Friends having fun at Punch Bowl Social.
Punch Bowl Social

When Punch Bowl Social gained new leadership in March 2021, the concept opened 12 restaurants in 12 days. 

Punch Bowl Social Aims to Be Growth Company Again

Co-CEOs Rob Cornog and Richard Flaherty have spent two years filling staff rosters, improving operations, and enhancing menu options to return the eatertainment chain to what it was before COVID. 

A majority of restaurants had difficulties during the peak of COVID, but few compare to Punch Bowl Social’s saga. 

About eight months before the pandemic reached the U.S., Cracker Barrel announced it would invest as much as $140 million in the eatertainment chain and take a non-controlling interest. At the time, it was believed Punch Bowl Social could surpass 100 locations.

When COVID arrived in March 2020, stores closed and Cracker Barrel removed itself from the partnership. Founder Robert Thompson left the brand in August of that year, and a few months afterward, the chain entered bankruptcy proceedings. After a battle for control between CrowdOut Capital and Sortis Holdings, CrowdOut eventually acquired Punch Bowl with a $32 million credit bid. 

A new era began in March 2021 when Robert Cornog and Richard Flaherty were named co-CEOs. Looking back at that point, Cornog describes Punch Bowl’s status as “it almost wasn’t a business.” There were no customers or employees. Roughly 25,000-square-foot boxes were empty and collecting dust. Out of more than a dozen locations, only Austin and Atlanta were open. 

But it’s not as if Cornog and Flaherty were unprepared for this reality. Cornog was there when the concept debuted in Denver. Flaherty has been around the brand for about seven years. Both took a break, but are now back in for round two. 

“We've had opportunities to see this brand literally go from zero to the heights that it had reached,” Cornog says. 

The first order of business was opening 12 units in 12 weeks. That involved hiring entire teams, establishing corporate leadership, and reintroducing the brand internally to new employees and externally to existing markets. That brought Punch Bowl up to 14 open stores. The 15th, in Milwaukee, reopened sometime later. Cornog admits that reopenings didn’t always go perfectly, but it was better than having doors completely closed to the public. As he explains, if you don’t have a business, you can’t fix what’s broken. 

Once restaurants were up and running, the co-CEOs looked to reestablish the chain’s scratch culinary program since the philosophy is “people come for the food and drinks, and they stay for the games,” Flaherty says. Punch Bowl relaunched menus at least twice during 2021. The brand offers modern American cuisine, such as Cilantro Wings, Bison Chili Cheese Fries, and Bacon Wrapped Shrimp & Polenta. 

“It’s the quality attributes that were there pre-COVID and quite honestly are back again today, with our scratch menu and our craft cocktails and our focus on food and beverage, with of course the gaming that keeps everybody around,” Flaherty says. “It was a herculean effort, but we had great teams, and we were able to get it done.”

Punch Bowl Social

Punch Bowl Social's dining area.

Punch Bowl Social

Table full of Punch Bowl Social's food selections.

Punch Bowl Social

Punch Bowl Social cocktail.

Punch Bowl Social

Agave Room.

What made the comeback even more difficult is that Punch Bowl spans the entire country, with locations from Portland, Oregon, to Arlington, Virginia. Flaherty and Cornog had to be extra cognizant of market-by-market considerations, so they put leaders in every trade area and reviewed municipality changes in real-time. 

“It was significant,” Cornog says. “And it was a daily challenge to make sure that we were providing the spaces in a way that you met what municipalities were asking for in a safe manner for both our guests and our team members. And so that was really important to us. But since Punch Bowl has been around, we've executed restaurants across the country from the beginning, So spanning geography for us is just something we do on a daily basis.”

The brand’s biggest innovation was finding better uses for the large square footage. Cornog and Flaherty knew Punch Bowl was about uniqueness and guests customizing their experience, whether it’s bowling, karaoke, or simply getting drinks with friends. Through that lens, the company created PBS Joints in which a piece of square footage is carved out for another concept. 

For example, in November the Rancho Cucamonga, California, location opened the Agave Room—a 90-seat mezcal and tequila lounge with authentic Mexican cuisine. Punch Bowl enlisted award-winning mixologist Lauren Paylor O’Brien to create the cocktail menu. The concept-within-a-concept also features a 100-bottle collection of agave-based spirits. Then, in Arlington, Punch Bowl launched the Record Room, a 2,500-square-foot downstairs space that gives off a 70s vibe. Several more PBS Joints will come within the next year. Each will have a theme, intimate seating options, and upscale menus. 

To improve operations even further, Punch Bowl is exploring technology in terms of games and guest-facing tools. The chain is testing some of those opportunities and plans to move forward with them in the next 12-16 months. 

Cornog says 2022 was a “really good year for Punch Bowl.” It started tough with the Omicron hangover, but by December, business looked similar to 2019 figures. Locations are reeling in thousands of customers, and the holiday season was strong. 

“If 2021 was just about getting the business up and running, 2022 was really about re-engaging with our guests, reminding them of why they enjoyed Punch Bowl Social previously, and introducing ourselves to that new group of consumers,” Cornog says. 

Other than continually building the existing business, the goal for 2023 is to open one new unit, although the company isn’t ready to share where it will be yet. The idea is to debut a few more in 2024 and an even larger amount in 2025. Although other eatertainment chains, like Dave & Buster’s, are searching for smaller real estate because of rising construction costs, Punch Bowl Social will stick with its 20,000 to 30,000-square-foot range so it provides all the choices customers have come to expect. 

“Behind the scenes, we love the challenge and look forward to developing the team and the talent that quite honestly makes all of that happen. And when you ask about big-picture objectives for the year, I would be remiss if I didn't answer—make more money than we ever have in the past,” Flaherty says.