Detroit — When you own a table tennis social club, players are going to expect that at least you are decent at ping pong.
“When we opened, I found out very quickly that people wanted to play the owner. I wasn’t very good,” said Diallo Smith, co-owner of Drive Table Tennis Social. “I sucked, and people were disappointed.”
Smith remedied that by hiring a professional trainer.
“My love of the game actually started after we opened,” he said.
Drive opened in 2012 on Woodward, where Detroiters mixed socializing with playing ping pong. In 2014, Smith, with business partner and childhood friend Roderick Hardamon, expanded to the Penobscot Building.
This summer, they renovated the roughly 4,000-square-foot club to add private ping pong suites, double the size of the bar, revamp the menu of sandwiches, pizzas and craft beers, and update the decor.
They held a grand reopening Wednesday.
“There’s hundreds of bars and restaurants out there, but people are looking for a place they can enjoy those amenities, and at the same, time be active and engage with one another,” Smith said.
Drive is the only table tennis “social” club of its kind in Michigan, according to Smith. There are many table tennis clubs.
“These guys are like diehards,” Smith said. “We’re talking about wristbands, headbands and tube socks. They’re some of the state’s best ... Certainly we cater to those guys.”
They also cater to corporate team outings, bar mitzvahs, and birthday, retirement and holiday parties.
“The concept of ping pong can really be wrapped around any type of event,” Smith said.
The club’s four private suites are the “Ping Pong,” which accommodates 10-12 players, “Paddle Battle” for 20-25 players, “Spin and Bounce” for 40-45 people and “Champion” for up to 80 players.
Walk-ins pay $10 per table for 30 minutes or $15 for an hour. Reservation rates range from $75 to over $600 to rent the entire space.
Drive has six $2,000 ping pong tables modeled after the ones used in the 2004 Olympics.
“These are the top of the line — a little different from the ones you gotta slide a couple cards under to keep it stable,” Smith said.
While Smith, 42, now plays competitively, he said he opened the business because he “fell in love with the energy” of the game. Before moving back to Detroit in 2010, he and his wife had lived in New York, where they frequented a ping pong social club called SPiN.
Living in Houston as a financial analyst, Smiths read about Detroit’s comeback, and he couldn’t watch from afar.
“We wanted to be a part of the revitalization of the city,” he said.
Hardamon, 42, spent 20 years on Wall Street. He returned to his hometown last year. Smith is the “ping pong fanatic,” Hardamon said.
“When you want to challenge someone, you challenge Diallo,” Hardamon said. “When you want to have fun and feel like you beat someone, you play me.”
Khamisi Benford of Detroit has been to the club several times.
“It’s a great place to watch a game,” he said, noting the big-screen TVs, but he also loves “the concept of a casual social table tennis club.”
“It’s the best of both worlds,” Benford, 40, said. “It allows you to grab a bite to eat and get something to drink and also be a little bit active with your friends in a social setting.”
Every Friday night starting Oct. 20, the Vintage Social will be held at Drive, featuring a DJ and ping pong.
Darius Mitchell, co-founder of the event production company the Refinement Group, said he decided to hold the Vintage Social at Drive because “it’s just a really cool space and different from your average bar.”
Hardamon and Smith plan to expand next year to two more locations. They’re looking at Midtown, Ferndale and Royal Oak as well as Ann Arbor and East Lansing.
Smith said they’re focused on being “the epicenter” of food, drinks and fun “generated by the age-old game of ping pong.”
Drive Table Tennis Social Club
645 Griswold, Suite 144, Detroit
11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 11 a.m. to midnight Friday; 2 p.m. to midnight Saturday
For information: drive-detroit.com