In the waning months of 2010, a Texas couple drove across the United States in search of the perfect bowling alley.
Joe and Diana Shaffer had spent their professional lives in an industry that had just collapsed, the mortgage industry, and, in their own words, "it was time to get out and do something fun."
"When the mortgage industry tanked, we wanted to do something different," Joe said Thursday, sitting in what became the final destination of his journey. "We really wanted to start or buy a business. We were interested in entertainment."
The forty-something Chichester residents are the proud new owners (technically Diana is the legal owner) of Silver Strike Lanes in the Gardnerville Ranchos. Of all the bowling alleys in the country, Silver Strike struck their inner pins.
But it was a wild ride getting there. Before setting off on their odyssey, the Shaffers had planned to open a brand new bowling center and golf course in their hometown outside Austin. They spent a year researching the market and realized they'd need about a million dollars to proceed.
"So we thought, 'Why not buy a center somewhere?'" said Diana.
"We literally drove all over," said Joe.
Some memories of the trip would stand out more than others.
"We actually found a town in Missouri named Nevada," Joe recalled. "We drove through town, and Diana said 'No way!'... You have to be comfortable in the town you're in."
Driving into Gardnerville was a different experience for the Shaffers.
"We fell in love with the mountains, the scenery," Joe said.
The bowling alley they found on the edge of Kimmerling Road was not perfect, but it had potential, great potential, and by the beginning of 2011 they had signed on.
"What sold us was the private party room and the private lanes in the back. We didn't see one bowling alley with private lanes when we were looking around," Joe said. "Cosmetically, we knew we could clean up, paint, put in new lights, or whatever. But structurally, that right there (pointing to the private lanes) sold us."
"We also felt like bowling could still fit here," Diana said. "Some people don't know we're here. People think to go bowling and they might drive up to Carson Lanes. We want them to drive back to our area."
Besides hiring a professional artist for a new rendition of the Silver Strike logo, the Shaffers undertook many renovations themselves. They painted walls, added color, updated tiles, revamped the arcade, lounge, gaming machines and dart room, enhanced the food and beverage menu, and moved their managerial office and equipment retail from the back of the building to a glass-paneled room in front near the public lanes.
"Our customers see us and want to talk to us," Joe said. "We want to be completely visible and accessible."
Along with physical improvements, the Shaffers ramped up marketing. What they'd found in taking over was a shrinking customer base that had been siphoned off by Carson Lanes. Even local league teams had migrated north.
"League bowlers are pretty picky. They want the machines working," Joe said. "Now, they're starting to come back... We knew there were bowlers out there; we just had to get them back in and show them what we'd done."
Twenty thousand game coupons disseminated throughout town helped get the word out. The Shaffers also started promoting unlimited bowling for a monthly fee.
"People can come in anytime they want and bowl their hearts out," Joe said. "Every time you run the numbers, if you're coming in and paying twice a month, you've already paid for the membership."
A year of upgrades, promotions, and hard work - the Shaffers have 10 employees but work daily - appears to have paid off.
"We actually turned a profit our first year," Diana said. "We see new people all the time."
Silver Strike has been hosting tournaments, fundraisers and office parties. Last spring, GE Energy rented out the whole center, and 300 employees showed up to bowl and enjoy a full taco bar, Joe said.
"We do a ton of birthday parties," he said. "One of our goals is to get families in here."
That social aspect of bowling is what the Shaffers love most about their new business.
"We love the interaction," Diana said. "We've gotten to know a lot of people, and that's after coming into a community where we didn't know anyone."
Located at 1281 Kimmerling Road, Suite 8, Gardnerville, Silver Strike Lanes is open noon-10 p.m. Tuesday-Friday, 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Saturday, and noon-8 p.m. Sunday-Monday.
For more information, call 265-5454 or visit www.bowlsilverstrikelanes.com.