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VENTURA COUNTY BUSINESS | THE BUSINESS BEAT

Bar Tees Up Food, Drink and the Latest Virtual Fun

August 08, 2000|ALEX FIELD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

First came the bar and grill, then the sports bar and grill. In today's quickly evolving, highly competitive market, restaurant owners are reaching for the next big thing.

George Perez of El Rio thinks he's found it. Get ready for the sports bar, grill and virtual golf facility.

"I've always wanted to own my own business, my own golf course, my own sports bar, my own restaurant," Perez said. "This place took care of all those in one swing."

The Grip 'N' Rip Indoor Golf and Grill, which opened in February on Wagon Wheel Road in Oxnard, is one of the few places outside a clubhouse where you can hear "fore!" and "pass me the ketchup" in the same room.

"What sets me apart is that I can attract every crowd," said Perez, Grip 'N' Rip's president and co-founder. He also serves as president of the Rio Elementary School District board.

"I have customers that are 75 years old, people that come in for happy hour, others who are sports fans, families and kids. I think I run the whole spectrum," he said.

That spectrum includes serving breakfast, lunch and dinner, while offering virtual golfing at six full-service stations. Customers also can watch sports on 24 televisions, play at three pool tables or in a 1,000-square-foot arcade or register for a virtual golf league held on weeknights.

In an area full of sport bars without many of those features--and batting cages, roller rinks and bowling alleys that have minimal food service--Grip 'N' Rip has carved itself a niche, hoping to capitalize on the growing interest in virtual-reality simulators.

Oshman's Sporting Goods in Camarillo also has a golf simulator, but it is mainly for customers to test golf clubs. Like Grip 'N' Rip's simulators, the one at Oshman's can calculate hang time, distance and other nuances of the drive.

"We have people waiting in line to use it," said Aaron Kilpatrick, who is in charge of Oshman's exercise department. "Basically we have it set up for customer use, but people just like to fool around on it too."

A simulator looks like a semi-enclosed driving range. Golfers tee off indoors on artificial turf, and the ball hits a screen that simulates trajectory, length and spin, while factoring in wind, weather and landscaping. The screen sets up the next shot, based on where the ball "lands."

"It's frustrating, because it's just like real golf," said Bob Sube, 45, of Moorpark, who plays in the Grip 'N' Rip virtual golf league after work one night a week. "If you hit it wrong and it goes into the trees, it knows it."

Virtual golf has a number of advantages. Golfers can play in any weather on simulations of 33 actual U.S. golf courses, using just one ball, and in the process get tips on correcting their swing.

Virtual golf leagues consist of teams of four players in a Texas scramble format, in which only the best score per foursome is counted for each hole.

League member John Perez of Oxnard likes the low-key attitude in Grip 'N' Rip.

"The funnest part about it is playing the course that the pros are playing that week," he said. "I'll come in on the Sunday that they're playing and practice, then watch them play the same hole later."

Bob Kisner of Oxnard finds Grip 'N' Rip convenient, because he can get late tee times.

"It also helps your distance and your straightness," Kisner said, as he teed off on the first hole of the Kapalua Plantation Golf Course in Hawaii. "But putting and chipping takes time, because it's deceiving when you're 23 yards away. It's a lot farther than it looks."

Perez calls the year it took to open his dream sports bar a labor of love. He conducted eight months of market research and took four months to put together the financing for Grip 'N' Rip LLC, which consists of seven partners. He estimated start-up costs at $300,000.

"I wanted to know how many golfers were in the area," he said. "I wanted to know how many golfers I could tee off in Ventura County in a day."

Perez is optimistic about opening a second Grip 'N' Rip, but plans to work on fine-tuning the Oxnard location first.

"There are some other places we've got in mind, but we're concentrating on this place and still working out the finer points," he said.

"But we're not doing too bad, considering that we're a start-up, and it's only going to get better."

Perez, who projected revenue of $500,000 for the first year of operation at Grip 'N' Rip, said 20% would come from golf. Customers can play on a simulated a course for $10 an hour to $20, during peak times.

The 19th hole is just steps away, at a full bar and grill that offers basic American food, such as hamburgers, sandwiches, salads and appetizers.

The virtual golf stations themselves were developed by Full Swing Golf Simulators of San Diego.

"We're literally in every type of market you could think of," said Scott Werbelow, vice president of sales. "We're in private country clubs, pro shops, sporting goods stores and even custom homes. We've even got one in the home of Michael Jordan in Highland Park, Ill."

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