Pa. Man Sees Bright Future in Old Knitting Mills

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    NEWSLETTERS

    The Reading Eagle

    Past the nightclub and the flashing arcade, a little farther beyond the towering ball pit and the high-speed go-kart track, there's a door. Behind that door is a series of wide-open spaces filled with tall support beams. There's crumbling paint, dozens of mysterious alcoves and tall windows.

    A century ago, this hulking building was a hub for the Wyomissing knitting mills, producing braiding and knitting machinery.

    Now, it's kind of a mess, but Chip White sees something else. In his eyes, the space is the next puzzle piece in The Works, the entertainment complex where he sells fun.

    This started 10 years ago, when White took his teenage daughter's suggestion to start a local alternative to Dave & Buster's, a chain of arcade-restaurants. Since then, he's expanded The Works into a sprawling entertainment complex. Each addition, from the nightclub to the go-karts, has attracted a new customer demographic. The strategy has helped the business grow in a tough economy, and now there are plans for that next building.

    Here's how it works: A couple can bring their grandkids for some fun at the arcade and Ballocity and grab some lunch at The Works. Then their teenagers could go later that night for fast-track go-kart racing at Slick Willy's Karts & Eats, dinner and then a dance party at Building 24 Kitchen & Bar. Later, the couple can go to Building 24 Live for a jazz show and dinner.

    Expanding into an entertainment complex drives business and gives The Works an advantage.

    "If you're not changing the business, you run the risk of your sales decreasing," White said. "If your business doesn't change, especially in this economy, when people don't want to go out to eat When times are hard, that's the one thing people cut back on first. In that mode, that sort of economy, you've got to grow."
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    An old building, a new idea

    Before The Works opened, White was a tax director at a Philadelphia venture capital firm. He'd take his wife, Joann, and daughters Caitlin and Kelsey to Dave & Buster's, where the girls loved playing games and trading tickets for prizes.

    One day, they drove by the old Textile Machine Works building in Wyomissing. Caitlin saw the for-sale sign outside.

    "Dad, we should put a Dave & Buster's there," she said.

    White liked old buildings. He liked the arcade concept. He remembered thinking: "It can't be that hard to run a restaurant."

    Yet the space for sale wasn't big enough, so he bought another building and connected them in 2002. Then he struggled to get the approvals from the borough.

    White, with help from five investors with minority shares, spent about $6 million on renovations. He salvaged old doors and windows from the site's industrial past and added them to the decorations. Large pictures of the complex from 100 years ago added to its character and connected the building to its past.

    "This building is so awesome," Caitlin White said. "These buildings are more of a part of the community than what people realize. This is what created the economy in Reading and Wyomissing."

    The Works opened in April 2003 with a restaurant and an arcade downstairs and a sports bar upstairs. White started to learn firsthand how difficult it was to run a restaurant and he thought ahead for changes that would improve business. A few years later, he doubled the bar area, making it large enough for disc jockeys and bands. Later, a deck was added and the restaurant was remodeled.

    A major shift came from smoking, an unlikely issue for a family entertainment center. When Pennsylvania banned smoking in workplaces in 2008, the rules applied to most restaurants and bars, including The Works. Sales at the bar plummeted, and White estimates the business lost about $500,000 in revenue during that first smoke-free year.

    So he decided to build another bar in an adjacent building that used to house the Reading Rocks climbing gym. The $1.2 million project, Building 24 Kitchen & Bar, opened in July 2010. The club was large enough to attract national acts like Jazzy Jeff at his peak and Vinny from "Jersey Shore," and they brought in the 20-somethings. Caitlin, who graduated from Temple University with a history degree, managed the new business. White decided to keep the new club smoke-free.

    At the same time, he replaced the upstairs bar at The Works with Ballocity, an indoor obstacle course. The $500,000 renovation was such a big hit with kids 12 and under, Joann left her preschool teaching job to manage parties.

    Around the same time, White bought out the other investors.

    The additions attracted more customers and business, but it also led to a shift away from the restaurant and toward entertainment.

    "With how competitive things are in the restaurant business, we sort of had to expand to stay ahead of things," White said. "And that's how we got into this driving different people into here."
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    Selling fun

    Family entertainment centers rely on repeat customers, so businesses need to offer more options.

    "In today's competitive environment and to get people back you have to provide a lot of different areas," said Scott C. Borowsky, executive editor of Tourist Attractions magazine.

    Companies already spend overhead on large spaces, so it makes sense to attract children during the day and adults at night, Borowsky said.

    It's also smart to offer prizes to encourage more arcade activity, quality food to drive revenue and children's parties to add volume. Offering a constant stream of activities keeps the business current, along with seasonal or special events.

    "You're selling fun," Borowsky said. "That's the bottom line."
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    Not finished yet

    White continued adding to the entertainment amenities by building two go-kart tracks in an adjacent building. Slick Willy's Karts & Eats opened in November. It's managed by Kelsey, who has a degree in communications from Penn State. The Italian go-karts look like race cars and can go up to 55 mph. Since the $5.3 million space opened, it's attracted mainly young men, ages 21 to 35.

    The latest switch, Building 24 Live, came after this year's Boscov's Berks Jazz Fest. The club hosted several acts during the festival and continues to book jazz and blues acts, attracting older customers who like live music.

    The response has been phenomenal.

    "We literally can't cook the food fast enough," White said.

    The evolution to an entertainment complex was intentional, but the Whites didn't envision such a success.

    "Our sales are up 45 percent this year," White said.

    Now, there's 110,000 square feet of possibility in that empty building, and he's trying to see what else might work.

    The back building is big enough for an indoor miniature golf course. And he's already moving ahead with plans for an indoor paintball course, Slick Willy's Paintball.

    Construction could start in a year.

    The family has a mixed reaction to the news. Caitlin and Kelsey smile.

    "Oh my gosh," Joann said.

    There's space for even more activities to continue to attract different groups of people and sell more fun.

    "After that, I don't know where to take it," White said.

    Original story here: http://bit.ly/11wR4Aq