by Susan Geary
If you’re the type of person who reads the reviews before making a purchase or reserving a hotel room, and you love to skate at different roller rinks, you’re in luck. The roller rink industry has more than just Google and Facebook reviews to help steer you in the right direction. It’s got a bonafide Skate Critic whose real name is Ginger Mathews. Over the past 5 years Ginger has visited and evaluated 300+ rinks, and she invited me along on her tour of rinks in Southwestern Virginia in late June, visiting 8 rinks (and Southeastern Skate Supply) in 3 states over 4 days. She continued on toward Raleigh and Wilmington (for more rink critiques) after I told her I needed to get back to work!
Her Skating Background
What qualifies Ginger to be The Skate Critic? Her parents met at a roller rink. Her mom was an art skater, and her dad was a rink rat. Her mother passed away when Ginger was an infant, and her dad remarried another art skater. Plus, her aunt and uncle owned and/or operated rinks in Northern California, where she still lives. Additionally, her uncle wrote the rules for roller derby and her aunt was writer for the Rinksider many years ago. He’s still involved, overseeing 3 derby teams. Ginger’s cousin Heather played on the US Women’s roller hockey team and took home the gold medal. As for Ginger, she’s been skating for most of her life.
During my ride along with The Skate Critic, we toured 6 Southwestern Virginia rinks, one on the Tennessee border, and another in Eden, North Carolina. I wanted to see what Ginger looks for, how she decides on a rating of 1-8 Wheels, just like the 8 wheels on a quad roller skate.
How they’re rated
“Every rink starts with 8 wheels,” she reveals. “Then they get deductions for certain things, like a rude employee, a jacked up floor, safety issues, or bathrooms in need of attention.” Only one rink she’s rated so far has earned her top rating of 8 Wheels and 2 Toe Stops. “Oh, that’s Oaks Park, you have to go there.” Oaks Park, the nation’s oldest rink is along the Willamette River in Portland, Oregon. Its gleaming hard wood rotunda floor, storied history, live organist, and location within an amusement park are what generated the toe stop bonus.
When Ginger first enters the rink parking lot, she’ll jump out of the car with her phone and take pictures of the rink sign. Next she gathers up her Zuca bag with her skates and measuring tool, and continues to take photos of other signage as she makes her way into the building. As she approaches the admissions window, she asks to speak to the manager and introduces herself. “Hi I’m Ginger, the Skate Critic. I travel worldwide to review roller skating rinks and today I’m here to review yours.”
Sometimes the rink operator is caught off guard and looks a bit frightened after hearing that. But most appreciate her visits. “She’s fair, and she’s accurate,” Roller Skating Association President Jeff Couey told me and other members at the annual RSA convention this past May.
Ginger’s rink visits are no guarded secret. If you follow her on social media you’ll know what city she’s on her way to. When she lands in a rink parking lot she posts on Facebook, “Rolling, rollin’, rollin’’ with a location check-in. At that point, it’s a little too late to get the floor recoated or new carpeting installed to meet her standards anyway.
Once Ginger and I were buzzed inside, she glanced around for a first impression, found a seat and unpacked her skate bag. Next she whipped out a wheeled device and began measuring the floor. A lot of times the rink owner asks, “what does it measure?” Most of the time, they agree with her assessment. But numbers can shrink when the floor is trimmed for a playground or other attraction that the operators may forget about. That measuring stick also drew a lot of attention from skaters wondering what she was doing.
Her digital checklist ensures she doesn’t overlook anything. “After I get the floor measured, I take photos with no kids or customers in them, and I look at other parts of the facility, including the restrooms, carpeting, condition of the skate floor, and snack bar. When I’m done, I go back and ask the manager more questions about the history, and what else they offer that would interest roller skaters.”
“When did you shorten the floor?” Ginger asked. Or “when was this rink flooded?” She can tell by the stains or warps in wood floors. The rotunda maple floor is her favorite. “I’d love to see one being built in a new rink. Tell your readers if they’re opening a new rink with a rotunda floor, I want to come watch the installation.” (Editor’s note: Finchum Floors, one of the premier installers of sports floors estimates a new regulation rotunda floor would run about $22 a square foot, or roughly $300,000 for a roller skating rink. That’s why we haven’t seen any added to rinks in more than 20 years.)
And then there’s the question that digs a little deeper. “What can you tell me about this rink that I wouldn’t know about by just walking in the door?” That’s when she learns more about its history.
The Moment of Truth
Reviews are typically posted within a week of the her visit. “This rink gets 6 Wheels,” she reported, referring to the Firehouse Sk8 ‘n Play in Vinton, Virginia, which was the second rink on our list of stops. Ginger always tells rink operators what they can do to get a higher score and promises to return. “I come back to see if they made the repairs and updates I recommended. I’m told a lot of floors are getting re-coated because of me.” Firehouse had a broken sink handle and the carpeting needed cleaning which cost them 2 Wheels, but she praised the manager, the staff, decorations, and other facets of the operation. She even posted a video of the driveway leading up to the rink.
How it all began
Ginger started checking out rinks as soon as she got her driver’s license. She wanted to skate at every rink in California and it was her family that urged her to take photos and write down her experience at each location. She didn’t listen right away, but eventually she heeded their advice and officially launched “The Skate Critic” years later — buying up matching domains and custom social media handles. Overnight she attracted 800 followers and it continues to grow. She also ventured outside California.
Her goal is to visit every roller skating rink in the world, while also updating her list of current and dead rinks, to make sure they are never forgotten. “They hold a place in our history,” she said. It’s important to remember those rinks.” She also wants to help rinks stay open. “We’ve been losing too many.” Ginger amassed an extensive rink list, and keeps it up to date by placing a bi-annual phone call to each one, and by following their social media pages. She’s usually the first to know whenever a rink is closing or a new one is opening.
