The U.S. Pickleball Association reports there were more than 44,000 courts across some 10,700 North American locations at the start of 2023.
Smash Park Marketing

The U.S. Pickleball Association reports there were more than 44,000 courts across some 10,700 North American locations at the start of 2023.

Inside the Pickleball Frenzy and Race to Open Eatertainment Hotspots

America’s fastest-growing sport extends dwell time and expands operations across every daypart in a restaurant. 

Five minutes. That’s how long it took for the spring pickleball league to sell out at Smash Park in Des Moines, Iowa. Since opening in 2018, the eatertainment hotspot—with scratch-made food, a full bar, and six pickleball courts—has built a loyal following, including the more than 200 people and 18 leagues that signed up immediately. 

Once dismissed as a morning pastime for seniors at local rec centers, pickleball has emerged as one of the fastest trending sports across generations. The average age of folks signing up for the Smash Park league is 35, and some 4.8 million people play the sport in the U.S., marking a 15 percent year-over-year increase that followed a 21 percent growth rate the prior year, according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association’s 2022 report on pickleball. And Gen Z is fully on board: The fastest-growing cohort are players under the age of 24. 

“Our Friday night leaguers are different from our daytime afternoon leaguers, but the courts are always full and guests can book them two weeks out,” says Dannelle Dahlhauser, Smash Park director of marketing.

Smash Park responded to the spring demand by opening additional leagues, and it is quickly emerging as one of the brands to watch in the eatertainment race to be first to market. The brand’s second store—a franchised Smash Park—opened last year in Pella, Iowa. New locations, all company-owned and -operated, are opening in suburbs of Omaha, Nebraska, and Minneapolis later this year and in 2024. Most recently, the company decided to expand beyond its Midwest base and open in Jacksonville, Florida, slated for October 2024. 

“All will be similar to our Des Moines store, with both indoor and outdoor courts, but new locations will include additional amenities—duckpin bowling, a private karaoke suite, and ax throwing,” Dahlhauser says. 

It’s not only the popularity of pickleball that has restaurant operators seizing the opportunity with new eatertainment brands, it’s also the impact that the sport has on restaurant operations, effectively expanding service across every daypart, with stores opening at 7 or 8 a.m. and running until late night, sometimes beyond midnight. 

That’s a game-changer for Robert Thompson, whose legacy in eatertainment dining includes pre-COVID standout Punch Bowl Social. His vision for Camp Pickle, the new concept he’s debuting in 2024 with plans to include 10 to 15 pickleball courts in each location, is that it will be running full throttle seven days a week. 

Chicken n Pickle

The sport’s multi-generational appeal has eatertainment concepts like Smash Park, Chicken n Pickle, and emerging concepts like Camp pickle vying for a piece of the pickleball pie, plus innovating around chef-driven menus.

“We’ll be busy at eight in the morning, something we were never able to do in prior eatertainment concepts,” he says. “I don’t create any concepts that don’t lean heavily into Saturday and Sunday brunch; it’s just free money when you do it the right way.” 

But weekday breakfasts? That’s a new spin for eatertainment that fits perfectly with pickleball enthusiasts, who Thompson anticipates serving coffee, smoothies, and limited breakfast selection throughout the week. 

He’s also eager to capitalize on the multi-generational appeal of pickleball, noting that Camp Pickle will be “more family-oriented” than his previous eatertainment concepts, but it will absolutely replicate foundational elements from past successes. 

“When I started Punch Bowl Social in 2010, I wanted to create a model that expanded dwell time. If you don’t have a craveable food and beverage product it becomes more difficult to expand the dwell time, but if can put together all of the moving parts in concert—the food, the beverage, the gaming, and the way you lay it out so guests move about the space naturally, comfortably—you get incremental spend from guests in the expanded dwell time,” says Thompson, whose corporate eatertainment enterprise, Angevin & Co., is the parent company of Camp Pickle and its sister concept, Jaguar Bolera.

In March, Angevin & Co. named Chef Manuel (Manny) Barella to serve as culinary director for both brands. Barella, who was born in Monterrey, Mexico, brings a passion for Hispanic cuisine and was a James Beard Award semifinalist in 2022. 

The menu at both concepts will feature smoked proteins. Camp Pickle will bring together elements of Mexican and camp cooking; Jaguar Bolera will combine Mexican and Southern influences. 

