By the time mid-March rolled around, Mebane’s Buffaloe Lanes was humming.
Kids were having birthday parties at the center. League bowlers were frequenting their challenging weekly matchups with other competitive local bowlers. And the staff of Buffaloe Lanes was arming themselves with knowledge and awareness about the COVID-19 coronavirus, which would eventually shut down not only their bowling center, but the rest of the country.
“We were killing it,” said General Manager Bryan Collier, indicating that the Mebane Buffaloe Lanes center had a record-breaking weekend just before they were forced to shut down. “We closed halfway through March. It was running so smooth. Even when all of it started, we went from a record-breaking weekend to still a great weekend. But people were starting to ask questions.”
Before shutting down, Collier had his staff take courses and educate themselves on COVID-19, and the Buffaloe Lanes Center - already known around Mebane for its cleanliness - was a model of how businesses can keep their customers safe and clean.
“The majority of the bowling centers in the United States are still mom and pop places,” Collier explained. “They’re not a Brunswick or an AMF or a Spare Time or a Splitsville. A lot of them are kind of like the Buffaloes, who have four or five in an area, or two or three, or a solo (center). For those to survive, they need a supporting organization. And we have one now - a really good one. It’s called the APAA - the American Proprietors Association of America. They’re all about educating proprietors and their staff, and bowlers, too. Educating them on the game. That resource has been phenomenal.”
“I’ve been keeping a log the entire time. They (APAA) sent us out some information really early. They did an early COVID-19 prevention class on what the symptoms are, how to clean, how to disinfect. I had the entire staff go online and take this class. I even printed out the certificates and posted them on the board. We took COVID-19 prevention, and they posted information that we put in the bathrooms. We’ve got a hydrogen peroxide based disinfectant cleaner. It’s a saturate and let it sit a couple of minutes (spray)."
“All the staff took the (online COVID-19) classes. We were so ahead of it. I thought maybe we’d have a couple of weeks of business. And we were way ahead of it, and educated. We had stuff posted on the bathrooms and at the front desk,” Collier added. “I felt like we had everything covered until we closed. We were really ahead of the game. And I will give a big nod to the bowling industry as a whole. For a long time now, the bowling industry has been doing a really good job of educating.”
In the days leading up to their closing, the Buffaloe Lanes staff worked overtime, cleaning and re-cleaning and then cleaning some more.
But then came Monday, March 23.
“Whatever we were doing (from a cleaning standpoint), we tripled. We keep a clean center, but we were just cleaning more often. Bowling bowls, we were doing it twice a day. On the rack, we were putting them with the finger holes in front and spraying them,” Collier said. “That Monday came, and we had an emergency meeting. I figured that day, we’d probably be shutting down. We just started putting everything in motion.”
Unfortunately, the shutdown did require Collier to lay off his entire staff, which he’s hopeful he can rehire soon. Collier was briefly laid off, but then his employers called him back and asked him to keep an eye on the Mebane Buffaloe Lanes center until they can re-open.
“I told all the staff and the bowlers that were asking, I said I think we’ve got a plan for eight to ten weeks. And it doesn’t hurt if it winds up being four,” Collier said. “The majority of our (staff) is entry-level - almost 80 percent. Most of them live with mom and dad. They’re school kids. I initially got laid off, too. But then they called me and said we at least need somebody keeping an eye and keeping in touch. They kept all the General Managers, and a couple of their main industry guys who have the knowledge where it would be almost impossible to replace them.”
Collier’s next task was to call Buffaloe Lanes’ many vendors - internet suppliers, food and drink suppliers, bowling equipment suppliers, and the like - to cancel, postpone, or halt certain services.
“Everybody was very understanding and reasonable,” Collier indicated. “We unplugged everything and shut everything down and we cut off all our servers, and we unplugged all the pin spotters. In the kitchen, we cut off all the gas. We cleaned out all the refrigerators, put everything in the walk-in refrigerator and freezer.
A lot of Buffaloe Lanes’ extra perishable food was passed along to Collier’s friend Steve Krans for his customers at Junction on 70.
While the state of Georgia indicated earlier this week that they would re-open non-essential businesses such as hair and nail salons, along with bowling alleys, Collier and his staff have to continue holding tight until they get the word from North Carolina officials.
When asked when Buffaloe Lanes Mebane could possibly reopen, Collier said, “talk to Governor Cooper,” adding that it will only make matters worse if the country reopens too soon, only to have a second wave of the pandemic result in even more agony and struggles.
“I think we’re within the window, it comes right after the restaurants. If they’re saying restaurants could have limited dine-in capabilities, I feel shortly after that (we could open),” Collier said.
In the meantime, Collier is more of a caretaker these days than a bowling center manager.
“We did some deep cleaning in the kitchen. There’s some painting and odds and ends we can do,” he explained. “I’m basically just a landscaper, and I go into the center just to check on things. And I contact some of the league bowlers just to stay in touch. I’m taking the time to catch up on things. We’re probably going to do an online system when we get back to it, so it gives me time to build it. And we’re doing some deep cleaning and painting. We’re trying to make the best of it."
As far as scenarios for reopening the center, Collier indicated that birthday parties are probably out for a while, but the center could reopen at limited capacity, with limited staff. Fortunately, Buffaloe Lanes is a large center, so if the scenario includes a percentage of square footage, they would be better equipped to get back to normal.
“If they said entertainment could open up at 25 percent (capacity), I could do it. But it would be me and two other (staff members),” he said. “I won’t be able to bring back a lot of our staff (under that scenario). And initially, I don’t see us hosting kids’ birthday parties. If you want to call me up and say you want me to do your daughter’s birthday party, I’ll reserve you two lanes. But I don’t know if us doing party packages, and having party hosts on staff, is maybe the right thing to do initially. We’ve worked out a spreadsheet of certain numbers, and which centers could and couldn’t do. If it’s a percentage of occupancy (as opposed to a set number), then we’re probably in a better situation.”
Once Buffaloe Lanes does re-open, they want the community to know that their commitment to cleanliness and providing a family-friendly destination will be stronger than ever before.
“I definitely feel like nobody is going to be going to a concert or a baseball game - they’re not going to be doing that for a year probably. We may be opening in the next two to four weeks. We may be sanitizing every five minutes. But we’ll be open. We were already stocked up with toilet paper and paper towels. When we do get up and running again, we should have a good base to start off with,” Collier explained.
“People were asking about our shoes. Our shoes are always the cleanest shoes in the whole center. They get sprayed so often. And we spray them to the point where you get the inside and the outside. The shoes and the front desk is probably the cleanest place because of the overspray. (I told our staff before we closed), if you’ve got free time, clean and sanitize.”
“The industry said don’t just wipe the outside (of the balls). You don’t want to just soak the inside, because then it’s a hazard,” Collier added. “People are grabbing them, and it’s sticking (with their fingers) because of the moisture. So what we did, we’ve got great ball racks for it. Ours are all in one place (aligned) by weight. So I told the staff when they’re on the rail, align them all so all the holes are facing towards you, and give it a big spray. Let it set a little bit, and then wipe the outside surface.”
“Bowlers, they’re hardy people. They’re typical Americans. The last thing to close is an ABC Store and a bowling center. They’re funny. They’re setting up little bowling lanes on top of the tables, and they’re doing Wii bowling,” Collier said in conclusion. “We’re just keeping bowling in mind, and letting people know there will be bowling. We will be there.”