Youngstown Music Scene Supports Westside Bowl with Rebreather’s Pay-it-Forward Pizza Idea
Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit the area, and live music events in the venue were put on hold indefinitely.
Westside Bowl contains two main spaces in the building and allows for bowling and dining.
But with live music postponed for the foreseeable future, its main source of revenue was stripped away during the shutdown.
Rebreather, based in Youngstown and active since 1999, considers Westside Bowl to be its home base as a band and is close with its owners, Nate and Jami Offerdahl.
Guitarist Barley Rantilla wanted to support the venue after the planned anniversary party was canceled and the staff’s “nice payday” never came to fruition.
Westside Bowl closed to the public in March 2020 but began offering carry-out dining.
After a Rebreather band practice, Rantilla headed to the venue and approached Nate Offerdahl with an offer to pay for the next 10 pizza orders that were placed.
Offerdahl posted a video on Facebook announcing that the next 10 call-in orders for pizza would be paid for by the band.
He said this caused a chain reaction—members of the local art and music scene followed Rebreather’s pay-it-forward model, and soon, hundreds of pizzas were paid for by the community.
“Good friends of ours, a band called Daggers, they bought pizzas the next night. Another friend of ours, Mollie from Little Blackbird Photography, she bought pizzas the next night, and it sort of just avalanched after that. It was almost competitive. People were buying 100 pizzas, 50 pizzas, 300 pizzas,” Rantilla said.
Musicians supporting their ‘home base’
Rantilla plays slowed-down, distorted rock with fellow Rebreather members Steve Gardner on drums and Steve Wishnewski on bass.
The lineup has changed over the decades the band has been active in the Youngstown scene.
Rantilla said they’re not trained musicians—he and his friends decided to start Rebreather for fun back in high school. Since then, they’ve released multiple albums and signed to a label. They’ve built a following in the metal scene.
“I don’t think any of us expected it to last a super long time. Members come and go. We’ve taken long breaks over the 20, 21 years we’ve been together,” he said. “It’s been kind of a loose band for a really long time.”
The band has played many shows at Westside Bowl and made connections quickly at the venue. They were gearing up to play the second-anniversary event until COVID-19 hit.
“On the way out there we said, ‘Hey, why don’t we buy the next 10 pizzas for people’ because half of our friends that work there, their hours are cut or they’re not working. We’ll make somebody smile.'”Barley Rantilla
“Westside Bowl had to shut everything down. They had a restaurant, so they were able to sell food out of the front door. So we had been talking about going down to grab some food and see how everybody’s doing,” Rantilla said.
He and his bandmates have spent a lot of time at the venue over the years, playing shows, watching other bands and just hanging out. Seeing forced layoffs and canceled events inspired them to take action and try to put some money into the venue.
“We wanted to go get some carry-out to support them,” Rantilla said. “On the way out there we said, ‘Hey, why don’t we buy the next 10 pizzas for people’ because half of our friends that work there, their hours are cut or they’re not working. We’ll make somebody smile.'”
Offerdahl said Westside Bowl moved to carry-out food only on March 15, 2020.
Carryout orders were only 10 percent of the venue’s business at the time. The 3,000-square-foot building was always intended to primarily be a live-music venue.
“The first day it was really slow, and later in the day, Barley sent me a message and said ‘Hey, we just had practice and we want to buy the next 10 pizzas for the next 10 people,’” Offerdahl said.
By the end of that first week, they had 100 pizzas prepaid. By the end of the month, they had approximately 500 paid orders.
They’ve given away more than 3,500 of these prepaid pizzas within the last year.
Posting a video to social media after Rebreather picked up the bill for the first 10 orders helped the concept take off and keep the community informed about ways to support Westside Bowl.
“That was sort of the catalyst for us engaging the public,” Offerdahl said.
The concept went viral, and they started getting an influx of new customers they’d never had at the venue before.
“Posting those videos online was a way for us to interact with the public, let them know what we were doing and sort of reach out and say hey, hang in there, and if you feel like you want to help other people out, this is an avenue to do that,” Offerdahl said.
He said it was a way for the venue to market and differentiate itself from other spots offering carry-out food during a difficult time.
“It was a steep learning curve for us because we were primarily serving food to people who were in our building,” he said. “We weren’t serving food to people for carryout.”
Over the last year, the surprise success of the carryout business has kept Westside Bowl afloat. Offerdahl said they’ve lost a little money from not having shows but not “a ton."
Offerdahl credits his employees and the community of people who hang out at Westside Bowl for the good things that have happened to his business in an unprecedented year.
“I tell Barley, and it makes him real uncomfortable, that day was a big part of us staying in business,” Offerdahl said. “It wasn’t the only thing, but it was the catalyst for us to be able to stay open, for sure.”
Creating a venue for the creative community
When Offerdahl and his wife, Jami, decided to pursue careers as owners of a music venue, they purposely looked for a space within Youngstown city limits.
“We weren’t necessarily looking for a bowling alley, we were just looking for a really big building,” he said. “We wanted to have two spaces like the Beachland Ballroom—a bigger room that held 500, and a smaller one that would hold 100 or 150.”
