Business pilgrimage

Family, faith keep growing

“I asked ... for God to please help me find something to take care of my family.” John Blancher,  business owner

It’s time to make a deal when John Blancher meets his banker in the parking lot of Rock ’n’ Bowl on South Carrollton Avenue and Earhart Boulevard on a balmy afternoon.

Blancher, who owns the bowling alley and the adjacent Ye Old College Inn, is dressed in a dapper-looking olive-green vest for Swing Night, which is just hours away.

However, his mind, at the moment, is on his decision to purchase a 5,500-square-foot strip mall that abuts his nationally known music venue.

“I’m not sure what I’ll do with it,” he says, as he strolls toward an unassuming brick building to fill out paperwork.

There, a pair of Blancher’s six grandchildren play in front of the door and he sidesteps them with a smile, before diving inside.

The crowded three-room dwelling, unofficially known as “The Clubhouse,” acts as a command center for Blancher’s steadily growing entertainment enterprise.

The walls are littered with Rock ’n’ Bowl memorabilia, and children and employees come in and out. A woman irons clothing in one corner and a weight bench sits smack dab in the middle of the front room.

Blancher’s son, Johnny, who runs the day-to-day operations of Ye Old College Inn, saunters in to greet his dad, and the pair chat with the banker as the paperwork is completed.

It doesn’t feel like a real estate acquisition, nor does Blancher’s lack of a specific plan for his new purchase seem to trouble anyone.

And why would it?

Over the past 24 years, the 59-year-old and his family have transformed a struggling bowling alley into a beloved icon of New Orleans entertainment with a mixture of intuition, hard work and good luck.

“You get an idea and you go with it,” Blancher says.

A pilgrimage and a prayer

How did John Blancher get the idea to buy the struggling Mid-City Lanes in 1988? It was a strange combination of happenstance and moxie to say the least.

Blancher was driving one day with his friend, Louisiana politico Charles “Chuck” Cusimano, to see the play “The Kingfish,” when Cusimano’s accountant asked him if was interested in a business deal.

“I said ‘A bowling alley? I don’t know anything about bowling and I’ve never ran a business in my life.’ ”

Despite that, Blancher decided to check it out.

Then 35, he had just returned from a pilgrimage to the city of Medjugorje in current-day Bosnia and Herzegovina.

While there, Blancher experienced no apparitions of the Blessed Virgin Mary or other visual phenomena, but he did come away convinced that others were interacting with the divine.

He also sought guidance of his own.

“There was a huge concrete cross on the mountain and the custom was that you could write a petition, and they would burn the petitions in the evening and say prayers for what you were asking for. What I asked was for God to please help me find something to take care of my family.”

Blancher thought that the bowling alley might be just that. After a few weeks of scouting it out, he purchased Mid-City Lanes from the Knights of Columbus in August 1988 for $10,000.

The business floundered initially, and Blancher, despite working long hours, found himself barely able to make rent and payroll. Cash-starved after only six weeks, he even tried unsuccessfully to sell part of his new acquisition to keep him afloat.

An article in the business section of The Times-Picayune and a spot on the local TV segment “Naturally New Orleans” with Frank Davis created some much-needed business.

But it was his decision to add live music that gave Mid-City Lanes its charm.

On Nov 2, 1989, Johnny J & The Hitmen played at the first ever Rock ’n’ Bowl show, and Blancher never looked back.

Soon, the battered bowling alley had become one of the hippest music joints in town, with Blancher at the helm.

Performers like Boozo Chavis, Beau Jocque, Tab Benoit and Ernie K-Doe became regulars.

After a correspondent from National Geographic stumbled onto Blancher’s regular Thursday Zydeco night while writing about New Orleans, the Mid-City Lanes Rock ’n’ Bowl leapt into the national spotlight.

Over the span of a few years, the bowling alley was covered by CNN, USA Today, Life Magazine, Southern Living and Rolling Stone.

“The media has never stopped,” Blancher said. He credits divine intervention: “The Blessed Mother is the greatest PR person you could ever ask for.”

A stroke of fate

If you ask John Blancher’s wife, Deborah, why Rock ’n’ Bowl has succeeded, she will tell you that it’s because her husband always greets everyone with a smile on his face.

