By John Wolcott The Herald Business Journal
ARLINGTON — The thunderous roll of bowling balls, the crack of tumbling pins and a mix of hurrahs and groans from the six busy lanes at Arlington’s Rocket Alley Bar &Grill are music to Steve Saunders’ ears.
Three years ago, Saunders opened the bar, grill and bowling alley to fulfill his lifelong dream of owning a restaurant. He loves to cook, has great recipes that draw raves from customers and attracts a happy bar-and-sports-TV crowd that doesn’t get rowdy.
He can seat 23 in the bar and grill area, 30 in the dining area and serve up to 30 people on the lanes, where they can eat and drink as they bowl if they keep their food on the adjoining counter and away from the bowling lanes. The bowling also provides entertainment for guests in the dining area above the lanes, where large windows make it easy to watch the pin action.
“The bowling is a real plus,” said Saunders, 53.
Bowling wasn’t in his original plan, but he’s found it makes his business unique and expands his customer age range.
What makes Saunders’ business formula work so well is his adrenaline-fueled friendliness, how much he enjoys his customers, the nostalgic feel of the 1950s-era bowling alley and the welcoming attitudes of his staff, which includes his daughter, Brielle, and son, Colt.
Saunders has created a fresh, new attraction on Olympic Avenue, succeeding where many have failed. There have been 10 owners of the bowling alley since Mel and Dotty Sass first opened Melady Lanes in 1954, after installing six bowling lanes left from a 1952 national bowling tournament in Seattle.
Bowling pins were set by hand until 1957, when automatic equipment was installed. Don’t look for automatic scoring though. It’s still done with pencils and paper, and people seem to like it that way.
In the 1970s, bowling’s popularity waned and by 1990, alleys around Snohomish County were closing. Melady Lanes continued under other owners, often with years of closure in between.
When Saunders bought the business in 2009, the lanes had been closed for more than a year. He changed the sign to Rocket Alley Bar &Grill, inspired by his ski-slope nickname, Rocket, from his younger years.
Over the years since he graduated from Granite Falls High School, he’s worked on fishing boats in all kinds of weather in Dillingham, Alaska. He has marketed construction equipment for Oak Harbor’s Jet City Equipment. He learned cooking at Weller’s Chalet and the Buzz Inn, VIPs and Burgerbeers in Everett and even the grill at the Mount Pilchuck ski area when it was open many years ago.
For a while, Saunders even had a paintball business that included training exercises for the Washington State Patrol, municipal SWAT teams and the Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Now, the same adrenaline that powered Saunders through his past ventures is flowing at the Rocket Alley Bar &Grill, and it’s obvious he’s loving it.
He’s got a soft spot for the downtown Arlington business community, along with city officials who helped him get started.
“I saved up for this and took on a silent partner to get it done,” he said. “I learned you really need a game plan and you have to do your homework, because there are so many hidden costs in starting and running a business, plus enormous challenges with older buildings.”
He had to rebuild the floor and ceiling and install new equipment. Arlington Hardware, Unique Interiors and other local businesses helped him, and he got a lot of cooperation from city officials.
“People and businesses in Arlington rolled out the red carpet for me, helping me to rebuild the bar and get started,” he said. “Some even told me to just pay when I could. They wanted to see me succeed and bring new business to town. It was a real team effort and building officials like Chris Young helped a lot in getting paperwork done. Everyone at the city was so helpful to get me started.”
One of the his early moves was to open up a side entrance for access to a new outdoor beer garden. Saunders wants to add a banquet room at some point. He doesn’t own the building but pays for maintenance, repairs and additions under his lease agreement.
“I’m figuring near term for it, but there’s no hurry,” he said. “I discovered that one reason so many businesses close is that they get overextended. I’m not going to do that. I operate with the money I have and wait until I have enough for new projects. You can’t forget about the bottom line.”
In the meantime, he’s having fun and doing everything he can to make sure his staff and customers have fun, too. His enthusiasm and good humor are infectious.
“What’s really helped is that the City of Arlington has such a positive, ‘let’s get it done’ attitude,” he said. “They know business successes are about the success of the town, too. They also help by having so many holiday parades, street fairs and car shows downtown that it seems like there’s always something interesting happening here.”
That’s why he sold his home in Marysville and moved to Arlington.
“I’m really glad to be part of this community,” he said.
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420 N. Olympic Ave., Arlington, 360-435-8600