Don't be fooled by the case of pies in the front window. As you enter the diner in downtown Denver at 8 p.m. on a Friday, the gold booths, open kitchen, and chicken 'n' waffles are only a teaser for the adult playground ahead. The thump of Ol' Dirty Bastard lures you through to Punch Bowl Social's cavernous main hall, 23,000 square feet of fun. At its center is a circular bar lit by a massive antler chandelier, where bushy-bearded, tattooed bartenders serve local brews, craft cocktails, and elder-flower-spiked punch to a crowd of hipster parents and their heirs apparent. Drink in hand, it's time to choose your own adventure. A couple of rounds of bowling, perhaps, in one of eight dimly lit lanes adorned with vintage fox-hunting prints? A private karaoke room? A game of bocce? You wander upstairs, where there's another bar, dozens of 1980s arcade games, Ping-Pong and pool tables, and low banquettes that, as the night wears on, become the backdrop for more sloppy public making out than you've encountered anywhere else in post-collegiate life.

While this scene might not be everyone's idea of a good time, anyone trying to sell to the elusive, highly sought-after 20- and 30-somethings marketers love to refer to as Millennials will want to take notes. Every detail a guest sees, hears, tastes, and experiences at Punch Bowl is part of a well-honed formula for fun engineered by weathered restaurant vet Robert Thompson.

Thompson, who sports a shaved head and an expression that reliably hovers between a squint and a scowl, is hardly a poster boy for the type of carefree good times he's spent his career designing for others. "I can't have fun when I'm here," concedes Thompson, who would rather stay home with his wife and two young sons on Friday night than soak up the endorphins at one of his eight Punch Bowl locations scattered in cities throughout the country. "All I see are the cigarette butts in the parking lot," he nitpicks. "I notice when booths aren't perfectly aligned with light fixtures, if the music levels aren't right for the time of day, whether the hostess ran over to open the door, if the servers are smiling."

Thompson has spent more than two decades in a notoriously punishing business, rolling the dice on one "eatertainment" experience after another. The high school dropout-turned-busboy-turned-restaurateur's highs have included a Cuban supper club and an upscale pool hall, while his lows involved a French brasserie and the loss of a successful bar due to poor financial decisions. But in 2010, Punch Bowl came to him with such clarity it made his previous ventures seem like practice runs. Seven years prior, he had hit financial and personal rock bottom, almost abandoning an industry that sees 60 percent of new ventures fail within their first year. Punch Bowl was his chance to prove he had a comeback in him. "I refused to let it beat me," he says.

 

Packaging supersize experiences in the form of food, alcohol, and fun is practically an American tradition, beginning with the Hard Rock Cafe in the early 1970s, followed in the 1980s by mega sports bar and arcade Dave & Buster's and Planet Hollywood. Doomed in varying degrees by trends, poorly chosen locations, the economy, hubris, and horrible food, many of these chains closed outright or became shadows of their former selves. Today, only a few of Planet Hollywood's 30-plus original locations remain, while Rainforest Cafe, a 1990s animatronic-themed chain, has shuttered about half of its restaurants.

With Punch Bowl, Thompson is betting he can defy the fate of his predecessors thanks to his keen understanding of Millennials. "This generation has a high demand for experience," explains Jeff Fromm, co-author of Marketing to Millennials. Surely that's a trait of any generation, but as Fromm points out, this group's perpetual scrutinizing--often through social media--is unprecedented. "They've grown up with lots of choices and can see through brands that aren't delivering on their promise," he says. "They're capable of processing more data than ever--trading up on craft beer, trading down on something else." At 25 percent of the population, Millennials are also the largest generation, expected to spend more than $200 billion annually starting in 2017.

Thompson isn't the only one trying to seize this opportunity. However, since debuting in late 2012, his version of adult-leisure utopia has broken from the pack. In 2015, Nation's Restaurant News named Punch Bowl one of the top 10 national breakout brands of the year. While Dave & Buster's earns, on average, some $245 per square foot, Punch Bowl is ringing up $340 per square foot. The chain's 2016 revenue is on track to exceed $49 million. And in the next two years, Thompson is slated to more than double Punch Bowl's footprint with 10 new locations. Each will cost roughly $5 million, colonizing audacious spaces like part of a former airport in Colorado, a historic boxing arena in Southern California, and 30,000 square feet of warehouse space in the achingly hip precinct of Bushwick in Brooklyn, New York.

Thompson isn't a Millennial. And he doesn't even drink. The 45-year-old credits his uncanny grasp of this cohort to osmosis: long hours with his bartenders and chefs, most of whom were born after 1982. "I spend more time with them than with my Gen X managers," he says. It also doesn't hurt that his inked-up, mixed-martial-arts-size arms help him blend into the wild. "My industry has a tendency to keep you young," says Thompson, "and simultaneously, to make you very, very old."

