Entrepreneur of the Year finalist: Robert Thompson

Founder of Punch Bowl Social talks about his recipe for success.

Take one part nostalgic fun, one part diner fare, stir in some creative cocktails and top with lots of balls – bowling, billiard and ping-pong, among others – and you’ve got Robert Thompson’s recipe for success.

Oh yeah – and don’t forget to sprinkle in some potent risk.

To open the first Punch Bowl Social in Denver, “I had to put personal guarantees against $1 million in capital and contingent liabilities,” Thompson says. “ This was against my professional policy, (but) I knew that once Punch Bowl was open, it would be the roaring success that it is today.”

It’s true – customers can’t seem to get enough of Thompson’s clever combo of old-timey games and sophisticated menu of food and craft cocktails. It’s all served up in a uniquely designed “dirty modern” atmosphere that combines industrial, 21st Century and Victorian influences in one cohesive space.

Bringing it all together can be a challenge.

“During construction of the first Punch Bowl, we came across asbestos, absorbed numerous budgetary challenges and navigated internal discontent at the shareholder level in order to make the opening a reality,” Thompson says. “Never giving up until the job was done, against high odds and years-long road – that’s my proudest professional moment.” 

Since opening the first Punch Bowl Social in Denver in 2012, Thompson has expanded to Portland, Ore., Austin, Texas, and Detroit. New venues are planned for Cleveland and Chicago – and another unique location for Denver.

Thompson struck a deal to do a $6 million repurpose of the former Stapleton International Airport air traffic control tower into a 25,000-square-foot Punch Bowl Social, opening in spring 2016, that will celebrate the existing midcentury modern-slash-Art Deco structure.

Punch Bowl Social recently was named one of Nation’s Restaurant News’  “Ten 2015 Break Out Brands,” recognizing cutting-edge concepts in food service, and one of USA Today’s 10 Best Denver bars. Thompson’s other Denver eatery, Argyll Whisky Beer, also demonstrates his unique restaurant/entertainment concepts. But while recognition and awards are great, they don’t figure into Thompson’s definition of success.

“Leaving it all on the field, no matter the outcome,” he says. “I can handle losing if I know I did my best.” 

The one mistake I’ll never make again: “I made a bet early in my career that my conceptual and operational skills could overcome bad real estate. I was wrong. Great brands make good real estate great; but bad real estate is always bad real estate, no matter the ingenuity of the brand.” 

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