Sponsored: Meet Your Merchant: Mike Sawyer, at The Barn Bowl and Bistro

The vibe works for year-rounders and visitors alike.

From left, Mike Sawyer, Sam Dunn, Barry Reeves and Robert Sawyer, of The Barn. — Courtesy Alisun Armstrong

Isn’t The Barn celebrating an anniversary this month?
We’re celebrating our third anniversary this month.


How long did it take for the project to go from concept to fruition?

About two solid years. A year to design, plan and permit, and a year to build.


Whose idea was it?

Robert Sawyer [one of the partners of the business] came up with the idea. He had two fundamental concepts: First, to bring bowling back to Martha’s Vineyard, and second, unlike most hospitality businesses that focus on the summer, to prioritize and target the nine non-summer months as a venue for year-round Vineyarders. He then approached Barry Reeves [another partner] about developing such a year-round enterprise. They engaged Sam Dunn, a well-known and accomplished Island architect and commercial developer, to help them design, build, and pull the entire project together. Together, they became fondly known as “the Three Geezers.”


Describe some of the difficulties in getting permits and contractors.

Permitting has gotten pretty involved on the Island. For this project, we required discretionary approvals from Oak Bluffs planning board, Martha’s Vineyard Commission, Oak Bluffs selectmen, Historic Commission, zoning board of appeals, Wastewater Board, board of health, Cottage City District, fire marshal and others — in addition to the normal building permit process. All told, Sam Dunn attended more than 50 meetings at these boards, most of which were public hearings. Further, there were a number of interactions and negotiations with neighbors. We collected many hundreds of signatures on a petition of support for the project. We remain proud that the project was universally supported by the year-round community. Yet, as always, there was opposition from various quarters, and their issues had to be addressed. Opponents are always much noisier than supporters.


Whose idea was it to get Dana Gaines’s murals for behind the lanes?

Those murals are actually masking panels which hide the pinsetters, and are the most visible aspect of every bowling alley. Most facilities choose from a selection of stock images that show explosions or shooting stars and the like for their panels. Sam Dunn and Robert Sawyer wanted something very different, and directly related to the Vineyard. Sam Dunn worked with Dana Gaines on this notion for many hours. Dana had done a lot of illustrations of Island scenes over the years, and after looking them over, we decided we could modify them to portray a scene from each of five Island towns. Of course there are six towns, and we could not omit Aquinnah. But because the panels are reversible, we hit on the idea of making one 50-foot wide panoramic image of Gay Head on the back to represent Aquinnah. It amazed us how dramatic this turned out to be. We owe a lot to Dana Gaines, as his work makes a huge contribution to the ambiance of the facility.


What was the process in getting those from wherever they were, or reproducing them, and installing them?

Dana Gaines’s illustrations had to be modified to have the correct proportions to fit the five masking panel sizes, then labeled and correlated. The final images were digitized and reproduced on full-size boards set in thin metal frames that sit in racks above the lanes.


Who did the design/decorating?

Sam Dunn was the architect, and is responsible for the layout and design. Barry Reeves was “Eagle Eye,” with constant focus on so many of the details. We need to give a lot of credit to Peggy and Steve Zablotny of Z Studio. They knew we wanted a lively space that was upbeat and fun and full of light and color. Peggy Zablotny is a genius with color. She helped create a palate that gives the space its sense of joy. It works so well that most people don’t really notice that there are five different, vibrant colors, many of them brightly lit, that all work seamlessly together. Seeing these on a sample board horrified the other partners of the project, because they looked so arbitrary and garish. But we stayed the course, and the results speak for themselves. Credit also goes to Josh Dunn, a gifted designer and craftsman. He created the segmented window walls that allow the restaurant to be an integral part of the bowling experience, yet acoustically separate. He also designed and built the unique curved epoxy bar top, which is very difficult to make.


We love the bowling presidents photos.

We had seen a picture on the Internet of Richard Nixon bowling in the White House bowling alley, and the idea hit us that if we could find some more of these, we could display them on the left and right side of the lanes to reflect their political leanings. Also, because Clinton and Obama had often vacationed on the Island, there was a Vineyard connection there, too. We couldn’t locate a picture of Clinton bowling, but we did find Obama. We were fortunate enough to host a big dinner and bowling party for the Obama family to celebrate daughter Malia going off to college. (By the way, President Obama is an excellent bowler!) President Obama agreed to personally autograph his picture, which hangs on the left side of the bowling lanes. Some have noticed an interesting side note — both Democrats, Obama and Truman, bowl left-handed, while the Republicans, Bush and Nixon, are right-handed.


How many games or strings are bowled at The Barn each day, or month or year?

Depends upon the day, but roughly 50 to 150 games are played on our lanes each day. That is about 36,000 strings of bowling per year.


