Punch Bowl Social doesn’t do anything on a small scale. From 20,000-plus-square-foot spaces to lengthy cocktail and beer menus to an extensive selection of upscale comfort fare, the dining and entertainment concept has a big personality and major plans going forward. It’s part of a new breed of nightlife destinations that eschews the traditional dance club scene, instead emphasizing top-notch food and drinks in a laid-back setting that includes a bowling alley, an arcade and table games.
Founded in 2012 and currently operating six locations, Punch Bowl Social plans to debut five more units over the next two years. By mid-2018, the company expects to have 15 venues in urban markets around the country. This year, revenues are projected to reach $35 million, with beverage alcohol comprising 50 percent of total sales. “Our goal is to become an iconic American brand,” explains Punch Bowl Social founder and CEO Robert Thompson. “Ninety percent of our sales are food and beverage, and our entertainment is the hook that lures people.”
Punch Bowl Social units are located in some of the country’s more competitive on-premise markets. Current locations include Denver; Detroit; Cleveland; Portland, Oregon; Austin, Texas; and the Chicago suburb of Schaumburg, Illinois. New venues will be added in the second half of this year in Indianapolis, Minneapolis and Denver’s Stapleton neighborhood, and plans are already underway for openings in Sacramento, California, and Brooklyn, New York, in 2017. In addition, the company is in early development stages for locations in San Diego, Rancho Cucamonga, California, Boston and Washington, D.C.
The beverage component is huge at Punch Bowl Social, and the emphasis is on craft. The concept’s large, multilevel spaces house several distinct areas, including a high-volume circular bar and a rustic lodge in every location. Spirits and cocktails lead drinks sales, comprising 60 percent of total beverage revenue, followed by beer at 30 percent. Wine and non-alcoholic drinks split the remainder at 5 percent each.
“Guests can have multiple different experiences,” says Patrick Williams, the company’s national beverage director. “We try to push the envelope. Through our punch bowls and our mix of old-school and modern drinks, we offer exciting things that entice people to step out of their comfort zones and try something new.”
The venues emphasize local spirits whenever possible to further enhance the handcrafted nature of their menus, and bartenders often make their own syrups and mixers. Roughly 75 percent of the cocktail list is standard at every location, and the remaining 25 percent changes by market to incorporate local tastes and trends. In Schaumburg, Illinois, the drinks menu features Few Spirits’ American gin and Jeppson’s Malört, while the Austin, Texas, venue offers Treaty Oak rum and Tito’s Handmade vodka. The Detroit location highlights Knickerbocker gin and McClary Bros. shrubs, Denver incorporates Breckenridge Bourbon, and Cleveland uses Watershed Distillery’s Four Peel gin. “We work closely with regional vendors in all of our markets,” Williams notes. “It’s important for us to use local businesses and partners as much as we can.”
On average, Punch Bowl Social offers 12 to 15 cocktails and three or four large-format punches. Mixed drinks range from classics to new creations, and the venues also list several breakfast-themed concoctions available throughout the day. Cocktails vary by location and include such selections as an Old Overholt rye whiskey–based Old Fashioned and a Death’s Door gin–based Pegu Club. Many units offer draft cocktails like the Blood & Sand, comprising Johnnie Walker Red Label blended Scotch whisky, Cherry Heering liqueur, Carpano Punt e Mes vermouth and orange juice. Meanwhile, new signature cocktails range from The Finer Things, a barrel-aged concoction that blends Ford’s gin, Contratto aperitif and Dolin Blanc vermouth, to El Macho, mixing Cazadores Reposado Tequila, muddled cucumber, cardamom syrup and lime juice. Cocktails are $7 to $10 at the Denver location.
Punches are offered by the glass and in larger servings for four or eight people. Standouts in Denver include The Bachelor’s Bowl, made with the company’s private barrel of Buffalo Trace Bourbon, Pimm’s No. 6 Blackberry & Elderflower liqueur, hibiscus lemon tea and lemon juice, and the Royal Hutch Punch, comprising Flor de Caña 7-year-old rum, St-Germain elderflower liqueur, Fee Brothers Peach bitters, lime juice and white tea. In Denver, punches are $6 to $8 a glass, $24 to $32 for a four-serving bowl, and $48 to $64 for an eight-serving bowl.
