How This Portfolio Company Develops New Emerging Concepts
Last week, sports restaurant parent company Greene Turtle announced a recapitalization and reorganization to create what is now a new holding company under ITA Group Holdings LLC.
In an interview with Nation’s Restaurant News, Geo Concepcion, CEO of Greene Turtle, described the Columbia, Maryland-based ITA as essentially having three branches:
The first is the recently revitalized Greene Turtle, a 46-year-old casual dining brand with a sports theme and signature crab dip that has kickstarted growth. Acquired by private equity firm Stone-Goff Partners in 2015, work on the brand has been ongoing since Concepcion was hired in 2019.
The return game will be the Clark Crew BBQ in Oklahoma City, a restaurant developed by barbecue champion Travis Clark – known for his brisket, in particular. Acquired as part of the ITA restructuring, the restaurant achieves more than $8 million in annual sales from an 8,500 square foot former location of Romano’s Macaroni Grill. There are no immediate plans to multiply this brand, Concepcion said, but the company sees an opportunity to expand existing operations.
The third arm of ITA is a division called Founders Growth Platform, or FGP, which has taken a 50% stake in seven emerging brands in an effort to drive growth. ITA will provide a minimum of 50% growth capital for each brand going forward.
With this three-legged stool frame, Concepcion said the new ITA is designed to be an “entrepreneur first” business.
“The idea is that these entrepreneurs help everything in the portfolio. Every entrepreneur has a super power and they contribute to the group,” he said.
“That’s part of what we’re trying to do here. We focus on the very early stage,” he added. “I think there are two ways to think about having a holding company, and there’s obviously an advantage to having huge scale and getting things done. And the way we attack that is to bring the entrepreneurs together at the very beginning, as we scale things up and have them all work and grow together with the idea that it’s going to be a lot easier to get the kids to play well together, grow up together, [rather] than to force this later when they are teenagers.
For the FGP brands, Concepcion said the plan is to develop the concepts between five and 10 units and prove the concepts in three to four markets. At that time, the company would consider franchising.
Here is an overview of the seven brands under FGP and growth plans at this stage:
Neo Pizza and Taphouse
This Columbia, MD-based four-unit concept offers artisan pizzas with a flexible quick-serve model. Units have self-service “walls of beer” and counter orders. The menu includes 10- or 14-inch pizzas, burgers, salads, and sandwiches, as well as wings, pepperoni rolls, and appetizers like Maryland crab dip and cheese curds.
The first site under FGP opened in Owings Mills, Md., earlier this year, and the company signed a lease for another in Towson, Md., Concepcion said.
This is a tapas and wine bar in Roswell, Georgia that was founded by Abelardo “Abe” Ruiz, a former COO of Famous Dave’s (formerly Concepcion, who also served as COO of operation of Famous Dave’s). Ruiz was also later CEO of Babalu Tapas & Tacos.
With Madrid, Concepcion said Ruiz wanted to design a concept that didn’t require any fume hoods, that could operate in a small footprint cost-effectively, but deliver a great experience. The first unit under FGP is expected to open in Columbia, Md., this summer as soon as liquor licenses are issued, Concepcion said. “And we are aggressively pursuing letters of intent.”
At approximately 3,500 square feet, the Columbia location will be limited service. The goal is to open two or three in the first year and accelerate growth thereafter.
Founded in 2016, this Maryland-based two-unit sandwich concept was founded by Kevin Curley, a Culinary Institute of America and Cornell alumnus whom Concepcion describes as an innovative thinker and “culinary great.”
The menu varies by location, but includes regional classics like a Maryland crabcake, New York Italian Hero or Philly Cheesesteak, but also dishes like a Kentucky Smashburger, Jackfruit Cubano and limited-time offers, like a Maine Lobster Roll. Beer, wine and cocktails are self-service, on tap.
“He wanted to create an upscale Jimmy John’s and aim for the sandwich category,” Concepcion said. “He’s fiercely competitive, but he really thinks about branding in an interesting way.”
FGP is finalizing the lease for the first RegionAle to open under the platform, which is expected in the fourth quarter or first quarter of next year, and the company is actively seeking additional locations in Maryland. .
This full-service Mediterranean restaurant in Baltimore got its start years ago as a food cart offering popular pita sandwiches. The husband-and-wife team eventually opened up their brick-and-mortar location, and then added a few locations of a coffeehouse variant that didn’t survive the lease renewal.
With FGP, Cypriana’s pita sandwich menu will be resurrected as a fast-casual concept, with the first under the platform set to open in Q4 at Owings Mills.
Papi’s Cuban grill
This Atlanta-based concept has five locations and is a franchise concept. It was created with Ruiz, who also developed Madrid, and worked with founder Reynaldo “Rey” Regalado Jr., a former Cuban refugee who named the concept after his father. On the menu are traditional Cuban dishes including tostones, empanadas, ropa vieja and arroz con pollo.
“Meeting Rey and hearing his story, and seeing what he built with very little outside help, was a story and a founder that was very close to our hearts,” Concepcion said.
FGP plans to expand the concept to both Georgia and Maryland, with the first unit under the platform slated to open in 2023. Although it is currently a full-service concept, Concepcion said that FGP planned to explore limited service variants.
CHX high-end kitchen
This concept of chicken and cookie offerings in Minneapolis briefly opened as a brick-and-mortar but then closed following a dispute between partners and pressures from the pandemic, Concepcion said.
“But in his brief first stint, he was well liked,” he said. “People loved it, they had long lines and people were upset when it disappeared.”
After meeting with two of the original founders, FGP decided to bring the concept back, potentially to Minneapolis and Maryland. The company is currently looking for sites.
Of the FGP concepts, CHX will be the first that will also be tested as a virtual brand from Greene Turtle kitchens, Concepcion said.
This is a brand created under the FGP banner to fit a second generation real estate site in Baltimore. None of the other concepts seemed to fit the space, Concepcion said, so the company tapped RegionAle’s Curley to create Fat Patties, a burger brand that intends to lean into indulgence.
“The name will let everyone know it’s not for summer drinking,” Concepcion said.
Scheduled to open in August, Fat Patties is a test. If well received, the company will look for growth opportunities.
During this time, Concepcion worked on revitalizing the Greene Turtle brand.
The company developed a new prototype site which debuted in 2020 as a franchise site. In January of this year, the company opened its first new Greene Turtle in a decade.
This new company unit is in Gambrills, Maryland, using the new prototype design in a 6,500 square foot space, and Concepcion said it is the #1 performer.
The Gambrills location is the first in the system with a space dedicated to take-out business, and the restaurant also hosts two virtual brands: Mr. Beast Burger and George Lopez Tacos.
Three more Green Turtles are slated to open in 2022, he said, including a 3,500-square-foot unit near Nationals Park in Washington, D.C.
Contact Lisa Jennings at [email protected]
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