Restaurateur Andy Zarka said he became “immediately addicted” to the sport.
After operating the European Street Sweets store in San Marco for more than a year and a half, owner Andy Zarka wanted to take a swing at running a new business in the space.
On Sept. 8, Zarka, who owns the European Street Cafe restaurants, opened Jax Pickleball, the area’s first equipment store dedicated to the increasingly popular sport in Northeast Florida.
He said he became “immediately addicted” to the paddle sport last year.
“In an over-caffeinated, delirious night, I just decided to give it a go and open a pickleball store,” Zarka said.
Zarka was leasing the space at 1670 San Marco Blvd. for the candy store and to use its parking for his European Street location next door.
He liquidated the candy supply and distributed the remaining inventory among his four restaurants.
Zarka said the candy store space was “a place holder” until he found something he was more passionate about.
With about $30,000, he said he was able to open Jax Pickleball in one month.
“We used a lot of the same shelving, got some clothing racks and painted to go with our new logo,” he said. “We didn’t have to do a whole lot with it.”
The store sells paddles, balls, court shoes, eye protection, clothing, hats, bags, gloves and grip tape. Paddles range from $80 to $150.
He also built a demonstration room so customers can try equipment before they buy.
Pickleball is a paddle sport that combines elements of tennis, badminton and table tennis. It is played on a badminton-sized court that measures 44 feet by 20 feet, according to USA Pickleball. A standard tennis court is 78 feet by 36 feet and can be modified with tape or lines for pickleball play.
There are 10 city parks with pickleball courts and the city plans to add courts at the Southside Tennis Complex and at Blue Cypress Park by year’s end. San Jose Country Club plans to add four pickleball courts.
Zarka said most Saturdays, the four pickleball courts at the Baymeadows Fort Family Tennis Complex are reserved from the 8 a.m. opening until they close at 9 p.m. It is a similar situation at other pickleball courts, he said.
“There could be as many as 20 people waiting to get on those courts,” he said. “That wasn’t the case six months ago. We’re just seeing it grow exponentially.”
Once the Southside Tennis Complex courts open in San Marco, Zarka said he wants the store to host tournaments and clinics there.
Jax Pickleball is the fourth pickleball-only store in the state, Zarka said.
Google Maps shows the other three stores in The Villages, Sarasota and Naples, all areas where the game has gained traction.
Pickleball USA said 64% of core players, those who play eight times a year or more, are age 55 or older.
Of the casual players who play fewer than eight times a year, almost 61% are between 6 and 34 years old.
As that popularity spreads to Northeast Florida, Zarka, 53, said he estimates a couple thousand people around Jacksonville are playing the sport.
With a low bar to entry, both in financial investment and athletic ability, he sees that number growing. It also is ideal for social distancing for those looking to be outside during the pandemic.
Equipment is sold online and in tennis and sporting goods stores, but Zarka said there is an advantage to having a dedicated pickleball store.
Zarka will staff the store with pickleball players who can help customers choose the right equipment and learn more about the game.
“I think that will help them immensely more than going to one of the big box stores and just grabbing something off the shelf and not knowing anything about it,” he said.
Zarka said he may be a bit early in opening the store, given the number of courts and players in the area.
As the game grows, he hopes his investment will pay off.
“Given that we had the facility, that we had the storefront already, it made it easier for me to make that decision, to pull the trigger and be the first one out of the gate and hopefully become synonymous with pickleball in Jacksonville.”