Westside Bowl Rolls with Pizza; Little Hope for Live Events

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio — “It’s the new normal” might be the buzz phrase, but the entertainment business is yearning for the good old days.

Those who make a living bringing people together for theater, music and comedy are eager to get back to some semblance of the way it was before the COVID-19 shutdown.

The Business Journal checked in with five of the more unique, if not iconic, Valley venues and stores to see how they are faring and what they see down the road. We are running their stories each day this week.

The five – The Youngstown Playhouse, Westside Bowl, The Record Connection, the Funny Farm and Golden Star Theaters – represent different genres of entertainment but all depend on getting people through their doors.

Each has its own set of problems and all see a troubled path going forward.

In its relatively short existence, Westside Bowl has established itself as the top local venue for live rock ’n’ roll.

The Youngstown music venue-bowling alley-bar-restaurant at 2617 Mahoning Ave. has laid off 15 of its 20 employees, according to owner Nate Offerdahl, who has applied for an SBA loan in hopes of returning his staff.

Westside Bowl has been closed since March 17 due to the governor’s order. It has been a struggle but Offerdahl admits it could have been even worse. 

He has an SBA 7A mortgage loan on the Mahoning Avenue building and, under its stipulations, the government is paying his mortgage for six months. Offerdahl has also been able to keep some revenue coming in as a takeout pizza shop.

Patrons and bands who frequent his place have started a pay-it-forward cycle, in which they pay for 10 or more pizzas at a time, which are then given away to those who call in to order; all they have to pay for is the toppings. The backlog of prepaid pizzas is in the hundreds.

“We’re in a better position than a lot of folks,” Offerdahl says. 

Pizza sales were only 10% of his business before the shutdown, with almost all of it sold to people who were inside the bar for a show.

As Ohio moves forward with reopening its economy, Offerdahl doesn’t see much reason for optimism. The prohibition against large public gatherings will likely be one of the last ones lifted.

“Congregating is our business model,” Offerdahl says. “In the live event industry, in my opinion, 2020 is over. The entire summer is not happening.”

When rock clubs do reopen, lingering fear of crowds will likely keep some people away, and those who lost their jobs will be hampered by a lack of money. Offerdahl had popular rock act Red Wanting Blue scheduled for May 23. It would have been a big money-maker for him.

“When can I reschedule it,” he asks rhetorically. “It’s impossible to know. That would have brought in 500 people and been a killer night. If I do reschedule it, you don’t how many will show up. There could be a resurgence [of coronavirus] in November. It’s a minefield for everyone.”

Offerdahl hopes to reopen at least some of his bowling alleys by July, and also is thinking about starting an online store for T-shirts and other memorabilia. He believes that life will get back to pre-virus normalcy in 2021, and hopes to be able to hang on until then.

“I will hope for the best and assume the worst,” Offerdahl says. He’s prepared to remain closed for months, but is grateful for his pizza business. “One silver lining might be that we’ve built up our carryout business so much that we can at least stay open and keep our name out there. Our food is good and if you put it in the hands of enough people, some will come back.”

Another thing that Westside Bowl has going for it is the strong sense of community among its regular patrons. It’s a second home for the rock ’n’ roll crowd, and they value its presence.

“I call myself a realist,” Offerdahl says. “Some call me a pessimist. But I bet everything I own on this side of town, a side that no one wanted to be on. I believe in this town, its people.

“We’ve made an investment in the community,” he continued, “and we are a community center. We’re getting support because we’ve been supportive of the community. People want us to stick around.”

Pictured: The usually busy bar room area of Westside Bowl in Youngstown is closed. The venue laid off 15 of its 20 employees, according to owner Nate Offerdahl.

Related coverage:

May 4: Entertainment Venues Hope Crowds Will Return

Coming Wednesday: Record Connection in Niles.

Copyright 2022 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.