Is there a difference between summer and winter?

We are fortunate our level of activity is pretty steady year-round. In the off-season, we operate a myriad of bowling leagues each week, and the restaurant and bar generate a meaningful crowd for both lunch and dinner on a regular basis. Our patrons often remark throughout the non-summer months that they regularly come across friends and neighbors at the Barn. Our function facility hosts many Vineyard events, from the weekly Rotary meetings to class reunions, wedding and birthday parties, and so many others. In the summer, we do not raise our prices, and we discontinue most of our leagues, but the facility typically fills up with summer visitors. And with our Kids Bowl Free program during the summer, many families turn out during the daytime — even on beach days.


What’s been your single biggest day?

Any day that it rains during the summer.


How early in the day do people start bowling?

At 11am, right when we open to the public each day. However, we allow our league bowlers to come practice bowl at 9 am on Sundays during the off-season.


Some maintenance questions: How do you have to care for the floors/lanes?

The lanes and the approaches (the 15 feet of synthetic wood preceding the bowling lanes) get daily maintenance. The floors are buffed with a buffing machine, and the lanes receive daily cleaning and oiling using our robotic lane oil machine.

How many bowling balls does The Barn own?

The Barn definitely has some balls, lol. I think we have about 130.


What’s the heaviest one?

Heaviest bowling ball is 15 pounds.


How often do you have to replace balls?

Once every year or two.


What about shoes? What are the size ranges?

Shoe sizes range from a tiny toddler size 5 to men’s size 16.


When the guy comes down the lane to fix something behind the façade, what’s he doing back there? Can you briefly describe the mechanism that sweeps out the pins and replaces them?

The machines are Brunswick A2 Pinsetters. They were originally constructed in the mid-1960s, and they are still widely used, as the industry standard, in many bowling centers across the U.S. Each machine holds over 20 bowling pins, and as the 10 pins on the surface get knocked over by bowling balls and the machine sweeps them away, a fresh set of 10 new pins randomly comes down from inside the pinsetter machine and is placed upon the bowling floor.


What’s your busiest day of each week in the restaurant?

We are grateful to have many. Our biggest draws have been our Monday Night Burger Night, where we offer a $5.99 Angus Beef Burger with fries from 5 pm to 9:30 pm; Indian Night every Tuesday night has been a huge hit, where we offer a selection of authentic Indian dishes produced by Chef Shivi Datta in our kitchen; and then there is Thursday Night Trivia Night with host Dan Cassidy, which is almost always packed. Friday and Saturdays are generally always busy.


What’s your most popular menu item?

Our pizzas rank as our top-selling item, both because they are a customer favorite, and also because we have so many children’s birthday parties, and pizza is almost always the food choice for the kids. Besides pizza, customers also order quite a bit of chicken and broccoli Alfredo, crispy cauliflower, and grilled teriyaki salmon. And our buckets of fried chicken are a unique Vineyard offering.


How many people work at The Barn?
We employ roughly approximately 42 people year-round.


The Barn is one of the few places on MV that Islanders can gather inside and laugh and have fun around each other. Have you heard from Vineyarders telling you how happy they are there?

The best compliment we regularly receive is when people tell me how much they love the vibe inside our venue. It’s a place Vineyard people can come, year-round, see other people they know, have a few laughs, relax, and enjoy a delicious meal with their family without breaking the bank. And, of course, the bowling adds a sense of recreation and fun that permeates throughout the venue.


What programs do you feel have been successful?

We’ve had pretty good success with most of the programs we’ve run (except trying to serve breakfast, lol). I would say one of our best programs is our Mug Club, a loyalty program for our most frequent and loyal customers. Customers who are members enjoy their own personalized, hand-crafted 20-ounce beer mug that resides above the bar at the venue. Each time the customer comes to the Barn, they ask for their mug, and enjoy drink specials and food specials that are exclusive to them and other “muggers.”


Any interesting plans or events for the future? We’re always looking for new ways to expand and enhance our business and the experience of our customers. One of the small projects on the immediate horizon is to enclose our birthday party space, and create a beautiful private dining and business meeting space. Customers will be able to rent the room for a small fee, and have the room to themselves for business meetings, parties, or small events, with full lunch and dinner service. We believe this will be one of the most unique small private dining and meeting spaces available on Martha’s Vineyard.


What have been the highlights or adventures over the past three years?

The highlight has been, without a question, growing a business that has truly been embraced by the local year-round community and evolved into a gathering place for Islanders looking for fun, food, and entertainment. It is why we’ve branded ourselves as the Vineyard Gathering Place. And with the bowling lanes, we’ve been able to host all types of wonderful fundraisers for so many important local organizations and groups, including fire departments, local charities, Featherstone, Rising Tide, M.V. Community Services, and so much more.