Shake Shack’s Danny Meyer bets on indoor golf boom, starting with New York’s Grand Central Terminal

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Shake Shack’s Danny Meyer bets on indoor golf boom, starting with New York’s Grand Central Terminal

The new Grand Central Terminal location of Five Iron Golf.

Five Iron Golf

Danny Meyer, the founder of Shake Shack, acknowledges that he hasn’t always been a golfer, but when he finally decided he wanted to start to play, he faced an issue many players have with the sport: a lack of time to play and difficultly finding a course to play on.

That led Meyer to take a lesson with a golf pro on an indoor simulator, an experience that eventually led him and his investment firm, Enlighted Hospitality Investments, to make a $20 million minority investment in Five Iron Golf, an indoor golf and entertainment company.

“What they’re doing with golf is what we’ve always tried to do with restaurants,” Meyer said, “which is to make something more accessible to more people with quality.”

Five Iron Golf, founded in 2017, has grown as it has looked to appeal to several types of golfers, according to CEO and founder Jared Solomon. The company’s locations offer the same type of golf simulators used by professional players, in some cases opening in the morning for people to play before work, as well as leagues and lessons. The locations also feature food and drinks, and can be utilized for events and parties, areas where Meyer and his team will help elevate, Solomon said.

“The core of Five Iron Golf is to be the best place for the serious golfer as well as the entertainment-type person,” Solomon said.

That blend of golf and entertainment is helping to fuel the sport’s growth. In 2023, an estimated 45 million people played golf in some form in the U.S., a new record and up roughly 9% from the previous year, according to data from the National Golf Foundation.

But the amount of people who are only playing golf on courses is decreasing, down 9% from the previous year. Instead, the growth is coming from people who are playing the sport only off the course, or some combination of the two, with those groups up 19% and 17% from 2022, respectively.

In fact, there are more players now playing at golf entertainment venues like Topgolf, standalone driving ranges, and businesses like Five Iron Golf with simulator and screen golf setups than there are players playing on a course, according to the NGF data.

Golf saw a boom in popularity in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, much like many other outdoor sports and activities. That led to many conversations within golf on how to maintain those growth rates, a discussion that Solomon felt was missing the mark.

“Golf is fun and hitting a golf ball brings a sense of euphoria,” he said. “There is so much concern in golf about how we get more people to play; I think as long as we keep giving people the opportunity to start their journey, continue their journey, become avid or whatever journey they’re on, golf is going to be okay.”

Solomon followed a similar path as Meyer into golf. Working in finance in New York City, he started playing golf on a simulator, and then taking lessons to improve. But he also faced the challenge of trying to fit golf into his schedule while also not having easy access to a golf course.

Since opening its first location in Manhattan in 2017, Five Iron now has 24 locations across 13 states and four countries. Solomon said the new flagship location, which has 15 golf simulators, two full bars, food, and a lounge area with other games, is indicative of the type of experience it looks to offer to both golf enthusiasts and newcomers to the sport.

“We have people coming in at 6 a.m. to hit golf balls before work; we have league members who play with their friends; there are others who are taking lessons to improve, and then we have corporate events and people who just want to have fun,” Solomon said.

The growing trend of mixing sports, activities with food and drinks

The category of ‘eatertainment,’ or that mix of a dining and social experience, is growing, especially in golf. Topgolf, which offers a gamified driving range experience alongside food and beverages, saw a 13% growth in revenue in 2023 across its more than 90 global venues. Topgolf merged with golf equipment company Callaway in 2020 which valued Topgolf at roughly $2 billion.

Callaway also invested in Five Iron, making a $30 million investment in the company in 2021. “This innovative business aligns with Callaway’s belief that the future of golf will be more accessible and inclusive,” Topgolf Callaway CEO Chip Brewer said in a press release at the time of the announcement.

Other golf-related concepts have also seen investment in recent years. Puttshack, a tech-focused mini golf experience also with food and beverage options founded by two Topgolf co-founders, raised $150 million in a growth capital round in October 2022 led by BlackRock and Promethean Investments. Puttery, a similar mini-golf experience, received a $10 million investment from pro golfer Rory McIlroy in 2021.

While historically bowling has been the most obvious example of the mix of activity and dining and drinking, an area of heavy focus from Bowlero, there are other more viral and rising activities and sports that are getting similar treatments, such as axe throwing, cornhole, and video and arcade games.

Meyer said from the dining world, he sees the desire from customers to have a better blend of convenience and experience. “People crave being together, that’s why our restaurants are busier than they’ve ever been, so we have to make restaurants more convenient than ever,” he said. “I’m not sure golf courses have made it more convenient for people to use the golf course, so that gives rise to this kind of opportunity.”

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