When Upper King playland The Alley opened three years ago, it was a big deal. The new venture was the first public bowling alley to appear in downtown Charleston since the '60s. Along with the lanes and arcade games, there was a focus on local beers, interesting cocktails, and fun bar food made really well. The Alley filled many niches in Charleston that didn't really exist — and not just bowling. It was/is a large-scale sports bar, an entertainment venue (yes, Coolio played here this year), and an affordable private event space.
The dream for The Alley started around 2009, when the country was experiencing the Great Recession. In 2011, co-owners David Crowley and Jimmy Poole found the empty warehouse on Columbus Street, perfect for lanes, a big restaurant/bar, and event space. Poole recalls, "The first building we looked at was the old antique store at 495 King St., it was 8,000 square feet, we could have put a small restaurant/bar on the first floor and four bowling lanes on the second overlooking King Street — this location is now Stars. I get a kick out of that every time I drive by."
When asked if they could recreate The Alley in 2015, they are quick to point out that just a few years later, the neighborhood, and Charleston, has completely changed.
When asked if they could recreate The Alley in 2015, they are quick to point out that in just a few years, the neighborhood, and Charleston, has completely changed. "When knew things were evolving, but we didn't think they would evolve as quickly as they did. Timing couldn't have been better. Today, the real estate is quite different — it's a killer today for restaurants," says Crowley. The team didn't disclose what they lease the space for today, but surrounding establishments go for over ten times what the Columbus Street warehouse was advertised for in 2009. Poole tells us, "We leased 131 Columbus St. for nearly two years before we opened the doors. We truly believed this business and this location would be successful within the Charleston community."
I think the thing that we are most proud of ... is the group we work with.
As soon as The Alley opened, big groups would call for happy hours and parties, but during the 2014 World Cup, the establishment really tested its large scale hospitality skills with lines out to King Street to watch the matches. "Having over 400 people in here, and serving them, and doing, what we thought, was a good job was great for us," states Crowley. "I think the thing that we are most proud of," says Poole," is the group we work with." With around 60 people on staff, The Alley has retained about 20 percent since day one. College students will rotate off after graduation, and others will go on to new jobs, but they still have a core group of original employees.
When asked about The Alley's new food-centric neighbors, like Leon's Oyster Shop and The Daily, and if The Alley ever felt pressure to change the kitchen, Poole states, "Understanding who we are and what we do well — an affordable entertainment model, we want to deliver high-quality cheeseburgers, nachos, boiled peanuts, wings, and items that can be shared while you watch the game. People love it and understand what it is we do here." Burgers and wings are the best-selling item, and with a $4 burger night on Thursdays, the beefy patties are starting to gather a following.
... Bill Murray has been a regular since before day one.
A testament to how cool The Alley is, everyone's favorite actor Bill Murray has been a regular since before it officially opened. It's not something the co-owners really publicize, but through a friend of a friend, Murray visited prior to The Alley opening, tried some wings and boiled peanuts, and can be spotted in social media shares at the location ever since. "We don't really know when he might pop in, but we treat him like a regular guest," says Poole.
For year four, The Alley wants to continue what its doing, "keep improving," add more events (look for more old-school hip hop stars like Coolio to pop up in the future), embrace the newly changing neighborhood surrounding the establishment, and perhaps get their $4 burger on some "best of" lists.