Robert Thompson, an eating mogul who has been in the game for 25 years, is ready to try his first sports-centric offering: a 1940s-inspired pickleball experience.
Camp Pickle shares many of the defining traits of Thompson’s earlier concepts: spacious spaces, gourmet food, craft drinks, and a keen eye for trendy, Instagrammable design. But the new concept’s space, between 55,000 and 75,000 square feet, and its target audience dwarf the reach of predecessors like Buffalo Billiards, Punch Bowl Social and Jaguar Bolera.
“The facilities are bigger than anything I’ve ever done before. Previously, the largest space I developed was 32,000 square feet,” said Thompson, founder of hospitality concepts group Angevin & Co..
Each Camp Pickle location will accommodate a mix of 10 to 14 indoor and outdoor spaces, depending on market size, as well as additional attractions, Thompson said. Visitors don’t need to order food to book court time, which costs between $20 and $40 an hour, depending on the market.
“It’s still about using social activations, whatever they are — bowling, karaoke rooms, pool tables — it’s about using that as a magnet to attract guests around food and drink and a design for experiences and to be socially activated,” he said.
Camp Pickle will debut in 2024 in Huntsville, Alabama, with a second location to follow in Denver. Thompson is also eyeing at least 13 other markets, including Nashville, Tennessee; Atlanta; Raleigh, NC; Minneapolis; and Jacksonville, Florida. However, the eatertainment brand does not want to conquer a new niche. Competing concepts Chicken N Pickle, Smash Park, and Electric Pickle have operated in the pickleball eattainment lane since 2016, 2018, and 2021, respectively.
Still, Thompson expects to scale quickly and is targeting 10 new store openings by the first quarter of 2026. Angevin & Co. will primarily seek suburban markets to accommodate these locations, which will feature alongside outdoor facilities such as fire pits, tented cabins and space for large private parties.
“Pickleball appeals to 8- and 80-year-olds, families and singles, small groups and corporate events. Every walk of life is playing pickleball right now,” he said.
This pool of potential customers should also grow. some experts predict that 40 million people will be playing the sport by 2030, up from estimates that nearly 8 million are playing today.
“Participation rate is growing dramatically as the courts evolve.”
Though Camp Pickle’s design is best suited for large real estate parcels, it can also be applied to new construction in urban markets, Thompson said, expanding its growth potential. The brand currently has a deal in the works for a downtown location on top of a six-story building. although Thompson did not reveal the location. This Camp Pickle outpost would also have space on the ground floor of the building, allowing guests to take an elevator that leads directly to its facility. Thompson didn’t share the exact square footage of this outpost, but said no iteration of Camp Pickle would be smaller than 40,000 square feet.
Smaller workforces offer culinary and franchising potential
Camp Pickle’s design eschews the full-service model of many eating brands, including Thompson’s other concepts rely on. Instead, Thompson rolls with a counter-service model.
The popularity of food halls has already primed diners to order quality food from the convenience of a counter, so this model should be intuitive for customers, Thompson said. However, Camp Pickle guests on site can order the full menu from servers.
Opting for a restricted service format will help avoid bottlenecks and stressful rush hours at Camp Pickle, which operates from 8am to midnight and serves all three day parts.
“[Eatertainment] gets those bumpy moments where 500 customers walk in at once and it’s really impossible to effectively seat them all, give them a high level of customer experience and give them their check and [let them pay] and out the door in a good way,” he said.
The counter-service format also saves labor. Thompson’s smaller concepts required about 200 employees, and he anticipates that the Camp Pickle format, despite its larger capacity, will not require more employees.
“I’ve been very focused on work and margin for the past few years. Obviously we’re dealing with inflation,” he said. “Labour is an issue that has been an issue of mystery for many years as we continue to see wage inflation and wage increases. So I tried to move away from full-service dining experiences.”
Saving on front-of-house work will allow Camp Pickle to better flex its culinary muscles, Thompson said. The concept’s menu is anchored in Mexican and wood-fired fare, as well as home cooking associated with a camp environment, he said. For breakfast, the brand expects a smoothie bar and other light fare.
The comparative labor savings combined with the potential attractiveness of Camp Pickle for the full range of ages and real estate market types, has enabled Thompson to try another first: franchising.
“There is such a demand in the market to help these developers bring more Pickleball to life that I became interested in adding a franchise module to this growth plan,” he said. “We will build it for you and we will operate it for you and you will own it – you will own every fiber of the site. They can simply borrow our know-how and our brand.”
Camp Pickle is in several discussions with potential operators and Thompson is confident there will be more interest and formal discussions after the concept is shared publicly.
“I can tell you that the pent-up enthusiasm for people to get out and travel and have experiences earlier in 2022 has been extraordinary. And I think this will continue and we will feel it in the hospitality industry,” he said.