Robert Thompson is hungry for eatertainment innovation. The founder and former CEO of Punch Bowl Social launched his first eatertainment business, Buffalo Billiards & Havana Diner Lounge, 25 years ago in Nashville. He was just 26 years old. Ever since, he’s worked to modernize and elevate what these concepts can be. Now, two years after stepping down from Punch Bowl, Thompson is ready to debut a new brand: Jaguar Bolera.
“If you're not getting better each time you do something, you're not trying really hard,” Thompson said. “I say confidently that [Jaguar Bolera] will be the best version of eatertainment that I've ever created.”
Jaguar Bolera’s name derives from its menu and the entertainment it offers. The concept’s cuisine includes woodfire-cooked fare from the American South and Mexico — territories the jaguar historically inhabited. “Bolera” is the Spanish word for bowling alley, nodding to the concept’s full-length bowling lanes and duckpin balls and pins.
Before the pandemic hit, Punch Bowl was fast-growing and successful, boasting $185 million in enterprise value and a $140 million investment from Cracker Barrel in 2019. A year later, the brand had to temporarily close all of its locations due to COVID-19 restrictions, and faced foreclosure. Before the company declared bankruptcy in late 2020, Thompson resigned from the chain he created in 2012. Despite these recent challenges, however, he maintains a glass-half-full attitude about eatertainment.
“It was a very tough two years, but if you look at this, it’s just a nonstop, ongoing process,” Thompson said. “This is just another day in a long calendar of developing and growing eatertainment brands.”
After he left Punch Bowl, Thompson created a hospitality company called Angevin & Co. He also moved his family from Denver to New Orleans last summer, around the time he purchased The Frenchmen Hotel in the same city. Angevin added a trendy food and beverage program to the hotel, and reopened it earlier this year. Thompson also bought The Whitney Hotel in New Orleans, which will be revamped to include a restaurant and craft cocktail bar. Then last fall, Thompson opened a beverage-focused restaurant concept, called Three Saints Revival, in Denver.
Now, Jaguar Bolera is set to debut in Raleigh, North Carolina, in 2023. A second location is planned for New Orleans in 2024. Thompson feels that the economy is moving past the financial shock of COVID-19, and said Angevin is well-capitalized and actively seeking deals with developers.
Within the next five years, Thompson expects to see more second generation eatertainment spaces open up since the market has been inundated with putting green concepts, which aren’t all likely to survive, he said. In 2017, Thompson studied some of these concepts in London, where the idea originated, and found that they aren’t food- and beverage-centric. They have a strong trial period, but then negative comps after a year, since it’s difficult for putting greens to attract enough foot traffic to sustain a large piece of real estate, he said.
“The opportunity that I see exists in the market is a) to develop the new best-in-class eatertainment, but b) to be a nominally more premium brand in that category,” he said.
Creating a high-end eatertainment concept
Unlike many eatertainment concepts, Jaguar Bolera won’t feature full-service dining. Outside of cocktail service — there will be three bars in each Jaguar Bolera — there won’t be an extensive waitstaff, Thompson said.
Instead, the concept will include counter service where guests queue up and then order. The guest will receive a geo-tracking device so that food runners can deliver their orders within the restaurant. Geotrackers work at a distance of 20 square feet, he said. Guests will also be able to cash out whenever they want.
Thompson’s prior eatertainment iterations staffed 125 to 175 employees depending on store volume, but Jaguar Bolera’s model will reduce this staff count by 10% to 15%. He also estimates the model will decrease turnover by 20%.
“I believe [there will be] lower turnover because it is a less pressured environment for our staff. … That means less training dollars, which adds to the P&L,” he said.
Traffic surges from customers at eatertainment establishments, which can sometimes mean influxes of 500 people at one time, can be daunting and stressful for staff, Thompson said.
Thompson believes there is an unfilled niche in premium eatertainment to take culinary, beverage, and design aesthetics up a notch. Jaguar Bolera’s design will emulate what Thompson described as a “deconstructed southern grandma on her way to the social club.”
Jaguar Bolera’s pared-down service model, combined with high-end offerings, will allow it to charge higher prices while reaping the cost savings of smaller locations, he said. Punch Bowl Social’s locations are 20,000 to 24,000 square feet compared to Jaguar Bolera’s plans for 18,000- to 22,000-square-foot units.
Jaguar Bolera will also host “maker-tainment” popups where guests can craft their own cocktails, create leather goods or do “naughty needlepoint.” There could be 100 different types of entertainment facilitated through this type of popup, he said. Thompson originally planned for maker-tainment popups to be part of a new iteration of Punch Bowl Social before the pandemic, but he never had a chance to roll them out.
“COVID doesn’t always change plans, maybe it just delays plans,” he said