a week, and is sure to be a game-changer.