If you pose the question to a Rock ’n’ Bowl bartender, she’ll quip about Blancher the showman, who shakes a hula hoop, dances on the bar and occasionally strips off his shirt and joins in with the band.

If you ask a Rock ’n’ Bowl patron, they’ll tell you that the zydeco is fantastic, that Rock ’n’ Bowl is the epicenter of fun.

If you ask John Blancher, he won’t talk about himself.

He will instead talk about fate and providence, about the things that happened before and after Hurricane Katrina that allowed him to avoid a total wipeout and assisted him in being one of the first businesses back.

Mid-City Lanes flourished during the 1990s, and Blancher opened Bowl Me Under on the first floor of the same building in 1995. There, he threw parties, events and fundraisers.

Then in 2003, Blancher purchased the Ye Old College Inn.

When Hurricane Katrina hit in August 2005, Blancher returned weeks later to find that Mid-City Lanes, which was on the top floor, had been spared.

Fortuitously, Blancher had just recently vacated Bowl Me Under. The space was destroyed by flooding after Katrina — and had moved everything from the location to a fortified storage shed adjacent to Ye Old College Inn.

On Nov. 10, 2005, Mid-City Lanes reopened, one of the first businesses in Mid City to do so. Ye Old College Inn did not fare as well and was virtually destroyed by the flood, but Blancher and his family gutted and rebuilt the property and by January 10, 2006, it also was up and running.

Meanwhile, Blancher’s relationship with his landlord at Mid-City Lanes had grown tense and he had begun looking for a new building.

Unable to find anything with the space he needed, he decided to build a new Rock ’n’ Bowl in the parking lot of the Ye Old College Inn and then purchase adjacent land to handle parking and traffic.

After buying the lot, he called an audible and purchased the 20,000 square-foot Helm Paint Factory next door as well.

Blancher and his crew built an entire new Rock ’n’ Bowl from scratch and opened the doors in in April of 2009.

Family business to the core

“It’s piece by piece. Everything I’ve got over the last 24 years, I’ve put back into it,” Blancher says about his business.

Over the years, the pieces have added up.

In addition to Rock ’n’ Bowl, Ye Old College Inn and the newly acquired strip mall, Blancher owns six other lots on the block.

On much of the additional property sits a garden lush with rows of vegetables, spices and other plants. One swath of land has a chicken coop that provides Ye Old College Inn with fresh eggs.

On a typical day, Blancher will arrive on the property around 2 p.m. and won’t be home until after midnight. He’ll ping-pong between the bowling alley and the restaurant, greeting employees and the regulars who converge at the bar of the Ye Old College Inn every Tuesday and Friday night.

“It’s kind of like a Cheers crowd,” he says.

You may find him grabbing a bite to eat with his wife, Deborah, who used to bartend, but now does payroll and accounting, or chatting with his son Johnny, who is the vice president and executive chef of Ye Old College Inn.

Blancher’s son-in-law, Johnny Hankins, used to work at the restaurant as well.

His 81-year-old mother stops by once a week to help out with the bookkeeping, and Blancher’s six grandchildren are often in the mix.

Then, there are the musicians, men and women Blancher has become bonded with over the years. “I’ve said their eulogies and I’ve carried their caskets,” he said.

Blancher’s work is his life — the two have fused so completely that they have become one.

“We don’t take vacations,” his wife said.

And Blancher boasts that he’s only missed one Friday night in 24 years and only a handful of days in all.

Minutes after signing the paperwork on his new property, Blancher strolled through the vegetable gardens, admiring the plants, showing off a couple of golden beets.

His son Johnny walked over, fresh eggs in his hands, and the two waxed on the ups and downs of the past 24 years.

“This is bigger than me” Blancher said. “I never had a vision for this.”

Figurines of the Blessed Virgin Mary are scattered across his properties, above the door at Rock ’n’ Bowl and between the rows of the garden. Across South Carrollton Avenue, Notre Dame Seminary looms.

John Blancher does not lead with his religion. But if you ask, he will tell you that throughout the years, he’s felt an invisible hand guiding him.

“I have faith. I never could have thought this far in advance. I did it by the seat of my pants,” he said.

“And now I’m here with my family. I see my kids and grandkids here every day. My wife is here. Sometimes, it all just seems too good to be true.”