 

By the time Thompson reached adulthood, his résumé was rudderless. "I wasn't qualified to do anything," he says. After his parents split, he spent his childhood shuttling between his mother, in Washington, D.C., and his dad, in rural Florence, Mississippi. He was working construction by age 12, and helped in an uncle's auto shop. It was hot, miserable labor, but he was motivated to leave home--"one shitty trailer after the next"--and get away from his authoritarian father, a Vietnam vet and a detective. "He had a military approach to discipline, and I was rebellious," Thompson says. By the time he quit high school and moved out at age 16, "one of us was going to kill the other one." (They "semi-reconciled" years later.) Thompson ended up in Denver, where he ran a small moving company, got his GED, and studied philosophy in college. Although he never finished school, "it taught me how to think," says Thompson, noting that Ayn Rand "made me a better capitalist."

Thompson put his capitalist instincts to work in the world of restaurants. He got a job at Clyde's, an old-school institution in Washington, D.C., and quickly rose from busboy to waiter to bartender. He started managing pool halls, and then in 1997 he pitched the idea of high-end-themed food-and-entertainment venues to a group of D.C.-area investors he knew from two years of networking. He managed to raise $2 million, and signed a lease on a 22,000-square-foot site in Nashville, where he opened Buffalo Billiards--an upscale pool hall--and Havana Dinner Lounge--a supper club and cigar bar. "We took every fad of the day and capitalized on it," he says.

He discovered he had a knack for restaurant design, rallying investors, and predicting a trend's expiration date. He opened a second Buffalo Billiards in Austin. "I was three for three on big-time projects, all 20,000 square feet plus, with multimillion-dollar capital structures," says Thompson, who seemed to be defying the dismal odds of his industry. "Havana didn't have decades of legs," he says, "but certain businesses don't have to exist for decades to be successful if you cash out at the right time."

For five years, he was on the road constantly, slingshotting between Nashville, Austin, and Denver--where he opened another billiards hall--to attend to his growing mini empire. With his office doubling as a bar, he was also drinking too much. "Did I hang around and party with customers? Yeah. I was on top of the world and having a good time," he says. By 2003, he sold three of his properties for some $1.5 million.

But, eventually, the party came to an end. That year, Thompson also launched an upscale French brasserie in Denver that was deemed the area's "Best New Restaurant" but was a money loser from day one. Worse, Thompson had gone into debt to fund it, using another successful bar that he'd opened as collateral. Within a year, he'd lost both businesses. "It was devastating for me," he says. "I was financially and emotionally wiped out."

He retreated to Santa Fe, New Mexico, with his fiancée, living modestly on their savings for two years. It was there he sobered up. "I saw alcohol wipe out too many people in the industry," says Thompson, who's not a wear-it-on-his-sleeve ex-drinker. When he came back to Denver in 2007, he was fired up and newly focused. He contemplated ditching restaurants and starting a new type of entrepreneurial adventure. But, he admits, "I know myself, and there was no way I was going to walk away from the industry that punched me in the face."

 

On a fall day in 2010, Thompson took an alternative route to work. He was heading to Argyll, his first post-New Mexico venture, another critical success that was financially middling. ("Tiny restaurants don't make money," he says.) As he drove through South Broadway, a somewhat gritty but fast-gentrifying area in Denver populated by quirky retailers, music clubs, and storied dive bars, he noticed an abandoned Big Lots, which had been languishing on the market for a year. The sprawling space and up-and-coming location had the kind of vibe he'd been seeking for a new eatertainment brand that would bring together booze, restaurant-caliber menus, and old-school gaming for the Millennial set.

Two arduous years later--after discovering asbestos in the building, raising an additional round of funding to deal with that asbestos, and watching construction take nearly four times longer than expected--that big-box carcass was reborn as Punch Bowl Social.

That first Punch Bowl has since become Thompson's blueprint for everything from real estate to experience to food. To transcend existence as a regional chain, he's placed his bets on cities. It turns out that "urban Millennials in different parts of the country are more psychographically similar to one another than Millennials living in urban and suburban areas of the same region," says Sara Monnette, an executive at food-service consulting firm Technomic. Whereas competitors typically opt for the suburbs, hitching Punch Bowl's wagon to urban revitalizations like Cleveland's historic Flats District and downtown Detroit was prescient. "If five years ago I had said we could do $2 million in Detroit, I would have been called a liar. We did $7 million there last year," says Thompson of the two-year-old venue.

Buildings must also meet certain criteria. They have to be near multifamily housing (an indicator of younger people), in close proximity to a central business district (close to 30 percent of Punch Bowl's business comes from corporate parties), and in an area with, as Thompson puts it, food and entertainment "gravity." Early Punch Bowl locations that went against these trends--one in the sleepy suburb of Schaumburg, Illinois, and another on the third floor of a mall in Portland, Oregon--have been less successful.

