Punch Bowl Social design LARKEY PHOTOGRAPHY

While restaurant atmosphere is key, food and service still rule, panel says

Entertainment, design and amenities may pull customers in, but food and service are what drive sales

This is part of Nation’s Restaurant News' special coverage of the 2017 MUFSO conference, taking place Oct. 1-3 at the Hyatt Regency at Reunion Tower in Dallas. Follow coverage of the event on and tweet with us using #MUFSO. Stay connected on the go by downloading the MUFSO app.

The importance of nurturing an entertaining and experiential atmosphere in restaurants was the overarching theme of the Beyond Food panel at this year’s MUFSO conference in Dallas earlier this week.

But the panelists warned attendees not to forget that food quality and good service are still the main drivers of sales.

“Something that we’ve been hit over the head with lately is experiential design,” Lauren Chipman, CEO of Chipman Design Architecture in Chicago, told moderator and NRN Senior Editor Ron Ruggless.

Chipman’s firm has designed restaurants for brands such as Chick-fil-A and Shake Shack.

“You can have a transaction in your space, but that doesn’t mean that it will necessarily create a connection with your customer,” Chipman said of the importance of also engaging restaurant-goers with exceptional customer service and other amenities.

Chipman noted that her own grandmother is frequently drawn back to Chick-fil-A not just for the food, but because the staff remembers her name and treats her like a visiting friend.

“It’s always an extraordinary experience,” she said. “It’s not fine dining, it’s not fast casual, but there is that bond there.”

Michael Zislis, co-founder of California-based Rock & Brews with Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley of KISS, agreed, and added that even though what’s on the plate is incredibly important, a restaurant must bring more to the table—both literally and figuratively.

“If we can serve great food in a great ambiance with great service, it’s a winning triple-header,” said Zislis, who pointed out that all 18 Rock & Brews restaurants have different amenities depending on their locations.

The addition of a playground at one location was met with some doubt within the company. But the playground was a big hit with parents who were happy to enjoy the restaurant while keeping their kids entertained, Zislis said.

“To get a respite where I can drink a beer and not pay a sitter and (the kids) can be at the restaurant with us is almost priceless,” said Zislis explaining what inspired him to push for the amenity.

“If you want to just eat, you can eat at home,” Zislis said. “But if you come in to a restaurant like this, you want to come back in over and over again.”

Robert Thompson, CEO and founder Punch Bowl Social LLC, agreed with the other two panelists but made it clear that the experiential bells and whistles are there to draw customers toward the main attraction: the food.

“It’s really all about driving food and beverage,” said Thompson.

Punch Bowl Social currently has nine locations and is based in Denver. It combines attractions such as bowling, table games and an arcade with a traditional bar and grill. 

Though the restaurant aims at millennials, Thompson stressed that it does not do so at the expense of alienating other demographics.

Thompson told the audience that the arcade and other features allow the restaurant to attract customers who expect to just stop in to play a game or two and then end up having a full sit-down meal or spending more time at the bar.

“The entertainment side of it is really just a mousetrap that we’re using just to pull in and drive food and beverage sales,” Thompson said.

Contact Dan Orlando at [email protected]

Follow him on Twitter: @DanAMX

The MUFSO Premier sponsor is The Coca Cola Company

Presenting sponsors are: Blount Fine Foods, The Coca Cola Company, UNiDAYS

Kitchen Hero Cook-Off is presented by Texas Pete/TW Garner Food Company

The Hot Concepts Reception is sponsored by Rock & Brews

The Industry Awards Gala is sponsored by Tyson Foods, Daiya Foods, Natural brands

Pillar sponsors are: Alchemy Systems, Bloom Intelligence, Boylan Bottling, Cardlytics, Mainstreet, Inc., Nudge Rewards, S&D Coffee, Smithfield Farmland Foodservice, Sweet Street, Weston Foods, Zenput

The MUFSO app sponsor is Steritech

Refreshment breaks are sponsored by Blount Fine Foods, Boylan Bottling, Royal Cup Coffee, Smithfield Farmland Foodservice, Sweet Street, Ventura Foods, and Weston Foods

The Supplier Exchange Luncheon is sponsored by Hale & Hearty, Bruce Cost Ginger Ale and Copper Moon Coffee

The Lanyard & Welcome package is sponsored by Hospitality Mints

MUFSO Breakfast sponsors are Moore’s Food Resources, Community Coffee and Natural Brands

VIP Dinner sponsored by Moment Feed, Pan Pacific Plastics and Rotella’s Bakery

The official music sponsor is Rockbot

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