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Whitetail Lanes is on a roll with bowling, food and fun

The bowling alley – better known as ‘The Tail’ – was recently named Small Business of the Year by the Portage County Business Council

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March 4, 2024

AMHERST JUNCTION – Whitetail Lanes is an entertainment destination in North Central Wisconsin, and the bowling lanes are just one piece of that equation.

Whitetail Lanes, better known as “The Tail” to the regulars, dates back to 1978 when it was built at 3689 County Road Q in Amherst Junction.

But it has been a long and winding journey.

The Tail’s current owner, Steve Cieslewicz’s part of the journey dates back to 2003 when he bought the largely-dormant business, cleaned and revitalized it and with the help of his family and re-opened it a year and a half later. 

Though Cieslewicz said his connection with the bowling alley started long before 2003.

Growing up in nearby Stevens Point, he said a friend’s dad purchased the bowling center at one point in its history.

Cieslewicz said that eventually led to him joining a teen bowling league.

“The third week into the league, I met this girl named Stacy who’s now my wife,” he said. “This is where we met.”

Fast forward through a 16-year career of selling children’s books, and Cieslewicz said he saw an opportunity in Whitetail Lanes – pivoting from books to bowling balls and business ownership.

Renewed focus

When he purchased The Tail, Cieslewicz said it was important to him to renew the establishment’s focus on providing a welcoming place for drinks, dinner or both in addition to bowling.

“We opened as a family business, of course, and it’s crazy to see how this business has grown,” he said. “We bought a bowling center with a bar and a snack bar. Today, it’s a full-service restaurant with a bar and eight bowling lanes, and food is the dominant force in our business.”

Within a year and a half, Cieslewicz said things accelerated to the point that Whitetail Lanes’ five-foot by six-foot kitchen couldn’t keep up with diners’ food orders.

This, he said, promoted the investment in a full-service kitchen and a 72-seat dining room, as well as the Perfect Fit Pro Shop – which was added in 2005.

Today, Cieslewicz said food comprises about 50% of the business, with the bar bringing in another 40% and bowling the remaining 10% of revenue. 

“(The building) may look like we’re small, but it’s not,” he said. “We’re full on bowling, and we do so much (business) at the bar and in food.”

Cieslewicz said Whitetail Lanes’ menu hasn’t only caught the attention of people living within an hour’s reach – pulling from Wisconsin Rapids, Amherst, Shawano and beyond – but also his peers in the Bowling Proprietors Association of America (BPAA), where he serves as chairman of its food and beverage committee.

Within the scope of that, Cieslewicz said he was asked to contribute an article to the organization’s newsletter, Bowling Center Management, focused on how to brand your food menu – he titled it: “A Recipe For Success.”

“Quality contributes to that, and we’re big on it,” he said. “Our No. 1 appetizer is crab rangoons, and we sell more of those than anything on the menu – making them fresh every day. And then we have our wraps (which is) our No. 1 sandwich (-type item) on the menu. Last year, we made 4,500 wraps. We use good, quality ingredients to make what I call bar food with a culinary twist.”

Cieslewicz said The Tail’s menu draws people in all day long for lunch and dinner.

The menu also offers a host of sandwiches, salads and pizza – as well as a few day specials, including Friday fish fry, 16-inch pizzas on Saturdays and fried chicken on Sundays.

Cieslewicz said he and his team take care to highlight specials and new offerings on The Tail’s Facebook, which has a loyal following.

And the food is served in what Cieslewicz said is its homey and welcoming atmosphere.

“I’ve surveyed customers and asked them what brings them back,” he said. “Over and over, I hear food and atmosphere. Atmosphere and food. Bowling is an addition. Guests say when they walk in, it feels like home. We always greet people at the door and say goodbye when they leave, and that’s important. Staff training is essential – if you take care of your staff, they’ll take care of you.”

Cieslewicz said he also credits a welcoming and collaborative business community for Whitetail Lanes’ success. 

“There are other bars and restaurants in the area, and we try to give them business, too,” he said. “When I bought the place, one of the local business owners said, ‘congratulations on the purchase. You and I will do well together. With all the people we both know, we will bring people to this community together.’ It’s important to act as neighbors.”

Cieslewicz said well more than one million people have entered Whitetail Lanes’ doors in the past 20 years – which includes many who come in five days to eat, drink and have fun.

