Todd Turcotte was having one of his best years ever at Highland Bowl.
The popular bowling alley, located at 1211 Highland Ave., was busy with leagues, parties, and the random recreational bowlers who just wanted a fun night out with family and friends. There was no reason to believe that 2020 would turn out to be anything other than a banner year for Turcotte and his family-owned business.
That was back in the beginning of March. More than four months later, everything has changed. Now, Turcotte admits, his facility is using the “life rafts” of government loans to stay afloat and, if the state were to hit another iceberg in the next couple of weeks or months due to COVID-19, the consequences could be dire.
“I think, I honestly think, if the state doesn’t lock everyone down again, and there’s a give and take on reopening, then there can be a rebound,” said Turcotte. “If we are locked down again, it’s over. A lot of people in this business (bowling alleys), bars, restaurants, they are going to close and those businesses are never going to come back.”
Highland Bowl has been a popular entertainment destination for Cheshire residents and those from surrounding communities since 1998. Offering regular 10-pin as well as duckpin bowling lanes, the facility markets itself as the perfect family-fun environment for people to enjoy a night out.
In addition to the many lanes, Highland Bowl offers an arcade as well as concessions for patrons to eat and drink while knocking over some pins.
But the thing that has made Highland Bowl such a popular spot for so many years is what hurt the business when COVID-19 emerged.
The food and entertainment industry, of which bowling alleys are a part, has been hit especially hard by the pandemic shutdowns, as politicians and public health officials have pinpointed indoor facilities that usually attract a crowd as being uniquely capable of creating an environment where the virus can spread more easily. Thus, as businesses across the state waited anxiously in mid-March to hear whether or not they would be deemed essential, Turcotte knew his business was likely to be on the chopping block.
It was not a decision that was easy to stomach.
“It’s tough when something is done that you don’t agree with,” he said. “I do think (decision-making about essential businesses) was political. I do think it mattered how much influence some businesses had (in Hartford).”
What frustrated Turcotte even more, he admits, was the lack of information and specificity that came from Connecticut’s leaders regarding what the future might hold.
“First, it was two weeks — 14 days — to stop the spread. Then, it was 30. Then, it was 100. For some places, they still haven’t opened,” he said.
Immediately after closing his doors, Turcotte contacted state officials for answers as to what to expect when it came to his business. The local business owner insists that his original calls went unanswered for two weeks, and when he was finally contacted by someone from the state, Turcotte was told that “there was no information” and that he should apply for a loan and wait for federal assistance.
With no way of knowing when his establishment would be allowed to open again, Turcotte was forced to furlough his employees, many of whom were part-time. He also had to account for the fact that the shutdowns came right when the facility was finishing up extensive upgrades — costly upgrades.
“They came in and said, ‘We are going to shut you down,’ and we were already financially stretched.” said Turcotte. “How do you get past that?”
As the spring went on, the state announced that it would be implementing a phased-in approach to reopening, doing so in monthly stages. Highland Bowl was not included on the list of businesses eligible to reopen during phase-one, but was included in phase-two.
“They didn’t give us any guidelines as to what we needed to do until about two weeks before,” said Turcotte, of the phase-two reopening that commenced on June 17. “Luckily, we were already COVID-compliant in most things.”
Turcotte explained that, because of the size of the facility, social distancing is not an issue, and the facility was able to install plexiglass and implement all other safety measures with little hassle. But his reopening has come at what is usually the worst time, business-wise, for Highland Bowl.
“This is usually the part of the year when we are closing down,” he said, “so, we were allowed to open up right when we’d usually be on the beach somewhere relaxing? Now, you have to do whatever you can to stay open.”
On average, Highland Bowl needs to make approximately $300 a day to reach a break-even mark. Since opening, Turcotte stated that the business is averaging about $50 a day.
Some employees have returned, but others have not, either because they found employment elsewhere or, for the younger employees, are planning to return to school.
And then Turcotte is forced to deal with another liability — fear.
“We have to convince the public that we are safe,” said Turcotte. “There is so much fear out there, with people putting numbers next to businesses (to signify risk) and it just frightens people. So, we are constantly explaining that our place is safe, we can easily accommodate (social distancing), everything is clean, everyone is wearing masks.”
The extensive upgrades have also made the transition to COVID-19 compliance easier, Turcotte admits, while also providing for a more enjoyable experience for his customers.
Highland Bowl now features a fully-automatic, touchless scoring system and touchless bathroom fixtures, as well as a revamped arcade area, new carpets and counters. And Highland still offers what it bills as the most “modern duckpin center in Connecticut.”
Though Turcotte admits that he remains frustrated with the state’s lockdown and lack of information about the future, he continues coming to work everyday because he loves what he does and believes it’s important for the community to have a place that offers a distraction, especially at this time.
“I think … this is something the community can latch onto at a time when there isn’t a lot to latch onto,” he said. “I think people need to do something to feel a little normal again, and I’m hoping that maybe, people will realize it’s very safe to come and bowl here. We have food and beverages, and you can come, have a great time, and do something different.”
To learn more about Highland Bowl, including hours of operation, COVID-19 protocols, and best ways to secure a lane, visit https://www.cthighlandbowl.