Operations

Puttshack positions as mini-golf's 'scratch player'

This tech-enhanced concept brings the decades-old game to digital natives who expect more in the way of food and drink. But will mini golf stand out with so many eatertainment options coming?
Puttshack
At Puttshack, about 58% of sales comes from food and beverage. |Photo courtesy of Puttshack.

Puttshack CEO Joe Vrankin doesn’t love the term “eatertainment.”

To him, the term—when applied to a mini-golf concept like Puttshack—evokes the image of “pirate ships and windmills, and food served in plastic baskets.” And Puttshack is not that—at least, it’s trying to be something very different.

Vrankin describes the niche he operates in as “social entertainment,” because that term better reflects the broader competitive set. Puttshack not only competes with other dining concepts but also movie theaters, sports venues and other places people go for fun.

And since the pandemic, people are looking for places to have fun.

That pent-up demand for social interaction has sparked a rush of new concepts offering new ways to play, eat and drink. But Puttshack has caught the eye of investors, most recently with a $150 million investment from funds managed by BlackRock.

At the recent ICR Conference in Orlando, Vrankin outlined Puttshack’s plan for growth and what he sees as huge differentiators for a brand that takes your grandfather’s putt-putt course and brings it to a new tech-savvy generation.

Puttshack

Puttshack brings a game played by Babyboomers when they were kids to a new generation. |Photo courtesy of Puttshack.

Or in golf terms, the brand is a scratch player—one with a zero handicap—in the social entertainment world.

Puttshack was created by the same founders of another growing eatertainment brand: Topgolf International, which is more like a tech-enhanced driving range.

The identical twin brothers who created Topgolf, Steven and Dave Jolliffe, also developed Puttshack as a new version of mini golf that is technology driven. First opening Puttshack in London, the Jolliffes then recruited Vrankin, who was previously CEO of Topgolf, to bring Puttshack to the U.S.

At the end of 2023, there were 11 units open, and another four in the U.K. for a total of 15.

At Puttshack, you still use a putter to try to get a ball into a hole amid challenging obstacles, just like any mini golf course. But here, the ball itself is a tiny GPS- and Bluetooth-enabled computer with proprietary Trackaball technology that keeps score. Players can focus on having fun, rather than marking little cards with pencils or arguing about the number of strokes.

 

It hinders the ability to cheat, of course, but the technology is also a significant barrier of entry for competitors. Not only does Puttshack have a patent on the Trackaball technology, it also holds a “content patent,” Vrankin said. That means anyone else who attempts to create their own ball-tracking technology could violate the patent. And Puttshack will hold that for the next 12 years.

In addition, Puttshack places a heavy emphasis on its food-and-beverage program, with a menu that includes dishes like wood-fired Thai octopus; Mediterranean lamb skewers; or “Puttshack Poutine” with red wine bacon gravy over cheese curds and garlic fries. The signature cocktail lineup is also a big seller, with drinks like the Porn Star Martini or an Ultimate Top Shelf Margarita with a black lava salt rim.

Puttshack menu

The menu taps global flavors, and there's a big emphasis on cocktails. | Photo courtesy of Puttshack.

With an average unit volume of about $14 million, Vrankin said food and beverage make up about 58% of sales. That’s a bit lower than other eatertainment concepts, but he contends the 42% from the gaming side gives Puttshack protection in a potential economic downturn.

About 40% of business comes before 5 p.m., when units are more family-friendly and host corporate events. In the evenings and later, the lights go down and the music goes up, and the ambiance has a more nightclub feel that attracts the over 21 crowd that would never know a 14-year-old was playing the same game at 4 p.m. that afternoon, albeit without a cold-brew espresso martini at the end.

Traffic at Puttshack’s U.S. locations was down in the second half of 2023, but Vrankin said those trends showed signs of turning upward again in December and early January. And even though traffic was slow last year, the spend-per-guest was up about 15%.

All 15 of the chain’s restaurants so far have become profitable within the first 30 days of opening, he said.

Last year, Puttshack enhanced its reservation system to allow guests to better plan their game with a meal, either before or after. The tech system allows guests to book times that are compatible. If the tee-time is at 7 p.m., for example, Puttshack knows it takes about 45 minutes to play, so dinner reservations will book at 7:45 p.m.

This year, Puttshack plans to open seven more locations across the country, including in Philadelphia, Louisville, Ky., Minneapolis and Fort Lauderdale, as well as adding more to Chicago, Atlanta and Boston.

With a typical footprint of about 25,000 square feet, the challenge going forward will be shrinking the format a bit to expand real estate options.

Vrankin contends Puttshack is well positioned for whatever is ahead, despite the growing number of eatertainment concepts popping up across the country.

“In a good economy, it works fantastic,” he said. “In a downturn economy, I think it works so much better than almost all of our competitors.”

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