Last week, my partners and I made the tough decision to close the Dart Bowl, an Austin institution founded by my grandfather 62 years ago. Our decision was "just business," brought on by the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Still, after bowling the final frame and eating the final enchilada late Friday night, it was tough to say goodbye to that place on Grover Avenue that has witnessed so many meaningful events.
Since the day in 1958 when the Dart Bowl’s doors opened at its original location at Burnet Road and Anderson Lane, the focus has been on providing simple family entertainment. The timeless nature of the game makes it a level playing field for everyone, from little kids to nervous teenagers on their first date. Over the years, we saw our share of celebrities, thanks to being chosen as a location for movies such as Richard Linklater’s "Boyhood," and shows such as "Friday Night Lights." Even with competition from movies, video games and the Internet, bowling held its own because of its inherently social nature. Then the coronavirus came along.
We followed government orders and closed our doors from March 17 to May 18, confident we’d be able to bounce back. Before we reopened, we followed CDC guidelines by adding Plexiglas shields, providing social distancing with alternating lanes and even investing in new disinfecting equipment. When the shelter-at-home order was lifted, we threw open the doors and waited to welcome longtime customers ready to cure their cabin fever, but they stayed away. We can’t blame them — this virus is not a game — but every day they stayed away, the worse it got on our balance sheet.
Since we announced our plans to close Dart Bowl forever, we’ve been overwhelmed by the outpouring of love and support. The phone calls, text messages, emails and social media comments have come at us in a rush, letting us know that people share our sadness at the end of this era, even as they cherish their memories of time spent with us. We’ve been reminded of countless birthday bashes, holiday parties and friendships made over coffee or enchiladas. No matter how long ago it happened, people still remember the highest score they ever recorded or the first time their kid rolled a strike on our lanes.
I can remember my own boyhood games, rolled with my grandfather on Sunday mornings, and working here in the summers during college, along with King Ray, the son of my grandfather’s partners, Jerry and Betty Ray. He and I both always assumed that we’d pass along our interest in the Dart Bowl to our own kids, so it was especially difficult to decide to close. It was also tough because it put more than a dozen people out of work, including several employees who have been with us for decades. Peggy Zamarippa, the woman who makes the secret recipe chili in Dart Bowl enchiladas, has been working in the Café for nearly 50 years.
I would never compare our loss to that of people whose loved ones have suffered or died from the coronavirus, but the outbreak has proven deadly to small businesses as well. We hope our other two facilities will be better positioned to survive the pandemic, but only time will tell.
We encourage our fellow Austinites to take stock of the locally-owned businesses they love and make a point of supporting them. Otherwise, they may not survive this economic slowdown, leaving our town a little less unique as a result. Let’s work together to make sure our town is just as weird next year as it was 62 years ago.
From the bottom of our hearts, thank you all. Stay safe.
Donovan, an Austin native, is co-owner of the Dart Bowl, Highland Lanes and Westgate Lanes along with his wife, Jacy, and the Ray family.