When it came to designing Punch Bowl's ambience, Thompson made sure to avoid the mistakes of his predecessors. Places like Lucky Strike bowling had embraced a look that went from trendy to instantly dated. "In the late '90s and early 2000s, everyone was doing these tongue-in-cheek remakes of the lounge from the '50s or '60s," he says. To create a more timeless backdrop, Thompson dodges anything too current or specifically throwback. "No light fixtures screaming 2010," he says. Instead, Punch Bowl's furniture and decor are a hodgepodge of styles, including Victorian, midcentury modern, industrial, and "mountain lodge." When converting unique spaces such as the San Diego Coliseum, a historic boxing arena, Thompson tries to repurpose architectural elements and period signage, and in all locations, decor is localized (as are menus).

Whereas most grownup fun places tend to flaunt a singular pastime-- Shuffleboard! Ping-Pong! Bowling!--Thompson is careful not to emphasize any particular activity. Instead, he takes the kitchen-sink approach. "We are a social environment, not a bowling alley," he says, explaining that Punch Bowl encourages groups of people to split up for a gazillion different activities. To prevent customers from feeling locked into any particular activity, three servers are assigned to tag-team each group, shadowing them as they move through the massive space.

Food and drink are just as adaptable. A greasy-gourmet Cubano with "cocoa dusted braised pork" is as easy to find on the menu as a superfood grain bowl with kale. When it comes to drinks, guests can go high with a communal $63 bowl of "Tiki Cacti Necktie" punch, go low with a $3.50 can of PBR, or detox with a freshly squeezed apple-beet-carrot juice.

Remember that retro diner at Punch Bowl's entrance? "It's not always easy to discern what we are right away," says Thompson, and that's the point. Placing the diner up front emphasizes the restaurant, which can morph into different things for different people at different times. On weekdays, it's a lunch hangout for local professionals, while weekend afternoons are popular for tween parties and with families. Michael McManus, the developer of the mixed-use area around the new downtown arena for the NBA's Sacramento Kings, says Punch Bowl's mass appeal convinced him to court it as a key tenant. "There's really no comparable operator," says McManus, a principal with JMA Ventures.

Thompson has even treated the look of Punch Bowl's servers with academic precision. Some 40 percent of Millennials have tattoos, and among Punch Bowl employees, the number is even higher. Servers are encouraged to express their personal style--hair, piercings, ink. Everything's fair game, except for one particular aesthetic choice. "No cocktail waitresses with cutoff shorts up their ass," says Thompson.

The abandoned control tower is all that remains of Denver's decommissioned Stapleton Airport. The structure is at the center of a longtime building boom that has carpeted the desert terrain with a development that's now home to some 20,000 mostly young residents. By the time Thompson has finished converting this relic of the airport into Punch Bowl's ninth location in April 2017, the iconic building will include a space-themed roof deck and a yard with an AstroTurf-lined pool with giant inflatable toys. Taking in the view from the top, a somewhat bleary Thompson reflects on a schedule that has him traveling twice a week to meet with developers, investors, and store managers in far-flung cities. "I call it running a growth company," says Thompson. "It's a combination of I-can't-remember and where-am-I-going-tomorrow?"

This sprawling backdrop couldn't feel further from Thompson's next gambit, his biggest one yet. In 2018, he'll be exporting Punch Bowl to the cold, fickle heart of hipsterdom: Bushwick, Brooklyn. Thompson is sinking some $10 million--twice his average investment--into the 30,000 square feet of two adjoining warehouses. At this prime location, Thompson projects revenue could more than double that of the downtown Denver venue. "We dominate and flourish in the Brooklyns of the world," says Thompson. But New York City has a long tradition of chewing up and spitting out big shots from out of town. If Thompson has any trepidation, he barely shows it. "Putting out that much capital makes me a little itchy" is all he'll admit.

Some analysts are forecasting a slump in the restaurant industry, but Thompson continues to keep his foot on the gas. His Denver Punch Bowl is on track for a record year, while his Cleveland location will surpass Denver's by more than a million in sales. He's hired two ex-Ruby Tuesday execs and, in the next two years, plans to open locations in Sacramento, Atlanta, Washington, D.C., San Diego, Dallas, and Chicago, among others.

From a precarious ledge of the Stapleton Airport tower, Thompson takes a moment to savor the view. When construction is finished, he says, the tower will be lit up at night, a beacon for Punch Bowl customers far and wide. He pulls out his phone and holds it up, taking a selfie with Denver's sprawling metropolis behind him. And, for a brief moment, it looks like he's actually having fun.

FROM THE DECEMBER 2016/JANUARY 2017 ISSUE OF INC. MAGAZINE