Along with punch, adult milkshakes ($8 to $10 in Denver) are also popular. Offerings include the Malted Maple Royale, mixed with Bird Dog Maple whiskey, malted milk and vanilla soft serve, topped with candied bacon and nutmeg, and the Milk-Xologist, a blend of Leopold Bros. Frenchpress-Style American Coffee liqueur, Fernet Branca Brancamenta liqueur and vanilla soft serve, topped with whipped cream.
Locally minded labels are even more important on Punch Bowl Social’s beer menu. The concept generally pours 12 beers on tap and offers another 10 to 12 in cans, with the lion’s share consisting of local and regional craft brews. Williams says as much as 80 percent of the company’s beer menus vary by location.
At the flagship Denver unit, draft pours include labels from such Colorado producers as Great Divide Brewing Co., Kannah Creek Brewing Co., Odell Brewing Co., Steamworks Brewing Co., Breckenridge Brewery, Avery Brewing Co. and Ska Brewing Co. The venue also serves Pabst Blue Ribbon, Budweiser, Rolling Rock and Coors Banquet. In Denver, beers are $3.50 to $5.50 on draft and $2.50 to $5.50 a can. The Portland location has selections from Deschutes Brewery, Full Sail Brewing Co., Widmer Brothers Brewing, Oakshire Brewing and Fort George Brewery ($4 to $7 a draft pour or can), while the Austin unit highlights offerings from Live Oak Brewing Co., Karbach Brewing Co., Austin Beerworks and Thirsty Planet Brewing Co. ($2.50 to $6 a draft pour or can).
Wine is a small player in terms of sales, and by-the-glass pours dominate. The company focuses on approachable varietals, primarily from the United States and South America. In Denver, wine offerings include St. Francis Chardonnay, Camelot Cabernet Sauvignon and Diseño Malbec ($7 to $10 a glass; $21 to $90 a 750-ml. bottle), while Cleveland lists Kung Fu Girl Riesling, Louis Latour Pinot Noir and Ironstone Zinfandel ($6 to $10 a glass; $24 to $75 a 750-ml. bottle).
“We find a lot of great local beers in all our markets, while our wine list is designed to be casual and approachable,” Williams says. “We view ourselves, first and foremost, as a restaurant and bar. The entertainment is an amenity to a great food and beverage concept. For the drinks program, we focus on professional techniques, high-quality ingredients, and local spirits and beers.”
The food menu at Punch Bowl Social has a Southern slant, and Thompson calls it a “gastro-diner” concept. “When you walk into any Punch Bowl Social, you walk in through our diner,” he says. “We put the culinary program front and center. You have to weave through the diner to get to the bars and the entertainment area.” Standout dishes include shared plates, such as Cauliflower Nachos and Stuffed Crimini Mushrooms, and larger dishes like the Waldorf Burger, topped with blue cheese aioli, frisée, pickled red onions, dried cherries, candied walnuts and apples, and Paul Bunyan’s Sweet Tea Brined Chicken. In Denver, shared plates are $6 to $10, burgers and sandwiches are $12 to $14, and entrées are $10 to $19. The concept also serves brunch and breakfast fare until 3 p.m., including Corned Beef Hash and Monkey Bread French Toast ($9 to $13 in Denver).
“The best way to perpetuate the success of the bar program is to further the culinary program,” Thompson says. Williams adds that many Punch Bowl Social guests are surprised at the food and drinks variety. “Our guests discover things they hadn’t seen before,” Williams explains. “They think they’re coming to a bowling alley, but they’re surprised to peel back the layers and discover what’s available. The menus and design are unexpected.”
Fun And Games
The entertainment portion of the Punch Bowl Social experience is unmatched in most markets. Each location of the concept houses bowling lanes, and the spaces also incorporate bocce, darts, Ping-Pong, shuffleboard, foosball, board games and karaoke, as well as an arcade space with a variety of classic video games, racing consoles and Skee-Ball.
Punch Bowl Social requires a floor plan with at least 20,000 square feet, and some locations top out near 30,000 square feet, spread over three levels. In addition to the diner concept, the venues house the Holiday Lodge—a wood-themed area with its own fireplace and rustic lounge seating—and the 360 bar, which is a large circular drinks hub. The company describes its interior design as “dirty modern” and the locations generally combine industrial, Victorian-style and modern design elements to create an upbeat and comfortable environment.
Company executives expect to nearly triple Punch Bowl Social’s unit count over the next two years. Three locations will open this fall, and Thompson says he hopes to add five units annually starting next year. “We have more real estate opportunities than we can develop,” he adds. “We’re focused on urban centers. The drama and scale of Punch Bowl Social makes the venues iconic in their markets.”