You’ve heard the rumors about a bowling alley. I sat down with the owners of the business to get the facts about the new business. They aren’t the most likely friends to open the first downtown bowling alley in Knoxville’s history. Kevin Rice was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma and Greg Cox in Johnson City. They intersected during their time at UT and remained close with each other and a small group of friends. A convoluted journey brought them back to Knoxville as partners in this new enterprise.
Kevin, originally from Tulsa Oklahoma, moved to New York after graduation, then to North Carolina before returning to Knoxville in 2009 when his wife was a medical resident here. For that year they lived on Gay Street above the Art Market and subsequently moved back to Tulsa. His brother lives here and his father lives in Nashville, but he always held a spot in his heart for Knoxville from his undergraduate days at UT.
Greg obtained his engineering degree at UT, then worked at a dude ranch in Colorado. He took a run at a couple of businesses before rehabilitating a train depot in Johnson City, which currently houses Tupelo Honey. After working on several small-scale projects there, he found himself interested in doing a larger project.
In 2011 Greg traveled to Fayetteville, Arkansas to connect with a group of friends including Kevin for the UT vs. Arkansas game. They stayed with Kevin in Tulsa and bowled while there. Neither Greg or Kevin have a long history with the game, but they went to Dust Bowl and had a great evening. As they arrived teenagers were leaving. Through the evening sixty-somethings arrived to bowl. Kevin asked Greg if he’d be interested in trying to do something similar in Knoxville.
In 2012 they visited Knoxville with the idea of finding the right location for their business. They settled on the basement of the JC Penney Building which, at that time, was a shell on Gay Street. They had to be patient as the proposed building project had to find tenants for the upper floors before they could secure financing. At about 12,000 square feet and with the column placements where they needed them, the building was a perfect fit for their concept.
They signed the lease agreement a year-and-a-half ago, knowing it was the location they wanted. They cited David Dewhirst (who is related to Greg by marriage) as a particular inspiration. After 2012 they traveled to other urban bowling centers accumulating ideas that might work in Knoxville and fit the space they’d leased. Of particular interest to them was Brooklyn Bowl which, if there had to be a single place, would be the place that they suggest helped them understand what they are after. A warehouse converted to a bowling alley, it features a 2,000 seat entertainment venue, Blue Ribbon Restaurant food and is LEED certified. They’ve since opened alleys in Las Vegas and London.
They also visited North Bowl in Philadelphia and Painted Pin in Atlanta. At Pinewood Social in Nashville they found a six-lane concept. Another just opened in Chattanooga. In each case, these urban lanes are attracting patrons through bowling and other activities. They noted that these are not lanes like those at suburban strip malls focusing on league play. Those are slowly dying (though Greg joined one last year), while a more social, urban concept version of bowling is doing well in any number of markets.
As I described it when I recently wrote about the JC Penny Bldg development, Maple Hall will feature two lanes on the north side of the space available for private parties or other groups who want lanes together. There will be six lanes in the main room and another four in the southern side, which may be for public or private use depending on demand. But there will be much, much more.
A Gay Street entrance will lead through a foyer down stairs that lead to the main space. Just behind the stairs will be a kitchen in which a James Beard nominated chef will set the menu. It will be a simple menu featuring small plates with unique, top-quality food. A full bar with a few featured cocktails and six taps. One tap will likely be a typical “bowling beer” and the others will be interesting local/regional/craft beers. Unique canned beers will also likely be available.
A raised stage will be located in a front corner (opposite the kitchen) where the owners hope to feature local and up-and-coming regional artists, as well as surprise shows by larger artists. The stage will be used as additional seating when bands aren’t playing. Seating for the restaurant/bar and listening to the bands will be provided around the bar and in front of the stage in the form of family-styled tables with the hopes of creating a space that connects people.
They mentioned being intrigued with 5 Bar’s commitment to simplicity in their menu and to the idea that they want their employees to make enough money to be able to enjoy their restaurant as patrons. Kevin and Greg said they want the same type of employee-friendly environment at Maple Hall.
When thinking of the name, they selected “maple” as a reference to the wood used in lanes, but “hall” for its implications of connections. Feeling it evokes hospitality, fellowship (a word they return to periodically) and quality, it summed up the kind of business they hope to have. They hope to attract people of all ages, families of all types and groups looking for recreational possibilities downtown. They have in mind a gathering place as much as a bowling alley.
You’ll find many design elements from the original building still in place and exposed. They have plans, for example, to re-purpose the large wheel from an early incarnation of an air conditioning system pictured here from JC Penney as a large chandelier for the entrance. You’ll find surfaces and features made of recycled wood. They describe the atmosphere they are going for as having a “Restoration Hardware” kind of feel.
They hope to be open for fall semester/end of summer. The hours are still being worked out, but will likely be something like 4:00 PM – 11:00 PM weekdays and 11:00 AM – 2:00 AM on weekends. They will target all ages and hope to host corporate and other types of events.