Food News

Cracker Barrel Invests Big in Denver-Based Eater-tainment Chain

Bowling is one of many activities at Punch Bowl Social.
Bowling is one of many activities at Punch Bowl Social. Amber Boutwell
Punch Bowl Social is one of the fastest-growing concepts to spring from the Denver restaurant scene in recent years. How fast? The first location opened at 65 Broadway in 2012, and founder Robert Thompson just christened Punch Bowl Social number eighteen, which opened in Fort Worth, Texas, on July 27. That kind of expansion attracts attention, and recently Cracker Barrel decided to get in on the action — to the tune of $140 million.

In July, Cracker Barrel Old Country Store, Inc. and Punch Bowl Social entered into a strategic agreement, with Cracker Barrel buying a non-controlling share of PBS to provide funding for future growth. The agreement also allows for Cracker Barrel to possibly acquire a controlling stake of the Punch Bowl business, built on a combination of entertainment (bowling, arcade games, karaoke, darts and other bar games), food and booze.

We're kind of hoping to see a combination Cracker Barrel/Punch Bowl gift shop, where Thompson's signature argyle socks are sold alongside country-kitchen knickknacks. Since that probably won't happen, we asked Thompson about how the partnership will affect Punch Bowl Social and its customers.

click to enlarge Punch Bowl Social socks can be purchased when you rent bowling shoes. - MARK ANTONATION
Punch Bowl Social socks can be purchased when you rent bowling shoes.
Mark Antonation
Westword: What does Cracker Barrel's investment mean for the future growth of Punch Bowl Social? Do you have a number in mind for the total number of PBS locations?

Robert Thompson: There are seventeen Punch Bowl Social locations open today across the country. We have eleven more locations planned to open between now and the end of 2020.

The investment by CBRL validates that the modern “non-chain chain” is able to remain true to its ethos, maintain integrity and culture, and be commercially successful. It’s an outdated concept that you have to sell your soul to have commercial success. Punch Bowl Social remains independent, owned and operated by the existing leadership team, in our corporate headquarters, which remain in Denver.

Can you envision Cracker Barrel completely buying PBS? What would that look like for customers?

That’s not a conversation we’re having right now. Everyone is focused on the growth of the brand into new markets.

Are we going to see a dual-branded Cracker Barrel/Punch Bowl Social mothership of fun? PBS fried chicken wins, but Cracker Barrel's got dumplings and some pretty tasty chicken-fried steak.

Sheamus Feeley, our chief culinary and beverage officer, tasted me on his recipe for chicken and dumplings six months ago, which blew my mind and will be showing up on our menu in September. If I was Cracker Barrel’s chicken and dumplings, I’d watch my ass.

In addition to speaking with Westword, Thompson also addressed his customer base directly, adding this message on Facebook:

I grew up in Mississippi celebrating special occasions at Cracker Barrel, and now partnering with Cracker Barrel is the special event I’m dining out to celebrate.

Punch Bowl Social just proudly accepted a minority, non-controlling investment from CBRL. To say this wasn’t a heavy lift would be unfair to things that are heavy. Receiving a non-control investment this late in a brand’s life cycle is a unicorn.

Punch Bowl Social gets to keep its culture, its values, and identify in partnership with one of the largest restaurant companies in America. The wisdom of CBRL’s CEO, Sandy Cochran (and her team), to see the value of supporting a modern brand with modern ideas is boundless. Look for more Punch Bowl being Punch Bowl coming to a city near you.
With so much construction going on in locations all over the U.S., it's unlikely we'll see another Punch Bowl here in Denver any time soon. But the company is still focused on continuing to improve the customer experience here.

This summer, the Stapleton PBS (at 3120 Uintah Street) added putt-putt golf to its outdoor patio, and the recent addition of Feeley (co-founder of Pony Up downtown and former corporate chef for Hillstone) is a good sign for menu development. We're looking forward to those chicken and dumplings.
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Mark Antonation is the former Westword Food & Drink Editor. In 2018, he was named Outstanding Media Professional by the Colorado Restaurant Association; he's now with the Colorado Restaurant Foundation.
Contact: Mark Antonation