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Pickleball poised as focus for next wave of venues

By Erik Spanberg
Chicken N Pickle locations include a mix of indoor and outdoor pickleball courts along with shuffleboard and bocce ball.Chicken N Pickle

More and more retail entertainment and restaurant entrepreneurs have created sports-themed hangouts since Topgolf opened its first U.S. center in 2005. As new versions roll out — replete with a parade of chef-driven menus and promises of eclectic beer and drink selections — there is a temptation to wonder whether any sports are left to break out.

 

Say hello to pickleball. There are a couple of fledgling pickleball-themed ventures planning expansion, while other real estate-restaurant types are considering their own forays.

Pickleball requires little more than a badminton-sized court, net, paddles, and a ball. It’s easy to learn. A game takes 15 to 25 minutes. You can play singles or doubles, indoors or outdoors. And, according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association, word is spreading fast: In 2020, 4.2 million Americans played the sport casually (2.8 million) or avidly (1.4 million). Overall, that translated to an increase in participation of 21.3% over 2019.

Kansas City-based Chicken N Pickle started in 2016 with a location in its hometown. Two more opened in 2021 — one in suburban Kansas City and another in suburban Dallas — with plans to add three to four more annually beginning in 2022.

Bill Crooks, a restaurant industry veteran and managing partner of Chicken N Pickle, promises nothing less than blanket civility to customers. “Chicken N Pickle is a respite from acrimony in today’s society. It’s a place to come gather and relax and enjoy some healthy food and activity,” he said, pointing to the concept’s freshly prepared dishes, house-prepared french fries and other fare.

Locations feature 13,000-square-foot interiors with bar and restaurant (food and beverage generate more than half of sales), six indoor and six outdoor courts, shuffleboard, bocce ball courts, and more. Mostly in the suburbs, the average Chicken N Pickle occupies 1.75 acres. The privately held company does not disclose sales or margins, but Crooks said it is profitable.

Competitive Social Ventures, backed by an Atlanta real estate and hospitality development company, in the past year started golf- and bowling-themed bars and restaurants featuring, respectively, putting courses and what the company describes as “boutique bowling.” They can be part of or near sibling hotels.

This year, it’s opening Pickle & Social, which is exactly what it sounds like: pickleball mixed with the requisite food and drink as well as outdoor space featuring a rooftop bar, live music, a walk-up bar and grill, and diversions such as American Cornhole League-aligned cornhole lanes.

“We looked and we saw a lot of different facilities that were doing a hodgepodge,” said Joe Reardon, the chief development officer for Competitive Social Ventures. “We’ll throw in a couple of courts, we’ll do some pingpong, and we’ll call it a pickleball facility. Our thought is, we want to do it right. We’re hospitality guys.”

He added that their social sports ventures are managed like hotels, with particular care paid to food and drink. They’re also serious about the sport of pickleball, enlisting pro players to build interest and steer training sessions for serious players.

The first Pickle & Social will break ground in March in Gwinnett, an Atlanta suburb. Another one is planned in Alpharetta (another Atlanta suburb) and expansion to Scottsdale, Ariz., and Florida will follow soon after.

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