The establishment, Cieslewicz said, is also a great place for families.

In the summer, Whitetail Lanes participates in the Kids Bowl Free program that offers two games for free every day.

He said parents can buy a family pass for $24.95 and easily bowl with the kids as well.

Cieslewicz said bowling technology has come a long way since 1978.

“We want to make it flashy and fun for the kids,” he said.

Cieslewicz said The Tail’s demographic skews younger than many other bowling centers, a fact he attributes to being a huge advocate of the junior bowling program through the Bowling Center Association of Wisconsin.

“We have a lot of kids participating, and many of them stick with it,” he said. “If you don’t have a strong program, you’re not going to succeed. That’s creating business for years to come.”

Cieslewicz said many clients also patronize the pro shop, which sells upward of 500 balls a year, as well as bags, shoes, etc. for avid bowlers.

“We do quite a bit of volume out of the shop,” he said.

Continued investment

Making investments back into the business, Cieslewicz said, includes regular upgrades and refreshes.

After the COVID-19 pandemic, he said Whitetail Lanes remodeled its bathrooms and installed new flooring across the restaurant, bar and bowling seating area.

The bar, Cieslewicz said, also features a newer granite top. 

“We’re always putting money back into the business,” he said.

There was a time when Cieslewicz said he didn’t think owning Whitetail Lanes was going to come to fruition.

He said when he was first interested in buying Whitetail Lanes, he went to a bank to obtain a loan and the banker said they could work with him to secure it, and yet, his wife, Stacy, was worried about taking such a big financial risk.

“She said, ‘what if we fail, and we lose it all?’” he said. “And I said, ‘then we’ll do something different.’ I wasn’t worried.”

However, Cieslewicz said those thoughts of possibilities changed when the bank declined to lend them money to buy Whitetail Lanes – saying it was a high-risk business, and that bowling was on the decline.

“I insisted you get out of what you put into it,” he said. “I got turned down by five banks. I was so disgusted and exhausted and then a friend of mine said, ‘I have a guy at another bank.’ And I said, ‘I’m done.’ But he talked me into seeing this guy.”

Cieslewicz said he met with the banker, shared his story, outlined his goals for years one through three and showcased his strengths.

What he heard in return, he said, surprised him – and set the stage for building the business.

“The banker said he liked my style and would do everything in his power to get me the loan, and he did,” he said.

But it doesn’t end there.

Even with the loan, Cieslewicz said he had a lot of work ahead of him and hit up friends and family to help tear out the inside of Whitetail Lanes to remodel.

He said he also maxed out his credit card to buy ceiling tiles, carpet and even some food from Sam’s Club to serve guests.

“We opened… and never looked back,” he said.

With that said, Cieslewicz said it hasn’t been easy – working seven days a week for the first year and a half.

He said he has culled many business ownership lessons over the years, learning what not to do is equally important as what to do.

Cieslewicz said he invested in seminars and other education, not only for himself but also for his staff, including management school through BPAA for some of his key people. 

“I have people saying, ‘what if you spend this money on their education and they leave and go somewhere else,’” he said. “And I say, ‘It’s better to have an educated person leave than have an uneducated person who stays.’”

These days, Cieslewicz said he is a fountain of knowledge for his peers as well, traveling to deliver seminars on how to run a bowling center, including providing 50-plus tips on non-bowling revenue ideas – even as bowling continues to make a comeback. 

“I talk about your menu and how you design it, how to make food appealing and what mistakes not to make,” he said.

Part of the reason he’s able to travel to seminars, Cieslewicz said, is because of his son, Brad, who joined the business five years ago in a role he describes as his “right-hand man.”

Cieslewicz said earlier this year, the bowling alley was named Small Business of the Year by the Portage County Business Council – an honor he said means a lot, a nod to his years of hard work.

Giving back

As an active member of the Greater Amherst Junction community, he said Whitetail Lanes has helped other causes attain their goals as well.

Over the years, Cieslewicz said he estimates The Tail has raised anywhere between $250,000 and $400,000 through fundraising for schools and community organizations.

“That we have raised that within these four walls is important to us,” he said. “It’s important to be a part of the community, including the schools.”

Cieslewicz said Whitetail Lanes is a community center.

“Whether you’re three years or 93 years old, you’ll have a good time at Whitetail Lanes,” he said. “It’s a gathering place for all.”

For more on Whitetail Lanes, visit

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