Keep on Shufflin’COVID-19 #SmallBizSpotlight | How a shuffleboard club in Brooklyn and Chicago is staying in motion.Published: November 03, 2020
Programming note: This article is part of a weekly column on small businesses in New York during COVID-19. To get #SmallBizSpotlight articles straight to your inbox, sign up here. You'll receive one email every Tuesday afternoon. Thanks for reading!
I’m going to keep this note short and sweet, since I’m sure we’re all consumed with the election. As a Canadian who has worked hard to live and work in this country, I have a lot of feelings. American or not, today is weird and tense and likely somewhat scary. I hope you’re being kind to yourself and making space for whatever it is you need to get through.
This week, I spoke with Jonathan Schnapp of The Royal Palms Shuffleboard Club, a beloved shuffleboard venue with outposts in Brooklyn and Chicago. Known for its tight-knit community of competitive and amateur players, the club prides itself on introducing people of all stripes to the idiosyncratic sport of shuffleboard (their legendary pina coladas help with onboarding). Below, my conversation with Schnapp on sustaining the spirit of the club while the doors remain closed.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Many of the business owners I speak to are disappointed by the government’s response to this crisis. Do you share that sentiment?
I've grown to not expect much from our government in terms of support. No matter if it’s good times or bad, I've never seen the government as somebody who's helping, so much as somebody who's putting a bunch of impediments in the way of getting and keeping our [business] open. I never thought we were going to be getting very much from the government on this, and that has proven true. So, I'm barely even disappointed.
How has that low expectation informed your business decisions over the past eight months?
I’ve got a lot of feelings about this... For better or worse, I don't think that our society puts a ton of importance on what we do as hospitality professionals. That lack of respect bleeds into the attitudes of our government. And they're not totally wrong: when I think of what's important right now, it's kids being in school and their parents getting to go back to work and having a functioning society. Honestly, I love our club, but getting tipsy and playing shuffleboard isn't really that important compared to kids getting to develop and their parents getting to work. I recognize that what we do is only so important.
When did you shut down in March?
It was March 13th, and New York hadn't shut down yet, but every party for that Saturday night had canceled. We said, “Hey, this is going to be a thing, we're going to shut it down now.” In its truest form, The Royal Palms is a super-spreader waiting to happen. What makes our thing fun is moving everywhere, talking to everyone, touching everything. We are uniquely terrible for COVID. So it was pretty clear to us that we shouldn't be open in the way that a restaurant might try to eke by, where you sit down at your own table, eat your food with your people, then get up and leave. Ours is the opposite of that. It was really painful. We had to lay everybody off.
How big is your staff?
We've got about 35 in Brooklyn and 25 in Chicago. It was hard. Our staff are incredible professionals who have spent years in hospitality. They're just wonderful people. At the time, we really believed it was going to be just a few weeks. Most of our people were able to get on unemployment before the rush, because we [closed] early. It wasn’t terribly painful while they were getting the extra $600 a week. The really hard part was when that extra cash dried up in August. I wrote them a note saying, “I know this sucks, and if you need to grab some shifts somewhere else, know that it won’t affect your position here when we open back up.” The truth is, so many of our people would come in and take the risk for significantly less cash. I've got to be the person who’s like, "Listen, that's not safe.”
The thing that my people miss the most is being of service. When so much of the social justice stuff started happening, many of them jumped in and got involved, giving out water and granola bars [to protesters] and raising money. The truth is, it's not the money that's the problem for any of us. Unemployment is there, and it's not a ton of money, but none of my people are hungry. Also, all of our people are documented, so they have access to unemployment benefits. It's more of an existential crisis than a financial one.
You did some to-go service in the summer. Do you have plans to bring that back?
We didn’t do to-go cocktails [for profit]... We ran a series of benefits where we sold pina coladas and cans of beer out the window, and 100 percent of the proceeds went to a variety of social justice causes. That was a really great program for us, and in fact we're doing some more of that this week and next — we're filming the Brooklyn playoffs and selling beers, and all the money from that is going to social justice campaigns. Right now, if we sold $1,500 worth of beer and pina coladas out the window, that doesn't do much of anything for our rent. But it does a ton for Bed-Stuy Strong. It does a ton for The Okra Project. It does a ton for the Black Artists Guild.