Thompson will begin rolling out the two concepts later this year, with Jaguar Bolera opening in Raleigh, North Carolina, in December, followed by the first Camp Pickle in Denver in the summer of 2024. “A second Camp Pickle will open toward the end of 2024, and then we’ll have a regular cadence of opening four to five a year,” he says. Deals are underway in Atlanta; Indianapolis; New Orleans; Huntsville, Alabama; Nashville, Tennessee; and Dallas and Austin, Texas.

If pickleball eatertainment seems like a novel concept, think again: It’s the natural evolution of a consumer surge. Every state and all Canadian provinces have pickleball venues, and the U.S. Pickleball Association, with a membership exceeding 70,000, reports there were more than 44,000 courts across some 10,700 North American locations at the start of this year. 

Unplugged, fully engaged

If they play once, they will come again attests Kelli Alldredge, a former competitive tennis player and one of three managing partners at Chicken N Pickle. She started as a customer when owner David Johnson opened the first Chicken N Pickle in 2016 in North Kansas City, Missouri. She, Johnson, and Brad Clark, the third managing partner, had zero restaurant experience pre-Chicken N Pickle, but like their guests, they thrive on the social camaraderie of pickleball. 

Chicken n Pickle

“You play once and fall in love with it, and you meet people from all walks of life. There could be four people on the court from four different decades having a competitive game,” she says.

The smaller court is “easier on the body” than tennis, and the compact size contributes to the sense of community—talking and bantering happens naturally during matches, which typically last 15 minutes so a group can easily rotate through four matches in a one-hour reservation. 

“People compare Chicken N Pickle to Topgolf, and we admire that company, but what is so different about our concept is we have zero technology. Literally it’s a wiffle ball and a paddle, and people put down their cell phones and technology,” Alldredge says. “Pickleball is all about connecting with other people; you have to engage with another person.”

Ironically, given that in-person interaction is fundamental to the experience, Chicken N Pickle expanded aggressively throughout 2020 and 2021—the antithesis of most restaurants during the pandemic years, but a strategy that has positioned the brand to be a leader in the fast-moving niche space. Seven restaurants are open, three under construction, and another four sites are committed. The company has 1,200 employees across its restaurant locations, 54 corporate employees, and recently opened a second corporate office in Dallas.

“We can kinda tell if someone has never played before—they show up in jeans and cute shoes or boots,” Alldredge quips. “You can play in any outfit, but after that first time, they’re back in tennis shoes and athletic clothes.” 

Every location has both indoor and outdoor courts, and the number varies between eight and 12 courts per store. True to name, the scratch menu revolves around chicken (specifically rotisserie chicken) and, like other pickleball eateries, there’s full bar service. The brand’s director of culinary, Alex Staab, oversees the menu company-wide, and the business model is counter-side ordering with food delivered to the table and tabs following guests throughout their stay, from pickleball courts to rooftop to yard games. It’s all about making the experience easy and enjoyable from the 7 a.m. opening to 11 p.m. close. 

Eatertainment reimagined, fully monetized

“I love combining the art of concept creation with data science; that’s true with every concept I create, but you have to find a way to monetize art,” says Thompson, as he builds Camp Pickle around an invigorated strategy that is reimagining operations to produce more profitable operations at a faster clip. 

The bar scene at Camp Pickle incorporates a self-pour wall, appealing to the DIY, tech-driven nature characteristic of millennials as it enhances the service experience while effectively addressing wage inflation and lowering labor costs.

After being age/identity–verified, guests receive an RFID chip and then simply tap their payment card to pour their own drinks, charged by the ounce. Camp Pickle will have 40 craft beers on draft, 16 mid- and higher-end wines, and 10 craft cocktails—all on tap at the pour wall. 

“That [beverage innovation] and moving to the foodservice counter as opposed to a full-service restaurant environment is going to allow us to cut an estimated 500 to 600 basis points out of our labor cost,” Thompson says. In terms of employees, it reduces the headcount needed from 350 for a comparably sized full-service operation to “just north of 250.” 

Citing the ongoing challenges around staffing, he adds: “We’ve insulated ourselves from these bumpy waters around municipalities trying to increase minimum wage and from being negatively impacted by losing tip credit.”

He’s also devised an innovative plan for rolling out the CapEx-intensive brand nationwide, bringing in investment partners while maintaining full operational control at each location. Describing it as a joint-venture, hybrid franchise model, Thompson says, “We intend to be both best-in-class and the most-scaled brand in a short period of time.” 

