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Punch Bowl's founder bets on what's next for millennials and Gen Zers

Robert Thompson has ideas about what those generations will embrace. Here are 3.
Photo courtesy of Punch Bowl Social Denver

The inclusion of a florist shop in one of Robert Thompson’s new restaurant ventures is a direct result of Punch Bowl Social’s reliance on multiple revenue streams and immersive guest experiences. Ditto for the second concept he has under development, a private club where millennials can rent workspace, eat their meals and even get in a workout. Dinette Fine Foods, a small-sized diner riff he’s calling “an urbanized Waffle House,” is Thompson’s answer to the industry’s chronic employee shortage and constant pressure to minimize labor.

Thompson walked away last week from Punch Bowl, the food-and-fun concept he launched 12 years ago and served since Day One as CEO. But his convictions on what flies today with millennial and Gen Z customers weren’t left behind with his letter of resignation. The serial entrepreneur has started a company called Thompson Growth Group to brainstorm ventures directed at those generations. The effort is colored by what he learned from targeting Baby Boomers’ offspring at Punch Bowl, a fun-and-food entertainment complex that grew to 20 locations and a paper value of nearly $300 million, along with lessons gleaned from the dozen or so Thompson-hatched ventures that preceded it.

Three concepts are already in the works at Denver-based TGG, with the strategy calling for all three to serve their first customers within 18 months:

Nobis (Latin for “we” or “us,” according to Thompson): Revenue channels abound in his plan for what he describes as a private club that serves as a “third place” for younger people. Thompson is betting that many companies will continue to adhere to the work-at-home policies they adopted during the pandemic to prevent the spread of coronavirus. Nobis, he explained, will be a place where they can head a few times a week for more of a conventional office-working experience. In addition to getting some human contact, members will be able to use a gym and frequent an onsite restaurant. He suggests that other components may be included to foster the socializing, such as happy hours or onsite events. He envisions facilities encompassing as much as 60,000 square feet, and says he’s already getting overtures from landlords who find themselves with excess office and retail capacities.

The formula in some ways echoes what the WeWork office-sharing concept is trying to establish. In addition, “it’d be easy to bolt on a hotel component,” Thompson says. “I have for a very long time been looking to move into the hotel space.” Earlier this year, he had floated the notion to investors of adding a Punch Bowl hotel to units of the core fun-and-food outlets.

Dinette Fine Foods: At the other extreme size-wise is this all-day dining venture, a 3,500-square-foot facility with counter seating, relatively few employees and an emphasis on to-go business. It’s intended for urban settings, with multiple locations per market.  By design, Thompson said, Dinettes will have a Waffle House vibe, though updated for Gen Zers.  He expects to develop units first in Denver before venturing out to other areas.

“We can be very busy at breakfast and lunch, and even if we’re lean at dinner, we can lean into off-premise to make up for the slower traffic,” he says. “We’re working on the technology piece right now.”

Fiona: Thompson describeshis mid-sized venture as “a better-for-you polished-casual concept” aimed specifically at younger generations. He mentioned an emphasis on cross-use of signature products, particularly fresh baked items, across dayparts. For instance, baked items will be a draw at breakfast. Freshly baked breads become a key component of lunchtime sandwiches.

“Then there’s the additional component: We’re going to drop a florist into the middle of this,” says Thompson. That element will provide the sort of experiential component that young people appreciate, plus provide another sort of revenues, he explains, commenting, “I get very excited by the outsized revenue opportunities.”

Thompson leaves open the possibility of using TGG to help entrepreneurs refine their new restaurant ideas and tweak them for widespread expansion. ”One of the things I’ve enjoyed doing is taking an idea from ideation to $100 million in revenue,” he says, referring to Punch Bowl Social. “There’s a very specific skill that comes when you hone a company for scale.”

But “at this stage,” he says of his new venture’s focus, “I have a surplus of growth products kicking around in my head.”

He intends to finance his ventures by working the connections and knowhow he’s cultivate as an entrepreneur. Among the arrangements he’d engineered was a $140 million minority investment in Punch Bowl Social by Cracker Barrel Old Country Store in July 2019. Cracker Barrel decided to exit the relationship after the pandemic struck this year. The larger chain announced that it would not provide the funds Punch Bowl needed to avoid defaulting on its loans. Without the funding, two units closed.

“Crisis provokes change. I needed to break out,” Thompson says.                                                                                                 ,

He remains a stakeholder in Punch Bowl, but said he has retained no oversight responsibilities in the company he built. He expects the concept to persevere, but notes that its parent company will likely undergo some sort of reorganization.

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