Tell me more about the playoffs you recently started streaming — what was the inspiration?
We filmed an invitational eight-person tournament out in Chicago during the very beginning of the pandemic, and it worked so well. When it became clear that we weren't going to be able to be open for the fall and probably the winter, I was like, The playoffs were about to start when we had to shut down, let's bring people back and do them. The league players are the heart of The Royal Palms Shuffleboard Club. They come every week to play, they have cool shirts and fun names, they all know each other, and they treat the place great. I really believe that, along with the staff, it's the league that makes the place feel good. I can't imagine running our place if we were just doing it for people who were coming once and not having that sense of community. So, when it came time to think about how we are going to keep our soul, it occurred to me that the way to do that was to lean hard into the league.
It's dorky as f-ck — we're using terms like kitchens, hammers, and snuggles and all of the deep shuffleboard terminology that we've picked up along the way. I happen to be the number-five shuffleboard player in the world, and you'd be shocked at how few women are impressed. I understand not everybody's super into shuffleboard, but part of what makes The Royal Palms special is that we are really into our league, community, and the game, and that's what I want to put out there. And I think the [YouTube episodes] do that. Despite the fact the audience might be flimsy in terms of numbers, if people check it out and say, "Wow, look at this," that'll be enough. They don't have to sit there and watch every single episode. But I can tell you that our league members are tuning in every Monday night and commenting. People from Brooklyn and Chicago are meeting each other online and talking about the game and strategy and all that stuff. That's what this is about for us: holding on to the very soul of this thing.
Have you done any virtual programming before?
Wow. How’d you get it off the ground?
We've got some really talented filmmakers that play in our Chicago league… One of the guys is an Emmy-winning editor. [The series] is a little bit better than it should be [laughs]. So we worked with them to film what is usually one day of playoffs over the course of two weeks. We spaced it out one match at a time and were super careful with social distancing, hand sanitizer everywhere. We’ve got 15 episodes of the Chicago playoffs in the can and are rolling those out every Monday, and now we’re filming the Brooklyn tournament.
How are you doing from a financial standpoint?
It's not pretty. But thankfully, The Royal Palms has done really well when it is open in both locations. It sucks to bleed a year's worth of rent, and most businesses can't do that. The truth is, because of the way The Royal Palms succeeds when we are running at full capacity, we know that we can earn a year's worth of rent back in a quarter or two. So it wouldn't make any sense for us to walk away from it. We're just going to suck it up and wait for a vaccine.
Part of me feels guilty. It's a pretty rough situation for a lot of people and my heart goes out to all of them. If I had one piece of advice for everyone, it's tip the bill. However much you spent, tip that much. We're used to going into any business like, "How little can I spend on the thing that I want, to get the thing that I need?" Instead of that, if places are important to you, support them. Over-support them. Buy the sweatshirt that you're going to freaking throw in the closet and never wear.
What do the next few months look like for you?
We're trying to focus on this shuffleboard broadcast and getting the word out about it. We're making some repairs to the bars, trying to keep things clean and keep our energy and spirits as high as they can be. A lot of people are like, "Ugh, you can't open up yet? That’s so unfair." Honestly, maybe we could. We could probably make some sort of legal argument that we're like a bowling alley. I just don't think that the risk is worth the reward right now. It's hard to make that call, particularly when you see so many [businesses] being resourceful and taking the risk and building [new] versions of what they do. The truth is, I don't want a limited version of The Royal Palms experience for our guests... There isn't a good answer right now for a business like ours that’s all about meeting new people, talking, hugging, socializing, and moving. All of those things are what makes The Royal Palms what it is. And that's not safe right now.
How to help:
- Watch Shufflinsanity, the 2020 league championship, on YouTube (new episodes stream every Monday night at 8 PM EST)
- Follow on IG and Twitter
- Purchase a gift card
Until next time,