Presidio Bowl No Longer a San Francisco Secret
by Robert Sax
Victor Meyerhoff operates a quaint and friendly 12-lane bowling center in a historic 1,500-acre national park in the midst of the city of San Francisco. With a gorgeous view of the Bay and great food, it’s no wonder his customers tried to keep it a secret.
Presidio Bowl, named for the U.S. Army post that occupied the site for more than 100 years, is the latest home of bowling there. Meyerhoff says the tradition started around 1917 when a couple of lanes were set up in the quartermaster’s warehouse.
In the 1950s, the Army built a stand-alone bowling center for use by base personnel and their families. It was replaced in 1989 with the current 12-lane center. When the post was decommissioned in the early 1990s, the center was closed and remained so until 1995. At that time, the Presidio became the responsibility of the U.S. Park Service, which offered it to the public for lease.
Meanwhile, Meyerhoff was a business student at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo. He bowled on the college team and worked at the 10-lane Mustang Bowl on campus where he taught bowling and learned how to run the center and its arcade. “My boss at the time, Steve Goldie, had a grand plan to revamp the arcade, put in 40 games and do it all ourselves. That was huge,” recalls Meyerhoff. “It was then that I saw what you could do with a properly-run arcade.”
Terry Leong, a bowler friend of Meyerhoff’s in San Francisco, made a bid to operate Presidio Bowl and invited him to invest. “He’s like, I know you’re still in school. There’s an opportunity to lease this bowling center in the Presidio. You don’t need to do anything. I just need a small investment. We’ll be partners,” says Meyerhoff. “We got the lease and Terry ran it for about three years and then it got busy and he needed help. I decided to move up to San Francisco to help him run it.”
Meyerhoff soon learned that Presidio Bowl was not your typical bowling venue. Although technically located in the city, it wasn’t easy to find because it’s in a park a mile from the closest house. GPS was not yet common and an obscure federal rule limited signage to one that was barely visible.
“It was really hard to get people to know we were there, and then the people who did come treated it like their own little secret. They’re like, ‘this is the best place ever. It’s not crowded. I’m not going to tell anybody,’” recalls Meyerhoff.
He and Leong, who passed away in 2020, eventually built up a loyal following that loved the neighborhood vibe and enjoyed the better-than-average food and beverage offerings. They wanted to renovate but it took until 2017 to get a long-term lease that made the project feasible. Over the past five years, Meyerhoff has remodeled the front desk, built a bigger kitchen and added an outdoor patio that’s popular for parties.
Now he’s adding the final piece by redoing an outdated and underperforming game room. “I knew from my Cal Poly days what the room is capable of doing versus what it is doing,” says Meyerhoff. It may hold only 10 games or so, but instead of old pinballs it will now have contemporary redemption games like an Avengers coin pusher and a Key Master stocked with high-end Apple gear. “Personally I would love to play a pinball, but some of the redemption games are compelling now. I enjoy playing those too,” he says.
To keep labor costs down and maximize the limited space, Meyerhoff will have a Prize Hub instead of a redemption counter. The games will all be cashless and managed by an Intercard Element kiosk especially designed for small arcades. He chose Intercard because the company has been a strong presence at Nor Cal Bowling Centers Association events and also for the system’s versatility and attractive total cost of ownership.
Meyerhoff says going cashless was an absolute necessity because post-Covid, 95% of his customers want to pay by credit card. “Everybody’s really, really into paying with their card. It’s wild. Very rarely will somebody actually hand you money anymore,” he says. Meyerhoff expects the upgrades to triple or quadruple arcade revenue. He also says the new games should add another 20 or 30 minutes to the average guest stay, boosting food and beverage sales too.
Although Meyerhoff describes his business as a “pearl in an oyster” that took a long time to develop, he enjoys running Presidio Bowl. “I love seeing people come in and have a good time. So I’m always trying to create some value. If you create the value, the money comes afterwards.”
Robert Sax is a writer and PR consultant in Los Angeles. He grew up in Toronto, Canada, the home of five-pin bowling.