Business News

Rock ’n’ Bowl has ambitious plans for Downtown

by Walter Pierce

Representatives of the New Orleans institution are already in the old Whitney Bank building at the corner of Jefferson and Lee, measuring dimensions and eyeing a late 2017 opening.

Johnny Blancher

Lafayette is abuzz with news that Rock ’n’ Bowl, the popular New Orleans bowling alley and live music venue, has purchased the Downtown property at 911 Lee Ave. once home to Whitney Bank. What many may not realize is that Rock ’n’ Bowl almost relocated to Lafayette more than a decade ago thanks to an act of nature — Hurricane Katrina.

“There was a period of time there when we really didn’t think we would get back in New Orleans,” recalls Johnny Blancher, CEO of Rock ’n’ Bowl’s parent company and son of founder John Blancher. Blancher’s mother is from Vermilion Parish so the family decamped to Lafayette when Katrina devastated New Orleans. “New Orleans and Lafayette, I think, are very similar in culture. It just materialized that we could get back in New Orleans, but [expanding to Lafayette] never left our minds.”

The first two floors of the building at 911 Lee Ave. have been vacant since Whitney Bank abandoned Downtown for River Ranch in mid-2014.

Fast forward a decade. Late one night over the summer Blancher was thumbing through commercial real estate listings on an app and came across the Whitney building. The property looked do-able, but it was the parking lot across Jefferson Street that really sweetened the deal.

“We never thought that there would be a building Downtown that could house us and could park us,” he says.

Blancher called real estate agent Al Lopez with Keaty Real Estate the next day. “It ended up being the deal that we thought it was, and it was the thing to do,” Blancher adds. “We really felt strongly about. We prayed about it.”

News of the sale broke on Friday, Dec. 16. By the morning of Monday the 19th, Blancher was in the building with a crew making plans for what sounds like the most ambitious project Downtown since the Acadiana Center for the Arts’ expansion seven years ago: 16 bowling lanes — eight lanes each on either side of a stage and dance floor — are planned for the parking lot fronting the building at the Lee-Jefferson intersection. The lanes will be within a cavernous space with a ceiling two stories high, allowing patrons in a second-floor ballroom to look down on the lanes and concert area.

Blancher says he’s already had discussions with Geoff Dyer, the Downtown Development Authority’s director of design, about ensuring the new venture fits a design aesthetic congruent with Downtown. That will include everything from landscaping and window placement to the choice of bricks.

“What I see is some zoning that’s going to help us design our building up front that looks and feels right for Downtown,” he says.

The company has a business plan for Lafayette that, yes, includes bowling and, yes, includes live music. But Rock ’n’ Bowl’s business model in New Orleans is built around more than strikes, spares and riffs. For starters, more than 70 percent of its revenue is from food, not booze or bowling. The New Orleans venue also butters its bread with private bookings; more than 220 private Christmas parties will take place in December alone. Blancher says Lafayette is a good market for his company’s model.

“A lot of times New Orleanians see Lafayette as just a small town. But when you look at it, there’s just as many middle- to upper-middle income families as there is in New Orleans,” he says. “There is a nucleus of wealth here, and there is a nucleus of good, strong families. Our business is families.”

The company that operates Rock ’n’ Bowl, for which Blancher is CEO, purchased the Whitney building for $2.5 million and plans to pump $1.5 million in renovations. The Lafayette Rock ’n’ Bowl will occupy the first floor, with the ballroom the second floor. The third, fourth and fifth floors will remain lease space for commercial tenants. Blancher says the buzz around Rock ’n’ Bowl moving into the building has generated interest in other prospective tenants.

“I think it’s going to be a more desirable building,” he says. “We’re already getting calls [from prospective tenants].”

Blancher says he hopes to be open by this time next fall.

“It’s an aggressive timeline, and I have a lot of work to do to get our ducks in a row. But I’m committed,” he says. “I want to be able to book your [2017] Christmas party right now.”