The Royal Palms Shuffleboard Club Struts Into Gowanus
All photos by Rob Christensen
We may be in the dead of a very rough winter here in New York City, but inside the Royal Palms Shuffleboard Club (514 Union Street, Brooklyn), which makes its official debut in a Gowanus warehouse tonight, you can practically feel palm trees swaying in the Floridian sun. Black and white curtained cabanas line back walls. Beach chairs bedeck a pair of bars and tall tables. Tropical drinks flow, Sunshine State-themed kitsch dots the walls, and strands of lights twinkle overhead, wound around ceiling fans that, were there not snow on the ground, you could imagine whirring lazily in a breeze. And then, of course, there are the ten shuffleboard courts, the focus of the massive 15,000-square-foot space; they gleam turquoise like a row of swimming pools.
Jonathan Schnapp and Ashley Albert are responsible for this Sunshine State homage, and their effort to bring it to life has been a two-year process. But the seed was planted for Royal Palms 30 years ago: "I grew up in Mamaroneck in Westchester," says Schnapp. "We used to drive to Florida every winter to visit my grandparents in West Palm Beach, where they lived in Century Village. Our parents dropped us off with our grandparents and went and stayed in a hotel. While we were down there, we'd hang out by the pool and play shuffleboard."
A few years ago, he and Albert were in Florida, and he was bent on finding a shuffleboard court since he hadn't played in years. They happened upon the world's largest outside of St. Petersburg, where they found a crowd that was a far cry from the retirement community residents of Schnapp's youth. "It was like the young people of St. Petersburg had taken over this 90-year-old shuffleboard club," he says. "They'd throw parties on Friday nights, and there was this mix of young people, old people, families, hipsters, nerds, jocks, everyone, and they were all playing together. It reminded me of Brooklyn."
The partners began thinking about bringing shuffleboard to the Big Apple, but neither of them had a background in hospitality -- Schnapp was a web programmer and Albert was a voiceover actress. So Schnapp decided to take a couple of weeks off of work and explore the idea, talking to people in the industry, lawyers, and real estate people to get a sense for what it would take to put a concept like this into place. The duo didn't become serious, though, until the Gowanus warehouse that now houses their project fell into their laps. "We never really thought the project could happen," Schnapp says. "We wanted to be a shuffleboard club with a bar in it, so we needed long courts and a wide building. We were pretty convinced we weren't going to be able to find anything. Then this popped up, and we were like, 'Oh gosh, we gotta do this.' It was like the world reared its head and said now you have no reason not to do this. It was perfect. We wound up throwing down our life savings on this giant warehouse, and then it was like, okay, we're doing it."
The partners still needed some significant capital to build out the property, so they dove headlong into the opaque world of raising money -- "Money is so weird," Schnapp laughs -- and then working with a crack team of architects and designers to create a little piece of Florida here. Along the way, Albert and Schnapp made friends with people in the shuffleboard community, and they played in the world championships in St. Petersburg in October. "We got our asses kicked by octogenarians from around the world," says Schnapp. "It was like walking into a Christopher Guest movie."
They've been embraced by the community, though, in part because it sees that they have a good shot at bringing shuffleboard back into style. And Albert and Schnapp repay their kindness in many ways throughout their space: Old photos of players hang on the wall, shuffleboard memorabilia fills every nook and cranny, and drinks are named for shuffleboard champions.
Speaking of drinks, Royal Palms has a full bar with Floridian-themed cocktails (a gin, lime, cucumber, and coconut concoction is so popular the bar is going to tap it) and eight drafts, which pour what Schnapp calls "mainstream craft beer." The partners are working to keep drinks reasonably priced, too -- a pint of Pacifico, for instance, is just $4.
That affordable pricing reflects in the shuffleboard courts, too, which are rented for $40 per hour (four people play shuffleboard at once, which means that you and three friends are out just $10 each). Schnapp and Albert really wanted people to be able to come often and not feel like they dropped a ton of money at the courts, Schnapp explains. "People here just want an authentic experience at a fair price," he says. "They don't want to make it rain."
The lower prices are possible, says Schnapp, because of the food program. The partners knew early that food was going to be a challenge, because a kitchen would have to have the capability to feed 300 people. "We care about food," Schnapp says. "We didn't want to do a shitty job on this." Because the building was a warehouse, it has a loading dock -- which gave the crew the idea to bring in a rotation of food trucks, solving their problem without forcing them to build out a back of house or staff a line. That keeps their costs down and allows them to pass savings on to players while making sure everyone is well-fed.
Now that the doors are open, Albert and Schnapp are offering many enticing reasons to walk through the doors. Mondays and Tuesdays are league nights, when teams of four go up against each other to eventually be crowned champs. On Wednesdays, Royal Palms will feature bingo with iconic team Linda Simpson and Murray Hill (Schapp used to be a regular at their bingo night at Hotel Chantelle). And the space offers many different options for large parties, from reserving a cabana and a couple of courts to booking half of the space (or all of the space) for a private party.
And if you've never played shuffleboard, no matter -- the entire Royal Palms staff has been schooled in the sport and can explain the rules, demonstrate using the tang (the stick), and make calls on biscuits (pucks) that are dangerously close to the line.
In the bathrooms
The food truck window
The Shuffleboard Bob -- gin, lime, coconut, cucumber
The Floyd Swem -- vodka, ginger lemonade, ginger beer
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