In an age when millennials are prone to living and eating via multi-tasking, food alone may not be sufficient to keep them engaged.

“Would you like to play ping-pong after you finish your meal?” might be an apt question for a server to ask a customer at the fast-growing Denver-based restaurant chain Punch Bowl Social. It’s opening its 11th outlet by the end of 2017 and plans six more (in 2018). 

Launched in 2012, the restaurant chain blends activities, including shuffleboard, ping-pong, bowling, pinball, and Skee-Ball with an appealing culinary menu. Its food specialties feature pan-fried pork chops and chicken and waffles. 

In an Internet age, when millennials are prone to living and eating via multi-tasking, food alone may not be sufficient to keep them engaged.

The multi-dimensional experience of Punch Bowl Social is a key reason it’s expanding. The brand grew to Detroit, Cleveland, and Minneapolis, and, fueled by private equity funding, has plans to expand in Chicago, San Diego, Atlanta, Dallas, Brooklyn, New York, and Arlington, Virginia, next year. Also, in 2018, it’s introducing virtual reality parlors to keep pace with millennial trends. 

The chain’s 46-year-old CEO and founder Robert Thompson launched Punch Bowl Social to fill a “void,” he says. 

“No one had really taken a disciplined approach to the culinary and beverage side of the entertainment industry,” Thompson says. “Most of the existing chains in the ‘eatertainment’ industry focus more on the entertainment side than the food. We work every day to better our kitchen and beverage craft.” 

Punch Bowl Social creates several revenue streams including food, beverage, and games.

As a result, he hired Hugh Acheson, a chef and former “Top Chef” judge as a culinary partner.  Thompson describes the menu as Southern influenced and says chicken and waffles is one specialty. The menu also offers huevos rancheros, Greek yogurt, and burgers. “Everything is made in house, from scratch,” Thompson says.

He named the concept Punch Bowl Social as homage to the Victorian age when people in the community gathered to discuss local matters around a punch bowl. While Facebook and Instagram enable people to converse online, Punch Bowl Social encourages them to do so face-to-face while dining and playing a game.

Indeed one Yelp responder described Punch Bowl Social as “a large space reminiscent of the games one would have at a cool parents’ basement circa early 1990: ping pong, air hockey, a few bowling lanes, and Skee-Ball. There was plenty of seating areas around bars, cocktail tables nearby and lounge sofas. If you wanted to do more than drink and play, there’s a restaurant right when you enter.”

Capitalizing the first outlet after the economic recession around 2010 was “mission impossible,” Thompson says. 

“After the Great Recession, money was loosening up, but not for restaurants,” he adds. Most investors perceived them as too risky. Because restaurant sales are based on disposable income, many investors demurred. Based on his industry connections from running six eateries at Cocktails Concept, including Buffalo Billiards & Havana Lounge in Nashville, Tennessee, enterprising Thompson raised a whopping $4 million to finance the initial outpost.

Running that Nashville billiards lounge served as a precursor to opening Punch Bowl Social. He saw how games and food could mix, but wanted to extend the concept further.

Asked what demographic the chain targets, Thompson doesn’t equivocate but says flatly, “millennials day and night.” Yet he added that other generations, including Gen Z, follow the millennials like older siblings, and to a certain extent, Baby Boomers will investigate it.

Punch Bowl Social creates several revenue streams including food, beverage, and games. For example, it charges $7.50 and $11.50 per hour for bowling, $13 hourly for ping-pong, $10 for billiards and bocci, $10 for scrabble, $25 to $35 for karaoke, and $35 to $55 for virtual reality. Some activities are free such as darts, marbles, and board games.

But overall, Thompson explained that food and beverage accounts for 89 percent of its revenue and the gaming fees 11 percent. He calls the games the “cheese in the mousetrap” that lures customers in. It makes it experiential, which is what millennials are seeking.

And Thompson notes there’s one more revenue stream that often gets overlooked: corporate and social events. Because many of the outlets are spacious, ranging from 20,000–30,000 square feet, there’s plenty of room to hold team building events for corporations, birthday parties, often for tweens, and bachelor and bachelorette parties for millennials. About 25 percent of its aggregate food and beverage sales stems from this source.

Thompson decided to introduce virtual reality parlors because it’s now social fitting into its dominant theme. “Each VR bazaar has a TV where the group can watch what their friend in the headset is experiencing,” he says.

Its growth plans have been strengthened by an investment from L Catterton, a private equity firm, which helped capitalize chains such as P. F. Chang’s, Anthony’s Coal Fired Pizza, and Chopt Creative Salad Company.

Punch Bowl Social CEO Robert Thompson

CEO and founder Robert Thompson.

Punch Bowl Social “identified a niche, the social eating market, and executed at a high level,” says Scott Samuels, the Leawood, Kansas-based CEO of Horizon Hospitality, a restaurant and hospitality recruiting firm. It mostly attracts millennials who want to socialize in one place, play games and dine.

The concept has several competitors. Dave & Buster’s focuses more on entertainment than food, Samuels says. Another rival is fast-expanding Boston-based Kings Dining and Entertainment, which just opened its 11th outlet and offers billiards, bowling, Skee-all, air hockey, and a draft beer room. Main Event, which has 38 units across the U.S., is another.

READ MORE: Why Dave & Buster’s is facing more competition than ever before.

Punch Bowl Social has “achieved success because they’ve offered quality food, craft beers, and a classy, sophisticated atmosphere,” Samuels says.

Samuels doesn’t see most Baby Boomers being attracted to Punch Bowl Social. “Their needs are different; the social piece and interaction is more of a special occasion for baby boomers than [taking place] every weekend,” he says. Since it has identified a niche market that is large enough to sustain growth, he expects them to prosper.

CEO Thompson says its successful growth depends on several factors including:

  • Continually differentiating itself from its competitors.
  • Keeping its finger on the pulse of ever-changing millennial trends
  • Maintaining its strong culinary standards
  • Site selections. “You can do everything right and ruin it if you pick the wrong sites,” he says.
  • Training its three key personnel—general managers, executive chefs, and sales directors—into sustaining its culture. 
Casual Dining, Chain Restaurants, Feature, NextGen Casual