Knockout Punch: Denver-Based Punch Bowl Social is Primed for National Expansion

Punch Bowl Social recently announced it was partnering with Chef Hugh Acheson on a new menu.
Punch Bowl Social recently announced it was partnering with Chef Hugh Acheson on a new menu. Punch Bowl Social

Entertainment and fine-dining reach perfect harmony at the rapidly growing Denver-based chain.

For most people, combining bowling and arcade games with a food operation conjures images of a non-descript industrial building featuring several dozen lanes and offering burgers, brats, and beer as the cuisine.

That’s the antithesis of what Punch Bowl Social is all about.

Yes, the Denver-based chain has bowling, but only a handful of lanes fronted by comfortable sofa seating. The arcade games are retro—vintage 1980s—plus plenty of group games, such as ping-pong and bocce. There’s also a private karaoke room.

The old-school games provide a certain hip social buzz, although what really sets Punch Bowl Social apart are the high-integrity culinary components, including a scratch kitchen stressing seasonality and a creative craft beverage program featuring alcoholic punch.

All of this is housed in 20,000 to 25,000 square feet of space that sports a design style dubbed “dirty modern,” which consists of four themes—Victorian, industrial, modern, and mountain lodge—all folded together in new or repurposed locations.

The growing chain has found resonance in its target audience: Generation Y.

“We track very well with Millennials,” says Robert Thompson, Punch Bowl Social’s chief executive who had experience combining entertainment and restaurants before founding this new enterprise in 2012. “I think there was a pent-up demand to bring all these elements together in an authentic setting. Millennials demand authenticity.”

The name itself is playful, a combination of the social nature of eating out and having fun along with a focus on punch bowls and bowling.

Punch Bowl Social is not alone in this aim. There are several other centers combining bowling and other games with top-notch food and beverages, including multi-unit concepts Lucky Strikes and Pinstripes, as well as a number of local players.

“Everything sort of comes full circle,” says Dean Small, founder and managing partner of Laguna Niguel, California-based Synergy Restaurant Consultants. “A lot of Millennials grew up differently. They didn’t date, they just hung out in groups.” With that in mind, Small says it’s not a reach to see games like bowling or bocce as interactive group events.

Millennials also have “an expectation of food quality,” that would make a traditional bowling center less attractive. Without providing high-quality cuisine and drinks in a high-energy, interesting locale, this group “will not take you seriously,” Small notes.

That commitment was proven even further for Punch Bowl Social in recent days. The brand announced Monday it was partnering with Chef Hugh Acheson. Acheson, a 2012 James Beard Best Chef: Southeast winner, has been working on a new menu over the past several months. It’s expected to be introduced at all locations beginning August 26.

“I have admired Punch Bowl Social’s dedication and commitment to a completely scratch kitchen on such a large scale. There is nothing quite like it in the country,” says Chef Acheson, who is also a “Top Chef” judge in a release. “Their original southern inspired menu, design aesthetic of each location and food forward vision provides me with a unique opportunity to help grow and define the culinary program in a way that we hope will inspire other restaurants to focus on food in a similar way.”

This follows the brand’s linkup with Denver chefs Chris Cina and Matt Selby, a culinary-focused plan that Punch Bowl Social hopes will serve as the foundation for national expansion.

Punch Bowl Social’s first site, in Denver, was a former brick warehouse in what was then an unpopular part of the city. Since then, it has split its locales between repurposed and new locations, including Detroit’s Z Building that opened in 2014.

The company currently has six locations with another nine on the boards over the next 18 months. Plans call for a half dozen new sites each year.

About 60 percent of revenues derive from beverages with 29 percent from food and 11 from entertainment, Thompson states. In its first year in Detroit, the Punch Bowl Social location became Michigan’s No. 1 wholesale liquor buyer.

The iconic dish at Punch Bowl Social’s Southern-influenced gastro diner is chicken and waffles with a non-traditional chipotle pecan maple cream cheese syrup. Also gaining traction is cauliflower nachos with roasted cauliflower, corn tortilla chips, jalapeno crema, queso cotija, pickled onions, crème fraiche, and more. Pork or chicken can be added.

On the beverage side, “we sell a lot of punches,” he says. That includes the popular Bachelor’s Bowl that includes Old Forester Bourbon, Pimm’s Blackberry and Elderflower liqueur, Pegleg Pineapple Yerba Mate tea, and lemon juice, the founder points out. There are both old-style cocktails, and new-style ones, such as El Macho, with El Charro Blanco tequila, muddled cucumber, cardamom syrup, and fresh lime juice.

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