Smash Park Marketing

“Some of our conversations are happening with real estate developers who understand how to financially engineer a deal that requires a lot of land and capital, some are with high-net-worth individuals who [want] to own a piece of a local Camp Pickle,” he explains. 

From a development perspective, the concept requires 55,000 to 75,000 square feet for the operations alone, sans parking, and can be built out vertically across multiple floors. It’s a four-to-five-acre deal if self-parking is part of the equation, and roughly two acres if parking is not included, which is the case in Alabama where the City of Huntsville will have a multi-deck parking structure that Camp Pickle guests can use. 

Dark anchor slots in well-positioned shopping malls present another development opportunity, which Thompson has been exploring for a decade or more. He was unable to disclose specifics but said his parent company is looking at former Sears sites and is in discussion with a national mall operator about a potential joint-venture partnership that would repurpose former retail anchors—JC Penney, Macy’s, or Lord & Taylor stores—with the eatertainment brands. 

“We’re relatively agnostic in terms of geography, more focused on the trade area, the economy in the local area, what the millennial base is, and, of course, disposable income. We’re not as focused on urban locations as we were with Punch Bowl Social. These are more quasi-suburban, very similar to Topgolf, and because we need so much acreage, we’re not up near residential,” he says. 

The goal is to position Camp Pickle along major travel arteries that bring together multiple trade areas, while Jaguar Bolera will be the more urban, “in-town” eatertainment concept. 

“Jaguar Bolera can be a little more drinky, it may have pickleball courts but it doesn’t have to; you won’t ever see a Camp Pickle without pickleball courts,” he says. 

The design aesthetic at Camp Pickle needed to appeal to everyone from Gen Zs to Boomers, so Thompson settled on a 1940s summer camping/national park theme that he expects will be a warm, nostalgic experience for older generations and a “kitschy, novel” moment for younger generations. 

The elephant in the eatertainment room has long been Dave & Buster’s, which has rebounded from pandemic-era struggles to more than 150 locations across 41 states, and, in June 2022, acquired the Main Event eatertainment brand. Main Event, with some 50 locations around the country, is the more family-focused concept that positions alongside pickleball-themed venues. 

Smash Park’s Dahlhauser noted that a Dave & Buster’s is being built across the street from their Des Moines location. How much competition Dave & Buster’s or Main Event presents for pickleball eateries remains to be seen. When asked if they would be introducing pickleball courts into any of their existing or new locations, the Dave & Buster’s parent company chose not to comment.  

Camp Pickle

The aesthetic at camp pickle (above) is a 1940s summer camp/national park theme, designed to appeal to everyone from Gen Zs and millennials to Boomers.

Chicken N Pickle

  • Owner: Dave Johnson
  • Opened: 2016
  • Locations (in order of openings): Kansas City, Missouri; Wichita, Kansas; San Antonio, Texas; Oklahoma City; Overland Park, Kansas; Grand Prairie, Texas; Grapevine, Texas
  • Under construction: Glendale, Arizona; St. Charles, Missouri; Webster, Texas 
  • Committed: Henderson, Nevada; Fishers, Indiana; Allen, Texas
  • Menu: Wood-fired rotisserie chicken and scratch-made food, full bar service
  • Format: Order at counter, server brings food to table
  • Footprint: 60,000–80,000 sq. ft. 
  • Employees: 1,200 store-level; 54 home office
  • Franchise option: No

Smash Park

  • Owners: Monty and Kerri Lockyear
  • Opened: 2018
  • Locations: Two in Iowa
  • Planned expansion: Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Minnesota, Nebraska
  • Menu: Scratch-made food, full bar and beverage. 
  • Format: Fast-casual, order and pick-up at the counter.  
  • Footprint: 27,000 sq. ft. inside; 17,000 sq. ft. outside
  • Franchise option: Yes

Camp Pickle 

  • Owner: Robert Thompson, Angevin & Co.
  • Opening: 2024
  • Confirmed locations: Denver and Huntsville, Alabama
  • In the works: Atlanta; Austin, Texas; Dallas; Nashville, Tennessee; New Orleans; Indianapolis
  • Menu: Elevated, chef-driven menu featuring Mexican + camp cuisine with focus on smoked proteins
  • Format: Fast casual + DIY bar service
  • Employees: ~250 per location
  • Footprint: 55,000 to 75,000 sq. ft. 
  • Franchise option: Hybrid joint-venture partnerships with investor owners but fully operated by Camp Pickle