The pair found a bowling alley that was for sale five minutes from their house. They opened their doors at the former Strikers bowling lanes, 2617 Mahoning Ave. in the spring of 2018 and decided to keep bowling as an option at the venue.
“In the end, it was the best decision because it gave us other sources of revenue that weren’t related to the music,” Offerdahl said.
The owners wanted to be actively involved in the venue’s neighborhood and be seen as a welcome and supportive presence in the local creative community.
“We knew that being good citizens was going to make or break our success,” Offerdahl.
Several Westside Bowl staff members are musicians or artists.
“Those folks have been our biggest supporters and our biggest acolytes and have been the ones that have made it possible for us to stay in business,” Offerdahl said.
Offerdahl said he was forced to lay off some employees during the early days of COVID-19, but several returned to work as volunteers because of their dedication to the venue. Kitchen staff used to making $1,000 a day in food sales started making $3,500 to $4,000 a day as the demand for carryout orders and pre-paid pizza amped up.
He said his business model is to be “radically hospitable”—a principle he learned from his father.
The lesson is to make everyone feel welcome, whether they’re local or from out of town.
“We made investments in Youngstown, financially, emotionally, relationships, from day one. And when we needed those relationships, those folks were there for us,” Offerdahl said.
This helped create an environment where people wanted to see the Westside Bowl stay open and encouraged people to step up when the venue needed help.
“What Westside Bowl did was facilitate the generosity of others. Those pizzas were paid for, full price, not a reduced price… so that we could make the pizza and give it to somebody else. And it wasn’t even our idea,” Offerdahl.
He said people gravitate toward good ideas. The chain reaction caused by members of Rebreather’s act of kindness created a snowball effect.
“Those folks have been our biggest supporters and our biggest acolytes and have been the ones that have made it possible for us to stay in business."Nate Offerdahl
Rantilla said he simply wanted to be able to support the venue and feed members of the community who were laid off.
“They treat you like you’re at home, and that’s why it turned into our home base,” Rantilla said.
While surrounding cities like Cleveland have a variety of music venues that have found creative ways to stay in business during the pandemic, Youngstown is more limited in the amount of live-music spaces.
Rantilla said this has contributed to the tight-knit feeling of the local music scene and its ties to Westside Bowl—a venue that has only been around for three years.
“It’s super supportive, everyone goes to see everyone else’s shows. A lot of friends are in each other’s bands. It’s a big clique. That was one of the things with this pandemic, it sort of split all of that up,” Rantilla said.
He said his biggest source of entertainment is going to shows and seeing live music, so he’s had to adapt during the last year.
“There’s something about being there and feeling the reactions from the crowd and feeling the volume of whatever you’re listening to, it makes such a big impact,” Rantilla said. “It’s a lot that’s lost if you’re not there.”
The return of live music in Youngstown
Westside Bowl is easing into fully reopening. The venue recently started hosting limited-capacity, sit-down shows. They’ve been doing patio dining and have strict safety protocols in place.
“Doing live music is still really complicated,” Offerdahl said. “Everyone has to be seated. This is a venue that’s built for standing room shows… Until standing and congregating is safe, and by extension allowed, it’s gonna be a difficult environment to operate in.”
Offerdahl said the venue received some government assistance during the pandemic, including two Payroll Protection Programloans and an economic injury disaster loan.
Because that funding was temporary, it has run out, and Westside Bowl’s main source of revenue presently is carry-out food orders.
They’re in the process of getting back to being open for live music, but Offerdahl said he doesn’t anticipate large, sold-out shows happening any time soon.
“I’m starting to get emails again from touring bands, but not until July, August, September. Big touring bands… everything’s getting pushed to next year,” he said “I own a building, so I do everything inside. I think the balance of 2021 is going to be difficult. Not impossible, but I think it’s going to be a lot of headwinds.”
Rebreather is releasing a new album later this year and hopes to play a release show at Westside Bowl.
The three-piece band hasn’t performed a traditional live concert in the last year, but they hope to start touring once the album is pressed on vinyl and available to the public.
“It took a long time. We put a lot of effort into it. We’re all really proud of it,” Rantilla said.
This year, Rebreather released two cover songs: “Pets” by Porno for Pyros and “Orange Crush” by REMfor a COVID covers album released by their record label, Aqualamb Records.
Proceeds benefit artists and venues affected by the pandemic.
They shot a video for “Pets”, where each member of Rebreather was filmed separately to adhere to social distancing guidelines.
Rantilla said recording the cover songs was a challenge but fun to do something different.
“And in this last year of not being able to do much of anything, it was a good excuse to try to take on some entertaining endeavors,” he said.
The community can continue to support the Youngstown music scene by following Westside Bowl’s updates on upcoming shows, stopping by the venue or picking up the bill for someone else’s pizza order, if they choose to do so.
“This town, while cynical and tough, is a beautiful place,” Offerdahl said. “People who live here are hard-nosed, but they have big hearts… and when they latch onto something they like, they support it. Period.”