Creating (and Sustaining) A Monster
Monster Mini Golf founder ponders future after 10 successful years
It’s probably a good thing that Christina Vitagliano didn’t live in New Jersey.
Because if she had, the three-hour drive home that essentially changed her life a decade ago might only have lasted half that long – and the ideas which ultimately emerged while heading toward eastern Connecticut would probably have been cut short somewhere west of Newark.
“I just wanted to create something on my own, instead of going back to work for people,” she said, recalling a night out with her husband, Patrick, a few months after she’d sold her previous business – an antique auction house – in late 2003. “We went to New York City one night, and on the way home, driving home to Connecticut, I went ‘I think I know what I want to do.’
“And he said, ‘What?’ I was like ‘I want to do indoor mini golf.’ And he said, ‘Why? Why would anybody want to do that?’ I said, ‘Well, because it’s the exact opposite of what I was doing. It doesn’t have any inventory.’ The antique business had all inventory, and every time you sell it you have no inventory and you have to get it again, and it was insane.
“There’s no inventory to sell, so all I’m doing is just standing there handing out putters and I’m making money and people are coming in and they’re happy. It’s their entertainment. And the other thing was, whatever I created, it had to be less expensive than the movies. We lived in a town that was very blue-collar, and old mill town, and none of the people had any money.”
By the time the drive ended just west of the Rhode Island line, Monster Mini Golf was born.
Vitagliano decided the course would be indoors in her old antique space – which itself had been housed in an old textile mill – and she leaned on her husband’s expertise as a former nightclub manager to incorporate black lights along with a sound system that would play music exclusively from the 1970s and ’80s, which she labeled as “fun and happy, party music.”
The concept was fleshed out to include monsters, because, as she said, “monsters are anything that comes out of your head. If I was going to make it a NASCAR theme, I’d have to build cars – and I don’t know how to build cars. But monsters are literally a creation of the imagination, and that I had.”
She took a bartending job to build funds to start the business, and went through a prolonged period of “peanut butter and Domino’s pizza” meals to avoid siphoning any money from her husband’s full-time production company income, because, she said, “nobody thought it was a good idea.”
Four months later – on Memorial Day weekend in 2004 – a golf course with monsters and glow-in-the-dark wall paint and neon-colored putters and balls was open to the public in Danielson, Conn.
“That’s when we were ready, so that’s when the doors opened,” Vitagliano said. “In my head, I was feeling if I could make 500 bucks a week then I’d be fine. I just didn’t want to be stressed out and not enjoying what I was doing, and if a friend and I could run the business – great.”
By the end of the summer, she said, parents coming in with kids from the nearby cities of Providence (R.I.) and Hartford could be heard muttering “This place is a gold mine.”
“There was a Sunday afternoon in August, in our first summer, and it was raining,” she said. “We were slammed. It was this terrible old mill in the middle of nowhere – there were 5,000 people in the town – and I had them out the door waiting to play mini golf. My husband called and asked how it was going and I told him it was going OK. He asked if we were busy and I told him we had like $3,000.
“He was like, ‘You have how much money?’ Keep in mind, he’s asking me this as he’s standing out in the rain and he’s been up since 5 a.m. moving sound equipment and he won’t be home until really late that night. And all of a sudden he just stops and says, ‘What the hell am I doing?’”
The quick success convinced Vitagliano to consider franchising the operation, and that transition was completed in about nine months – after her husband sold his business to pay the necessary fees, and the couple moved into the building from which the first golf course was operated.
The first franchise operation sold two days after it was listed, and the $30,000 fee brought in by the transaction enabled the couple to pay the last of the loans it had taken out to make the switch.
These days, 29 Monster Mini Golf franchises are up and running in the United States and Canada, alongside one corporate-owned location in Las Vegas and a 30,000-square-foot corporate headquarters office in Providence, R.I. The Nevada facility is co-branded with the rock band, Kiss, primarily as a marketing vehicle for rest of the operation.
The franchise locations adhere to a general standard that Vitagliano likened to a Hard Rock Café mentality – you know when you’re in a location, even if they don’t look the same. Each has its own original artwork and she maintains a hands-on connection by designing each location and incorporating the company’s signature monster vibe along with the given city’s or region’s history.
Most are housed in strip mall retail-type settings.
“I just wanted to make 500 bucks a week, and we obviously make a lot more than that now,” she said. “It’s a completely different world. I went from handing out putters to running 30 franchisees and being in charge of them and responsible for their lives.”
All growth has been organic through the company’s first 10 years – about three or four locations annually, on average – and Vitagliano said the prevailing thought upon reaching that milestone is that it could be the right time to seek out investors interested in growing the concept even faster.
She said there’s been interest at times over the years, but it’s always been dismissed.
“We’re 10 years old. We know what we’re doing now,” she said. “Is it time to bring an investor into this and really blow it up? We’ve done all of this on our own – including building the Vegas venue – so now we’re like ‘we’ve got it, but what are we gonna do with it? Do we want to keep growing three or four a year and work until we’re 90?’ Probably not. So it might be time.
“I think we are leaning toward that. I’d like to be able to make us a household name.”
AT A GLANCE
WHO: Monster Mini Golf
WHAT: Indoor monster-themed, glow-in-the-dark miniature golf course
WHERE: Corporate headquarters in Providence, R.I.; 30 locations in U.S. and Canada