The founder of Punch Bowl Social recently bought his first project, the first of many to come.
Did anybody ever imagine a bowling-themed concept generating 90 percent of its sales through food and beverage? Robert Thompson has long viewed brand creation through a different lens. And it’s seldom reactionary.
Thompson’s development of Punch Bowl Social in 2012 flipped the stodgy bowling model on its head. The idea of using games as the “cheese in the mousetrap” to lure guests in. But food and beverage, design, and a social-forward atmosphere to keep consumers—namely millennials—coming back. It was the differentiator between Punch Bowl Social and much of its entertainment competition, which generally court a low-frequency guest and lead with games over grub.
Now, Thompson, who resigned as CEO of Punch Bowl Social last summer, wants to do the same for what he believes is another underserved opportunity: hotels.
In early June, Thompson’s newly minted New Orleans hospitality firm, Angevin & Co., completed its first big deal, buying the historic boutique hotel, The Frenchmen. It’s the first investment of “many planned.”
“When you change the lens with which a thing is viewed, different outcomes are often reached,” Thompson says. “We view the hotel space from a restaurateur’s perspective, which can manifest in a variety of ways. But in the end, we’ll achieve approximately 50 percent F&B ratio as opposed to the industry standard of 75 percent room rental, over 25 percent F&B.”
Essentially, Thompson aims to integrate food and beverage more holistically into the hotel space than generally accepted. Make a hand-in-glove connection between public spaces, bars, and rooms.
The Frenchmen was constructed on New Orleans’ legendary Frenchmen Street in 1860. Thompson will preserve the historic integrity of the building, he says, while leading a top-to-bottom renovation.
- Make colorful updates to all 27 rooms with vintage rugs, inviting color schemes, and a nod to 1860s French art and Montmartre spirit.
- Revitalize the two bar spaces. Here you’ll see Thompson’s F&B chops at work, especially in terms of an elevated craft beverage experience. And something that reflects the vibe outside the hotel.
- Refresh the pool and outdoor spaces with greenery in the courtyards as well as fresh colors in a mid-century aesthetic throughout the patio area.
Thompson, a Mississippi native, moved to New Orleans in early 2021 to embed himself into one of America’s most vibrant hospitality scenes. He says he’s visited New Orleans more than 40 times over the years. It will also allow him to spend more time with his wife and young sons, given he’ll be living where his hospitality business is based.
Hotels caught Thompson’s eye for the same intangible reason eatertainment did when he transformed a 24,000-square-foot Big Lots into Punch Bowl Social nine years ago, with no proof of concept or portability.
Hotels are ingrained in culture and don’t lack for awareness or saturation, like bowling alleys. But there’s whitespace to chase in reinvention.
“It starts with engineering the perfect F&B platform for each hotel,” Thompson says. “The design of our hotel and restaurant spaces is from a restaurateur orientation with clear emphasis for F&B as one of the proteins on the plate. Our concepts are sort of a ‘mixed grill’ of different proteins at work on the same plate as opposed to allowing one item to be the star of the show.”
For instance, Thompson is developing a craft frozen drink program using pellet ice and rums for the tropical NOLA climate. The Frenchmen will also feature a small music venue for local jazz.
“There’s nothing like drinking a thoughtful crafted, cold cocktail listening to timeless jazz in a boutique hotel in the heart of an iconic district as you visit a magical city,” he says.
Thompson says he’s been obsessed with the guest experience since he was a kid in the restaurant industry, a path that began when he was 16-years-old. And “something beyond a wondering curiosity about hotels took root over the past decade,” he adds.
As Thompson mentioned, it’s the lure of operating hotels like a restaurant, where the rooms are an additive, not the only topic of conversation. Again, there are parallels to Punch Bowl Social and its ability to flip the spotlight on what historically mattered to core users of the category.
“Our goal is to revolutionize the hotel industry similarly by creating outsized F&B sales from within an existing industry,” Thompson says. “I want to achieve for hotels what I did for eatertainment. It’s still just about creating guest experiences, no matter if it is for an overnight stay or opening the door with a smile for someone to enter the restaurant.”
Thompson’s current trajectory isn’t so much a fork in the road, he says, but rather a river split in two. When he left Punch Bowl Social, he launched a startup out of Denver called Thompson Growth Group, which, at its core, was an incubator platform for new, national growth projects. This included an eatertainment brand in 45,000-square-foot Nobis, which remains an active project, Thompson says.
TGG was rebranded as Angevin & Co., and the company headed to NOLA. Yet while hotels kickstart this journey, new restaurant concepts are still part of Thompson’s plans. The first of which will be called Three Saints Revival (the name being a reflection of the industry’s pandemic bounce back) and is slated to open fall in Denver.
The concept’s backbone will be tapas and small plates inspired by every edge of the Mediterranean from Spain, Provence, and Italy to Israel, Egypt, and Greece. Plus, old and new world wines, and a robust spirit and craft-cocktail program.
Even here, Thompson is turning the current. “We have heard a lot the past year about how the restaurant industry, due to the pandemic, has substantially moved to a delivery and to-go model orientation,” he says. “We could not disagree more. We believed before the pandemic that dining room experiences outweighed dining at home and we believe on the other side of the pandemic that pent-up demand has increased that desire to be social and dine more socially, with small plates in larger groups.”
Thompson says internal studies showed 55 percent of guests prefer to share food. This also allows restaurants to seek larger checks while avoiding the “veto vote” as options open back up.
“As we continue to emphasis the millennial and Gen Z cohorts as our consumer base, small plate restaurants reduce food waste, which is of increasing ecological importance to our core customer,” he says. “And financially, small plates make kitchens more efficient, reducing labor, waste, execution times, and spoilage to drive enhanced profit. So much of tapas can be scratch cooking engineered for faster plating and execution risk.”
“With respect to the beverage programming, wine has been consumed with food across the ages but we understand that 60 percent of wine is consumed without food,” Thompson adds, “making wine bars a perfect beverage-forward restaurant offering. We will always create and operate beverage forward concepts, it’s in our DNA.”
From a high level, Thompson began emphasizing Gen Z guests at his concepts about four years ago, he says. Fortunately, it’s not a huge departure from trying to satisfy millennials. They share similar purchase triggers, like authenticity, Thompson says, as well as design-forward environments. “So the pivot was more subtle and can involve how a brand positions itself in the more delicate world of brand ethos and positioning,” he says. “Design is an ‘experience’ and our concepts have won design and innovation awards across the spectrum. Our Three Saints Revival design muse is from a Parisian Bohemian dream experience. All in all, [millennials and Gen Z] have a deep affection for experiences and lifestyle brands.”
Five years from now, Thompson hopes to have a large portfolio of boutique hotels with F&B operations; to grow in New Orleans, with a focus in the Southeast, as well. Texas might be in the card, too.
Regardless, the company will keep its eye on the changing landscape. Thompson says this is really the first time since 1997 he’s not operated restaurants in real-time. But he believes planning and preparing for growth is enviable to trying to survive shock COVID dynamics like the labor shortage.
And he’ll be ready when the time arrives. “Everything we do is purposeful so that our core customer can integrate our concepts into their brand universe and personal orbit,” he says.