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Enthusiasts-Turned-Entrepreneurs Serve Up Their First Lease

Ideas for business ventures usually trickle in through years of daydreaming, in fits and starts. But Nicole and Jack Thompson’s epiphany came literally by storm.

Late last summer, the couple was driving near their Richmond, Virginia-area home when dark clouds rolled overhead and threatened to unleash a wicked downpour.

Just then, they passed people enjoying a leisurely game of tennis on some outdoor courts.

“What a bummer; they’re going to get stuck out here in the thunderstorm,” Nicole Thompson recalled thinking. The couple had been playing pickleball, now considered America’s fastest-growing sport, for several years. Considered a cross of tennis, pingpong and badminton, pickleball is typically played outdoors on smaller, tennis-like courts. Its popularity, catalyzed in part by the pandemic, has outpaced the courts so far supplied by municipalities, associations or landlords.

As the storm tore open the sky, the Thompsons envisioned their fellow pickleball enthusiasts having a place to play in any weather.

“Then we just couldn’t shake the idea,” Nicole Thompson told LoopNet. There were courts scattered around the region, including some indoor ones at a few community centers and the YMCA. But as far as a dedicated facility built by and for pickleball players, the Thompsons were set on being first to market.

Now, less than a year after that stormy day of brainstorming, the Thompsons are celebrating one month of operating Richmond’s only indoor pickleball center, Bangers and Dinks.

Their speed to market belied the amount of work it took, though. “We’re making a long story short, but it was only after a ton of spreadsheets that we decided the idea made sense, and to go for it,” she continued.

As for the business aspects, it didn’t hurt that the husband-and-wife pair had experience. Nicole had worked in supplier management. “Procurement, negotiating contracts, purchasing — things like that,” she explained. Jack owns roofing contractor Tredegar Construction. “Between the two of us, we have a pretty good balance of the different sides of the business.”

Nicole and Jack Thompson. (Bangers and Dinks)

But when it came to the region’s commercial real estate environment, “it was a blank slate for us,” she continued. “We needed to start at a super high level and learn about it.”

Commonwealth Commercial took it from there. Represented by senior associate Thomas Lynde and Vice President Colton Konvicka, the couple asked quite simply, “What spaces do you guys have that could possibly suit this type of business?”

The obvious challenge in the site selection process was that it was unique. “We had to find something that fit the specs — with certain column width, certain ceiling height; and it’s got to be in a place that people can easily go,” Lynde told LoopNet. In addition, there weren’t many other examples to look to for inspiration and guidance. “There’s not much proof of concept out there yet.”

A few industrial sites came to mind, but the group eventually opted for a retail environment. They zeroed in on a big box-anchored shopping center in North Chesterfield, a suburb about 20 minutes from the city. Not only did that make more economic sense considering how expensive warehouses are right now, Lynde explained, but it benefitted both customers and the owners of the retail site. The strip mall helps draw traffic to the new concept, while pickleball also becomes a destination driving people to the shopping center. It doesn’t hurt that the subject property shares a wall with Dick’s Sporting Goods.

The location that the team landed on, 1516 Koger Center Blvd., was an especially good fit considering it was a property that desperately needed a refreshed use. The 25,000-square-foot storefront had been on a ground lease to a furniture store for several decades before it was subleased to some temporary users. When that lease expired, the tenant didn’t renew, explained Bob Butcher, Senior Vice President at S.L. Nusbaum, who represented the owner.

The Bangers and Dinks pickleball facility was formerly a furniture store. (Bangers and Dinks)

Butcher wasn’t shy about considering out-of-the-box solutions to fill the empty store. “For the past five to 10 years, with the increase in online shopping, we’ve been overstored, especially in these big box situations, and the same holds true in power centers like this one,” Butcher told LoopNet. “And we’ve seen a shift in alternative uses, with emerging recreational and entertainment uses like [sportstainment]. But my knee-jerk reaction was that I didn’t know anything about it. Luckily, the Thompsons came to us having already done their homework. We were very impressed by them and by the [tenant reps] at Commonwealth Commercial.”

Not only did the Thompsons have their figures dialed in, but they also brought new ideas to the table. “Our business model is completely different than any other indoor pickleball facility that I have seen or read about yet,” Nicole Thompson said. “We don’t have reserved courts; we are ‘open play, all day’ — so it’s basically like we’re just bringing the outdoor courts inside.”

Day passes go for $12, she said. “But if you think that you’re going to come even just twice a week, it’ll save you money to just join and pay the membership fee.” The facility offers clinics and private lessons and will eventually host small corporate groups and birthday parties.

Exterior of the newly opened Bangers and Dinks in Richmond, Virginia. (Bangers and Dinks)

But the sport comes first. “It’s not like it’s a restaurant or bar that happens to have some pickleball,” Butcher said. “They offer some food and beverage, but the focus is pickleball.” The space worked well for that — the Thompsons were able to fit eight regulation-sized courts in the facility, along with lounge areas and a small pro shop. “We closely followed pickleball standards,” Nicole Thompson said. “It was like a game of Tetris trying to fit as many courts as possible, while still allowing for walkways and empty spaces between courts.”

The renovations required to get the space from an empty store shell to an inviting, full-fledged recreation facility weren’t slight. Partition walls had to come down, floors had to be replaced and specialized lighting had to be installed. Without going into the specifics, Butcher said the property owners were able to work out a deal for tenant improvements that didn’t involve writing a check. “We did it a different way,” he said. “[The Thompsons] were willing to put skin in the game.”

That confident approach helped make the Thompsons’ storm-inspired vision a reality. “From our perspective, it was easy to work with really entrepreneurial people like them,” Lynde said. “They had their idea and they had their business plan. We helped them with the real estate part of it, but we were just a cog in the ultimate vision for what this thing’s going to be.”

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