Start Your Engines!
Detroit Area FEC “Rev’d Up Fun” Opens Its Doors
by Matt Harding
There’s no place like home, but the family environment of Stars and Strikes might come close.
Its managing partner and co-founder Jack Canouse said opening the first location in Cumming, Ga., in July 2005 was like watching The Wizard of Oz — doors swinging open to a new, vibrantly colored world that was a former Walmart facility in his case. Perhaps it’s no surprise that the 1939 film is on Canouse’s mind these days considering Elaut’s coin pusher of the same name is a favorite in his arcades.
The yellow brick road that led Canouse to the family entertainment business started in Alpharetta, Ga., a suburb 25 miles outside of Atlanta that he moved to in 1996. The same week, Chris Albano moved into the neighborhood.
The duo became fast friends. In fact, for the past 20 years, their families come together and spend Thanksgiving week at Canouse’s second home.
In 2003, Canouse was an investment banker and Albano was working a corporate job. “We both thought it was a good idea to see what else was out there,” Canouse said.
The discussion turned quickly to family. Both had three children each and began to ponder what options are out there for families to do together. After a night at a local bowling center with their kids, the lightbulb went off. They started brainstorming how they could make a better place — one without the stereotypical bowling food and outdated décor.
So, without any industry experience, the pair linked up with Brunswick and went through their training program, co-founding the first Stars and Strikes with bowling, an arcade, laser tag arena and sports bar.
“We were still working at our jobs when we opened that location in Cumming,” Canouse said. “But watching the reaction, we decided that very day this was going to be our career going forward.”
In November, they opened their 13th location in 13 years in Summerville, S.C.
Canouse said that he and Albano have aimed to make Stars and Strikes a “bowling destination,” focusing on continually improving quality of entertainment, food and service, and creating an upscale atmosphere.
Since starting the business, they have 24 lanes in most of their stores, down from as many as 36, reflecting the trend of creating a more even entertainment environment as they boost the size of their arcades. “We have gone to a different floor plan in the last five years or so,” Canouse said. “We’ve been trading lanes for bigger game room floors.”
From upgraded flooring throughout their facilities — including the bathrooms — to all-couch seating on the bowling side of things, Stars and Strikes aims to attract anyone seeking entertainment — with a focus on families, of course.
“Our product really appeals to every single person out there, whether you’re 5 years old or 95 years old,” he said.
Aside from bowling, the centers typically offer sizable arcades, multi-level laser tag arenas and bumper cars. Some locations have virtual reality and escape
room attractions, too.
All of the brand’s newer centers are in the 55,000-square-foot range. Their arcades are at least 7,000 square feet and are bringing in a bigger piece of the pie than ever before.
“We have always looked at our revenues as three equal parts — food and beverage, bowling and arcade and attractions,” Canouse said. “We are about 50 percent in arcade and attractions since making our game rooms bigger (starting in 2013).”
Food and beverage still makes up about a third of business with bowling hovering just below 20 percent.
Canouse attributes the success of the arcade at Stars and Strikes to one main thing: keeping it fresh. They’re constantly changing up location and selection of games. “It’s not the same old, same old every time you go in,” he said.
With 65-70 percent of the games being redemption-based, another key factor, Canouse said, is allowing players to actually win.
“We don’t want people to come into our arcades and come away with little to nothing,” he said, noting a one-out-of-three payout on many of his cranes.
He added that Giant Taj Mahal by Smart Industries and Cruis’n Blast by Raw Thrills have been two top performers in his arcades, along with Big Bass Wheel (Bay Tek Games) and — of course — Elaut’s Wizard of Oz.
And remember, the lineup of games isn’t just for kids. Carnival-style games, Canouse said, have “brought more fun to Mom and Dad and young adults.
“You see a lot of people my age (53) in the game room,” he said, noting younger folks are more drawn to games with top-notch graphics and the virtual reality attractions. “The appeal is so broad based.”
Nine of their locations have prize stores, and four have redemption counters, which they’re working toward converting to the store model. They’ve been ticketless through Embed for more than five years.
Stars and Strikes also has Lasertron laser tag in all but two of its facilities (much smaller locations at around 35,000 square feet that were previously traditional bowling centers), otherwise, all of their arenas are multi-level or will be converted next year. The recent arenas were designed by Creative Works and have different themes, with Canouse noting that the company offers flexibility with the theme development.
Beyond that, the company has also been expanding into new entertainment concepts. Including their two newest locations — Smyrna, Tenn. (opened in September) and Summerville, S.C. (opened in November) — four stores have high-end escape rooms, each with three themes.
Exploring virtual reality has also been an interest and they had been testing Hologate at one location. “We definitely want to do more of that, but we are cautiously entering that realm,” he said.
Food-wise, Stars and Strikes doesn’t offer anything too fancy, but they aim to make a mark on the entertainment industry. Their first three locations have the Coach’s Corner sports bar, while the remaining locations have the 7/10 Grille. All have the same menu, but the 7/10 Grille offers an open dining concept. Artisan burgers and pizzas, salads and appetizers, and cocktails and craft beers highlight the menu.
Their director of operations, Kip Lowery, was formerly the assistant director of operations for Levy Restaurants, overseeing specialty food and beverage at Lambeau Field and later Philips Arena and the Atlanta Motor Speedway.
“I think we have the best chicken wings in the entertainment world,” Canouse said. “And I’m a chicken wing snob.” Full-service birthday parties are a significant part of weekend business, he added.
Having unique technological platforms and great customer service helps them not only book parties, but offer a new type of entertainment experience.
“We think that we’re a cutting-edge company,” Canouse said. Stars and Strikes has its own online radio station and even a weekend DJ taking requests by text. They have an online training portal that allows them to update employees on new procedures. With an average of 100 staff members per location, letting them train virtually — even through their phones — simplifies the process substantially.
“If you don’t have a high-quality staff, nothing you do will matter at the end of the day,” Canouse said.
The company continues to focus on growth, aiming to bring an awesome entertainment option to areas in the southeastern U.S. that may not have many. Canouse said the strategy moving forward will be on the old big-box stores. Stars and Strikes has previously moved into a former Winn Dixie, Pepsi bottling facility and Babies R Us.
“They’re in great locations where families are, and we have a perfect use for them,” he said. “Our general guideline is to open two stores a year.
“We’re looking in any state that touches Georgia, and the state itself.”
Canouse said since they’re a private company not beholden to any quotas, they don’t have to necessarily stick to those guidelines.
Still, he’s most interested in bringing family entertainment options to Georgia and his region of the country.
After all, there’s no place like home.
Make a Miracle, Community Involvement Is Important at Stars and Strikes
Carolyn Canouse, Jack’s wife, is the founder of Make a Miracle, which is one of the many charitable organizations Stars and Strikes involves itself with.
After several short mission trips with their family to Peru, the Canouses built a relationship with the community of San Juan de Lurigancho. Last year, Make a Miracle held a backpack drive at Stars and Strikes to benefit the Peruvian community.
“These are kids that might never have a backpack otherwise,” Jack Canouse remarked. Stars and Strikes is also involved with the local communities they are in, sponsoring a free-for-all day for foster families, discounts for student athletes on Friday nights and much more.