Pinstripes Strikes a Chord with Today's Restaurant Guest | Sapore magazine
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Pinstripes Bistro Bowling Bocce
While many come to Pinstripes for the bowling and bocce, they stay for the food.

Pinstripes Strikes a Chord with Today's Restaurant Guest

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Italian-American cuisine, bowling, and bocce help to create lasting connections at this growing Chicago-based experiential restaurant.
By Liz Barrett Foster July 2019 Chain Restaurants

Dale Schwartz has always loved bowling. Growing up in Cleveland, he dreamed of one day opening his own alley. “In the late ’80s, while working in Manhattan, I was going to buy a bowling alley on the upper west side and do an upscale bowling concept using the name Pinstripes, which I’ve owned since 1988,” says Schwartz, founder and chief executive officer of Chicago-based Pinstripes.

Life ultimately got in the way, and Schwartz says he put the bowling alley project on the back burner for 20-plus years. “I finally said, life’s too short, and I did it,” Schwartz says. The first Pinstripes opened in Northbrook, Illinois, in 2007.

A steep learning curve

While Schwartz’ love for bowling runs deep, he openly admits that his knowledge of the restaurant business in the beginning was minimal, teetering on nonexistent. “I had never been in the restaurant or bowling/bocce business,” Schwartz says. “So, I knew what I didn’t know.”

Schwartz says he set out to assemble a team of people who knew far more than he did. “One of our early board members was the founder of Maggiano’s,” he says. “Another board member was the former chairman and CEO of McDonald’s [Jack Greenberg].” Schwartz interviewed 38 people for the general manager position, eventually hiring Chris Soukup, who is now Pinstripes’ chief operations officer. “Chris has been with us since day one,” Schwartz says. “And Lida Ahn, who we hired three weeks after Chris, is now our chief training officer.”

Now with 10 locations and more under construction, recruitment remains a top priority at Pinstripes. “The most important—and hardest part—in any type of business, especially ours, is assembling and keeping the right team,” he says. “We have a team of around 1,300 people, and we’re currently interviewing at 23 colleges that have a hospitality focus. It’s a big part of our recruiting strategy.”

Pinstripes Bistro Bowling Bocce
Pinstripes plans to open 100 more locations all around the U.S. and an equal amount with partners overseas.

The decision to add bocce

After researching other bowling alleys and trying bocce ball himself, Schwartz decided to add bocce, also known as lawn bowling, to the Pinstripes model. Doing so would help differentiate Pinstripes from other bowling alleys and bring in an Italian element, he says. “Bocce allowed us to accentuate that Italian-American duality,” Schwartz says. “We have bocce along with Italian-American cuisine and Italian-American wines.”

Schwartz shies away from choosing favorites, saying that he loves bowling and bocce equally, explaining that the two are very different. “In bowling, like golf, you’re really just bowling yourself,” Schwartz says. “With bocce, it’s more of a team sport; it has a whole other fun dimension.”

Connecting people through food and experiences

“The original intrigue of bowling, from day one, was connection; it was about the memories of a child connecting with friends and family,” Schwartz says. “In large measure, everything we do is celebrating those connections, from the look and feel of our venue to the music, cuisine, craft beers and wines. Bowling and bocce are an extension of that, as is Italian food with its comfort and warmth.”

And perhaps more now than before, people are craving chances to experience human connection. “In spite of people being, in some respects, as connected as ever before, we’re really not as connected as before,” Schwartz says. “Nothing beats that real, person-to-person connection with friends and family. Nothing.”

While many come to Pinstripes for the bowling and bocce, they stay for the food. Schwartz says that everything is house made, with menu offerings ranging from filet mignon to maple-glazed salmon; ricotta cheese gnocchi with tuna; flatbreads; wood-fired pizzas; salads and pastas. “It’s a recognizable, quality menu with outstanding food,” Schwartz says.

Pinstripes Bistro Bowling Bocce
Bocce brings an Italian element to Pinstripes.

The host with the most

On average, Pinstripes hosts more than 1,500 events per location annually, Schwartz says. “There are some busy Saturdays that we’ll host over 30 events at one location,” he says. “We usually have five team members for each location who handle the events and sales side of the business; they focus on reaching out to businesses and the community to book events.”

Schwartz says that Pinstripes hosts corporate events with up to 1,000 people as well as family gatherings such as weddings, bar mitzvahs, birthday parties, high school reunions, and any other social event imaginable. “The added dimension of bowling and bocce for private events makes us that much more intriguing,” Schwartz says. “You can’t do that at a hotel or a banquet hall.”

Running a Tight Ship

While Schwartz says the brand focus of Pinstripes has remained steadfast since the business’ start, he notes that the launch of each new location has resulted in more streamlined designs and operations. “Our venues are tightening up, and intentionally so,” Schwartz says. “Our first couple of locations were 38,000 square feet and some of our more recent locations are 27,000 square feet.”

Schwartz says the food and service continues to improve over the years as well. “It’s a complicated service model, because it took us a couple of years to figure out the right timing for serving food in the dining room versus the bowling alley versus the bocce court,” he says.

Technology has become an important piece of Pinstripes’ growth and streamlining of processes over the years. “We’re doing considerably more paid digital advertising with Facebook and Google than we were before,” Schwartz says. “We’ve also started using the reservation platforms OpenTable and SevenRooms and our event team recently started using Salesforce to manage bookings.”

And how has Schwartz changed since the founding of Pinstripes? Now married with children, he says he’s in a constant state of learning. “I certainly know more than I did 14 years ago, but I’m still learning every day,” he says. “As we’re scaling and expanding, it’s been increasingly important to delegate and assemble the right team. We need to be able to scale in a way that doesn’t compromise the quality of what we do.”

Pinstripes Bistro Bowling Bocce
Opening a bowling alley was always a dream for Pinstripes founder Dale Schwartz.

Slow and steady growth

With a solid team in place, Schwartz says the company is managing its growth carefully. “We have 10 locations open with plans to open 100 more all around the U.S. and an equal amount with partners overseas,” he says. “We’re opening three more locations this year in Houston, San Mateo, California, and Norwalk, Connecticut,” Schwartz says. The goal is to open five to six locations per year beginning in 2021.

International sites on the radar for Pinstripes include London, Germany, Prague, Mexico City, and Canada, Schwartz says. “Developers overseas are wanting to add dining and entertainment into their mix. We’re being asked to look at some phenomenal projects and talking to select partners depending on the market,” he says. “We’ll only move forward with a local partner who knows all the nuances of a particular market.”