WILKES-BARRE, PA — Chacko’s Family Bowling Center, an early recipient of The Barstool Fund, was built during hard times. So when the coronavirus hit and lockdowns swept the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, the family-owned business was ready to do whatever it took to survive.
What they have, a 38,000-square-foot bowling alley in Wyoming Valley, was built in 1998 after Hurricane Agnes demolished the other facility near the Susquehanna River that started in 1972. Elizabeth and John Chacko Sr., who were 45 and 44 at the time, had just signed the paperwork to start converting the business into their own.
To save his business, John Sr. took a boat and went out to the river. He piled sandbags on the building, but the levee broke, and it was still destroyed. The rest of the family was home, and a son with muscular dystrophy and a daughter with lupus were not about to enter a storm. So the Chacko sons, Daniel and John Jr., who were 15 and 17 at the time, were soon digging out mud and clearing floodwater along with neighbors.
“We had to take the bowling lanes and cut them in sections and then we put them apart with crowbars,” Daniel says. “We carried the pieces out to the curb and people picked them up with loaders and took stuff away. We had to take flooring off and ceiling tiles and pretty much just empty the whole building. As far as mud, because we’re only like a block from the river, there was probably a good foot of mud in the basement. We had to shovel that into buckets and carry it out to dump outside.”
The family eventually reclaimed the business by the river. Then they moved locations 26 years later.
Another unexpected tragedy would threaten the Chacko family business nearly 50 years later. On March 15, 2020, the bowling center closed under the impression it would be open 15 days later due to initial “stop the spread” protocol. They talked it over and envisioned two weeks was a reasonable amount of time to cease operations. Little did Chacko’s, or anyone else, know their doors would be shuttered until June 20 due to the eventual statewide closure of “non-life sustaining businesses operations and services.”
The second-and-third generation family business was being put through the wringer by Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration. Chacko’s sold takeout here and there from its restaurant and bar, but the bills were piling up: Mortgage, insurance, utilities, taxes, and more. They were dipping into their savings, but they refused to take employees off payroll. When work is family, leaving your family members in the dust is not an option.
So they applied for the federal Paycheck Protection Program and burned through it. June came around, but COVID restrictions capped revenue. A fog machine the state made them purchase was more than $10,000. In a standard month, the business costs close to $55,000 to run, between payroll and bills.
“When we reopened in June, we had to set up all this Plexiglas, we had to get more hand sanitizer — which at the time was impossible to find — and we had to make sure we bought a fog machine like in hospitals to clean big areas faster,” Kara Hodorowski, the current marketing and and event manager Chacko’s, and Daniel’s daughter, says. “It was 25 percent capacity and you could never make ends meet on that kind of revenue because we don’t charge that much a game. It’s not like $100 a game, it’s four bucks.”
Karla Harman, Kara’s sister who manages human resources for Chacko’s, notes that “reopening was still tough because we had to follow all the restrictions.”
“It was hard to bring people in, but you actually have to turn people away because you couldn’t have them in at the same time,” Harman notes.
Government handouts could not solve their problems. But giving up was never an option for the family.
Fast-forward to December. Kara’s sister, Kenley Keiper, sent a social media link to her family members that would change their lives. It was to the Barstool Fund, launched by Barstool Sports founder Dave Portnoy to allocate money to small businesses struggling to operate during the lockdowns. Kara estimates the fund had raised somewhere between $12 and $15 million total when the family applied. Now it’s at more than $32 million.
Barstool instructed Chacko’s to send an email outlining their story. So they did. The fund followed up asking for a more detailed explanation. They asked the three sisters, Kenley, Karla, and Kara, to record an informative video.
There were no limitations content-wise, but Portnoy’s fund needed it within 24 hours. So the sisters stayed up until 3 a.m. shooting and editing clips on a cell phone.
“We couldn’t tell anybody, so we ran over ourselves [to Chacko’s]. The place just closed so it was quiet,” Kenley said, who works in management and does graphics. “We did a quick storyboard for ourselves. We did the voiceovers, and then when I came home, I didn’t have my computer. So I’m up until three a.m trying to clip it together. And then when I went to send the file it was too big. My sister ending up having a ZIP compressor.”
After a day, Barstool wrote back asking to verify paperwork, bills, and such, and wanted to see the company logo. Then the airwaves went silent. “Don’t get our hopes up about hearing back from them,” Kara told her sisters.
Then it was Christmas.
“On Christmas Eve, I was unwrapping presents, and I was getting a FaceTime call. That’s when the call happened,” Kara said. “And you see Portnoy’s face and you knew what it was about. He told us they selected us as I think the 10th business and the first non-restaurant — definitely the first bowling alley. That was a moment when you are like, ‘Oh my gosh, oh my gosh, we might make it through this.'”
Portnoy assured Kara Barstool would be there until restrictions ease. $15,000 a month was the agreed-upon number.
“You guys are deserving,” Portnoy said. “It’s hard to pick, but we’re glad we found you guys and very excited to help …Very happy to be there for you guys.”
— The Barstool Fund (@BarstoolFund) December 24, 2020
Kara called her sisters and then their father, Daniel. Christmas Eve was the anniversary of the late Chacko Sr’s. birthday. He had passed away in 1997, a year before they opened up the current building on North Wilkes Barre Boulevard. This special connection made it more emotional for everyone.
“It was a total surprise, I had no idea they even did anything like that,” Daniel says. “To hear what we were gonna get was emotional. To have it happen on that day was incredible. It was just incredible that somebody would step up and do something like that. You can’t imagine how appreciative it is to keep a business that’s been going since ’72 alive like that.”
“When Kara called me to tell me I scream-cried,” Kenley said. “I said, ‘Dad’s gonna be so happy.'”
Kara appeared on Fox Business a week later to talk about their story.
The money has been instrumental. The mortgage is being paid and so are health insurance premiums. Even with the money they are receiving, though, Chacko’s is still falling short every month. But if it were not for Barstool, Kara says it would have been impossible to dig their way out of this mess. “We have a lot of rules in place, so it is hard to make ends meet,” she notes.
Chacko’s is operating at 50 percent capacity today. On Memorial Day, May 31, the Wolf administration tentatively plans to lift gathering restrictions. According to the state’s health department, the mask mandate will supposedly end once 70 percent of Pennsylvanians who are 18 or older receive the vaccine.
Other businesses have not been as fortunate. In December 2020, it was reported that lockdowns in Pennsylvania closed 30 percent of business — the second most in the nation behind Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s Michigan. A second report in April found Pennsylvania tied with Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s New York for the most small business closures in the nation, at 31 percent. About one in six businesses have closed nationwide since the start of the pandemic.
“It’s obviously been insanely difficult,” says Karla. “As a small business, we don’t have the same luxuries that corporate companies have had, like Lowes or Target, that were able to stay open during all the restrictions. It’s hard. We’re not grazing through with things but in the meantime we’ll try to help our added income however we can.”
Jennifer Yuhas, a longtime bowler whose 19-year-old son works at Chacko’s, says, “It is really a family environment” and that Barstool’s helping hand did more than just help the business. It lifted up a community.
“It wasn’t just a blessing to the bowling alley,” Jennifer describes. “I think it was a blessing to the whole community to have some normalcy during the pandemic.”
Rick Santasania, who has been bowling at Chacko’s for more than 30 years, echoes Jennifer’s sentiment on the value of community. “It’s like a home,” Rick says, who is unhappy with how Pennsylvania forced small businesses to close.
“The governor shouldn’t have the power to shut down private business,” Rick tells me. “I think the governor shouldn’t have the power to determine what businesses are essential or non-essential.”