From hammering nails into tree stumps to driving golf balls to flinging axes, bar culture has really branched out in Milwaukee, where it’s clear folks no longer are content to chat with a friendly stranger one bar stool over.
One of the most unusual sports-fueled taverns has just opened in a once heavily industrial part of western Wauwatosa that has also rapidly been changing.
First and Bowl, a block south of the Mayfair Collection and just off the I-41 freeway ramp at 2969 N. 114th St., is centered around the sport of football bowling, which the bar’s website describes as "a combination of football and bowling plus a little bit of drinking (not required)."
The main part of the sprawling space is filled with more than a half-dozen lanes with bowling pins set up on opposites sides of the 32-foot lanes. Opposing teams each stand near a set of pins. The goal is to throw a football and take out as many of the opposing team’s pins as possible.
"It can be one, two, five people on a team, whatever you want to play with," says co-owner Bryan MacKenzie (pictured above), "and one football, and you just alternate back and forth. The game is over when one team's got them all down.
"So, when we would have normal operations, it's 10 bucks to get in and play, and then you can play as long as you want but if you just go find a lane, or find other friends to play with, or some strangers, maybe. Then, if it's completely filled up, then you kinda just get in line and, when a team loses you take their spot."
MacKenzie says that if an errant ball from an adjacent lane knocks over pins in your lane, that still counts.
"It encourages folks to get friendly with their neighbors," he says. "You can say to them, ‘we’ll try not to knock yours down if you try not to knock ours down."
Unlimited open play is $10 per person, but you can also rent lanes for $120 an hour or $200 for two hours. Lane reservations include entry for up to 10 people and allows unlimited open play after the reservation ends.
MacKenzie says he discovered the game at a similar business, founded by Chris Hutt – who calls the sport fowling – on a trip back to his native Detroit.
"He created a bar over there and I was home visiting family and we saw it and said that looks like fun, Milwaukee should have a place where."
The businesses, MacKenzie says, are unrelated.
"I reached out to him several times and he told me early on that you can't patent or trademark a sport so the only thing would be the brand and we said we think we can do this a little bit differently. We were confident that we could spin it our way and that's what we've done."
The spin at First and Bowl is a full-service bar, with everything from Miller Like and Hamm's to Hinterland Pils and Toppling Goliath on the beer list – on tap and in cans – ciders, ManCans of wine and, of course, mixers and liquors for cocktails.
There’s also a kitchen behind a service window across from the bar.
"We're starting with a little bit of a limited menu," says MacKenzie, "but it's kind of bar food: pizzas, wings, sandwiches, that kind of stuff. Then, down the road, when we feel more confident that we're ready to add to that then we're going try and make it a little bit more. Right now it's kind of what you'd expect when you come to a bar."
Community tables in the center of the space were built from lanes salvaged out of a bowling alley.
Though the venue is clearly a bar, it also has the vibe of a recreation center, like a batting cages business or something similar and so I asked MacKenzie if families are welcome.
"You have to be over 10 to be able to go in there," he says, pointing to the caged-off football bowling area, "just because of the risk of smaller kids getting hit with something, but they're certainly welcome.
"We’ll have an (age) cut-off but during the day, certainly, they’re welcome, and we've got the screens to watch the game, and we've got a couple sets of bags and things like that that are easier for a set of kids, so if families come in to play with kids there's other things to entertain them."
MacKenzie says that he and his co-owners Tim Johnson and Craig Galarneau – all of whom have kept their day jobs and hired an experienced general manager to run First and Bowl – spent a long time trying to find the right place and news reports from last year went so far as to say the place would open in other parts of town.
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There were possible sites in the Menomonee Valley and in Walker’s Point, too.
"We’ve been working on this for a couple of years and the big crux finding a building with high ceilings, open space, that was still reasonable price and wasn't in disrepair. We looked at probably 20-something different buildings and we had a handful that fell through because we couldn't get the zoning, variance from industrial to commercial, or the roof had a massive leak and the landlord didn't want to put any money into it, or landlords didn't believe we were a real business and wouldn't meet with us.
"We found a couple that were awesome, that were like old gyms or they were already ready for us, but then they wanted three times the rent that they want here. It was a fun experience but I'm glad we found this place because this one ended up being the best sort of blend of everything we needed."
First and Bowl is open now – from 4 until 10 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays, 4 p.m. until bar time on Fridays, 11 a.m until bar time on Saturdays, and 11 a.m. until 10 p.m. on Sundays – but a proper grand opening celebration is on the horizon, Saturday, July 13, from 11 a.m. until midnight. More information can be found here.
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.
He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.
With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.
He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.
In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.
He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.