Off The Floor
What you may not know about The Skate Critic just by reading her reviews is that Ginger is a mall walker. In every town she visits, she seeks out an indoor shopping center to raise her daily step score.
To see how your favorite rink fared, follow The Skate Critic on Facebook.
Those of us who visit the rink see it all the time. People who treat snack bar tables like it’s a gym locker. I’ve seen dirty socks, shoes, and of course, sweaty roller skates on tabletops located in the cafe. It’s not always from new guests either, although they are a contributing factor. Many times it’s the rink rats, who use the tables to store or pull apart their skates.
When did we lose our sense of decorum in a roller rink? I realize we’re not the yacht club, but let’s face it. No one wants to eat off a table that’s covered in carpet muck, bacteria, fecal matter, urine, or whatever else those wheels have rolled through.
No matter how clean you get them, they don’t belong on a table where food is served. Skates roll through restrooms, and then onto carpeting and the skate floor. That’s a lot of shared germs.
Would you place your sneakers or skates on a table at a fancy restaurant? Or at home? Regardless, please don’t do it in a roller rink.
Be mindful of others and respect the rink. Use lockers or store skates under benches and tables, and not on them.
Thank you for skating.
When 5 passionate skaters get together to open a roller rink, dreams can come true. In Southeastern Tennessee, an exciting story is unfolding at the Bristol Skateway, a small town rink that is gaining speed after its predecessor left the race. Bristol is famous for its Speedway. The new owners of the rink are laser focused on skating and are committed to furthering the sport.
The Pit Crew
The partnership (of WESK8) is made up of Debbie Williams and her significant other, Gary Easmunt who is the Master of Ceremonies during most of the sessions and a skate instructor and former champion. Debbie manages the snack bar and admissions. They are joined by Gary’s sister, Patti Enstrom, and husband and wife team, Grant and Jennifer Showalter. Grant handles social media. Jennifer’s an architect who oversaw the renovations of the shuttered bank-owned rink formerly known as the Skate Inn. The previous owner disappeared leaving an empty building that needed some serious love.
The Starting Line
The team of skaters had worked together at a Florida rink and had serious discussions about owning one for the better part of a decade. They looked for rinks that were for sale and found what they were looking for. After purchasing the Tennessee property in the first quarter of 2018, they totally rehabbed and rebranded the facility from top to bottom. It took some explaining to the finance company why the brand new wood floor cost more than the building. And since the previous owner got off track and abandoned the place, there were no records either. Without paperwork, their new business was considered a start-up. They had their work cut out for them, but they had the experience and passion to pull it off.
On Track to Win
They persevered and opened their doors in late September of 2018 with much publicity and eager fans. Now the Bristol Skateway averages 250-300 skaters every Friday night, along with with midweek sessions and an Adults only session on Saturday evenings. “I get some flak from parents who want us to be open to all ages on Saturday nights,” said co-owner Debbie Williams. “I remind them that when their kids turn16 they’re going to want someplace cool to go. They don’t want to skate around younger kids when they get to that age.”
Driving Guest Loyalty
The first week they were open, they sold 18 pairs of skates, and continue to gain speed. Debbie said they can’t keep skate catalogs or paper schedules in the building. Their frequent guests have also asked for discount program, which prompted them to offer loyalty punch cards. For every 10 admissions, skaters get a free pass to come back again. “We had 500 printed up and quickly sold 400 of them for $1 each to cover the cost of printing.”
A Baby Rink
They added a home school session on Wednesday mornings which started with 2 skaters, and has grown to 90 kids. In two months, they will open a baby rink for the smaller skaters just getting started. “We don’t have skatemate trainers,” remarked Debbie. “They don’t teach kids how to skate, and they give up too easily out of frustration. Instead we tell them about our lessons and get them into our classes.”
Recently the partners convinced World Class Instructor, Paul Hinton to come to Bristol to steer the lessons program. “We flew him up for a week from Florida and had him check out the rink and the town. He went home, quit his job, sold his condo, and joined us in March,” said Debbie. She added that he’s one of 5 World Class instructors in the nation and the skate classes are growing in attendance. They offer an advanced group class, semi-private lessons (4 to a class) and private lessons. His skaters will soon be competing in regionals in Greensboro, NC, with a future goal to host a meet at the Bristol Skateway.
The Concession Stand
Over in the snack bar, all food is made to order and delivered to guest tables within 6-8 minutes. Some of the items on the menu include barbecued pulled pork, pizza, macaroni and cheese, churros and funnel cakes. And they also offer gluten-free items.
Additionally the Skateway generates other income-producing activities. For example, when the rink is normally closed, local vendors, such as those selling their wares online can rent the parking lot. These people bring the items they sell online and hang out for few hours to wait for their buyers to show up. The 60-80 participants pay $3 a car to use the lot which includes access to the restrooms. “Many buy food from our snack bar to eat here or take home,” Debbie said. While the parking lot swap meet brings in extra income to the rink when the building is normally dark, it also brings potential customers who may not have heard that the rink is open again.
Winning the Race
It takes a lot of time, energy, focus, and passion to reach any goal in life and that includes successfully operating a roller skating rink. Debbie shared their team’s priority with the RollerSk8r on their strategy, “We’re a roller rink first.”
Editor’s Note: Find more pictures of the rink’s rehabilitation on their Facebook page.
Following up to 10 Things Rink Operators Wish Their Customers Would Stop Doing, here is a list of 10 things customers wish skating rink owners would do that would make them want to come back again and again.