Shelly Duncan is emblematic of what’s been happening in pickleball.
Duncan, a 62-year-old retired U.S Navy officer and her husband, Marshall, discovered pickleball about six years ago, and have become avid players in their small North Florida town of Fernandina Beach.
“We play almost all the time,” Duncan said. “It’s an obsession.”
The town has six public pickleball courts in its Central Park, a multi-use public space that also includes ball fields, tennis courts and a children’s playground. It’s the site of the only public pickleball courts in Nassau County, a county of about 85,000 people sandwiched between Jacksonville and the Georgia state line.
“The county doesn’t have recreational facilities, so we’re getting overrun on our pickleball courts,” Duncan said.
Rather than throttling her pickleball yearnings, Duncan, who has never owned a business in her life, has decided to become a pickleball entrepreneur by creating Nassau Pickleball 365, a company that will have its own pickleball courts and rent them out to players.
“I connected with a real estate agent and said, ‘I need help. I want to find some land.’”
At first, Duncan had eyed an empty box store in a strip shopping center anchored by a busy Publix supermarket in Fernandina Beach. But the rent on the space, which would only accommodate five pickleball courts and require work on the sprinkler system, would run about $1 million for five years.
“That didn’t make sense to me,” she said.
So she wandered westward across the bridge to Yulee, a more affordable Nassau County town that has more than 20 churches, but no pickleball courts.
She and her husband bought a piece of land there, and her pickleball dreams have begun with a “build it and they will come” Field of Dreams philosophy.
The plans call for eight courts under cover and individually fenced. And next to it a facility room and an outdoor patio that can serve as a function space for groups.
She’s going to try pay-to-play, $20 per hour, with a $30 per month membership fee. There will be both an online reservation system and an ability to drop in and play.
“People want to reserve courts for a specific time and know that they can play,” she said.
What about food and drinks?
“I don’t want to be in the restaurant business,” she said.
In that sense, Duncan may be an outlier.
Because the interest in pickleball has widely outpaced the supply of courts, other entrepreneurs have turned to pickleball-themed restaurants as a business model that works.
These concepts make pickleball a central feature in a casual restaurant where people come to eat, drink, and not only play pickleball, but also a variety of other games and sports.
Well known efforts have already been launched by Chicken N Pickle, with six locations in the country up and running already, and three more set to open by the end of the year.
And it has been five years since Smash Park opened its first location in West Des Moines, Iowa. The restaurant features six indoor pickleball courts along with cornhole, darts, shuffleboard, ping pong, arcade games, and a 30-foot mega TV wall for watching sports.
The Eureka! Restaurant Group, the Southern California-based chain of restaurants that promotes its scratch kitchens and craft breweries, have entered the pickleball-themed restaurant world with plans to open one in Las Vegas and another in Tempe, Arizona, under the name “Electric Pickle.”
“Electric Pickle aims to be the Topgolf of pickleball,” co-founder Paul Frederick announced.
Another pickleball-themed restaurant concept called The Pickle Bar is underway in Charleston, South Carolina. Its owner, Alisa Tolliver, is a 53-year-old tennis player who discovered pickleball during the COVID-19 virus pandemic.
“The city locked all the tennis courts up for the pandemic, so just for something to do, I built a makeshift pickleball court in my garage using tape,” Tolliver said.
“It wasn’t the right size, but it worked.”
Tolliver had seen the two pickleball courts in Charleston near where she played tennis, but never gave the sport a chance until after she had created her garage game.
“I thought nobody plays pickleball in Charleston,” Tolliver said. “But then I found out that people really do, and they want it.”
Tolliver went from a 4.0 tennis player to a 4.0 pickleball player, to the owner of The Pickle Bar, a yet-to-open 40,000-square-foot restaurant and bar complex that will feature Southern cuisine along with nine outdoor pickleball courts, a stage, and room for lawn games.
She plans to rent the pickleball courts by the hour, and is counting on the area’s public courts being crowded enough to keep the demand high for her courts.
The unexpected craving to play pickleball is central to her business model.
“It’s a sickness,” she said, “and I do have an addiction. I don’t think I ever felt like this with tennis. It’s a bug, and I’ve got it.”
Because so many of these ventures are just getting off the ground, it will take some time to see whether the pickleball-themed restaurant becomes a proven money maker.
But there are things opening up now that wouldn’t have been imaginable ten years ago.
Laura Gainor, a marketing consultant with USA Pickleball, started playing pickleball in 2019. She is now, through her pickleball marketing company, Vossberg Gainor, working with the Chicago-based real estate development firm, Aimwell Development Company, to develop Real Dill Pickleball Clubs across the country.
The Real Dill venues, ones that will combine a restaurant-bar with a pickleball complex of as many as 12 courts, are set to open next summer in St. Louis, Missouri, and Columbus, Ohio.
Todd Reed, the managing partner of Aimwell Development, said that while the company has specialized in adaptive re-use of existing properties, it was decided that building new pickleball-themed restaurants from scratch was the best course.
The plan is to sell court time by the hour as well as memberships, with food and beverage generating about three-quarters of the income.
“We asked ourselves, ‘What complements pickleball really well? And how does that work in different times of day and different players.’”
“And how much is the right amount of food and beverage?” he asked. “It’s difficult to measure.”
One developer who decided to build a pickleball venue with an existing structure was Peter Remes, in Minneapolis.
Remes took a vacant 1940s-era kitchen equipment manufacturing building and converted it to Lucky Shots Pickleball Club, advertising it as “All Pickleball, all the time!”
“It really took off during the pandemic,” Remes said, “and it seems to be continuing to grow in interest. People heard about the game or had friends who wanted to try out.”
Remes said there are plans to add food and beverage and some social spaces soon, but at first, the focus was on providing 12 temperature-controlled courts where people could play every day, regardless of the extremes of Minnesota weather.
To encourage newbies, Lucky Shots offers a 75-minute “intro to pickleball” clinic with a local pro. And as with other ventures, courts are available both for open play or by reservation.
The court rental rate during prime times is $45-per-hour, with less popular times renting for half that price.
Remes said there’s still plenty of room in the warehouse to add a restaurant, which is coming soon.
“Food and beverage is just a natural extension of pickleball,” Remes said. “It’s so social.”