The new owners of Brio Tuscan Grille and Bravo Cucina Italiana have created a restaurant company called FoodFirst Global Restaurants Inc., to be led by former Olive Garden president Brad Blum, the company said Tuesday.
Bravo Brio Restaurant Group Inc. went private earlier this year in a deal valued at about $100 million, which closed on May 24. The Columbus, Ohio-based company was acquired by Spice Private Equity Ltd., a division of Brazil-based investment firm GP Investments Ltd.
FoodFirst, which will also be based in Columbus, Ohio, has named Blum as CEO and chairman, with GP Investments’ CEO Antonio Bonchristiano serving as vice-chair.
The goal is first to rebrand both Bravo and Brio, which they plan to grow as polished-casual concepts. But the company will also build new brands “from scratch” as well as look for acquisitions to add to the group down the road, Blum said in an interview with Nation’s Restaurant News.
Blum emphasized that this is not a private-equity deal.
“These are entrepreneurs that are putting their own money into a vision and into a company that they believe in,” said Blum. “I’m putting a lot of my own money in. GP Investments — a number of key people there — are putting their own money in. And we’re taking a very long view for this. It’s 10-plus years — it could be 15 years or 20 years. We are focused on having a new restaurant company, our full intention is that it will be progressive, relevant, diverse and highly successful for the 21st century.”
A long-time veteran of the industry, Blum also served as CEO of Burger King from 2002 to 2004 and CEO of Romano’s Macaroni Grill from 2008 to 2010. He was president of Olive Garden from 1994 to 2002.
More recently, Blum was hired in 2014 as lead advisor by activist investor Starboard Value LP, a New York-based investor in Darden Restaurants Inc. Blum was elected to Darden’s board, but he resigned from that position in March.
Since 2012, Blum has also been an investor in the Leon Naturally Fast Food concept, a health-focused fast-casual chain based in the United Kingdom. He also sits on that brand’s board.
GP Investments is also a lead investor in Leon, which is growing in the U.K. and northern Europe. And soon, Leon will be introduced to the U.S., though Blum declined to offer details.
Despite the shared backing, Leon and FoodFirst will not be operated under the same umbrella, Blum said.
GP Investments was also a previous investor in Fogo de Chão, which was acquired in February by Rhône Capital.
The first step for FoodFirst will be a refresh for the Brio and Bravo concepts, both of which have tested some enhancements at remodeled units in Naples, Fla.
Blum said the plan is to bring the Italian concepts in line with FoodFirst’s mission, which is to offer good tasting food that is good for you, a good value and good for the planet.
“People say you can’t do all of those things, but we say, yes, you can,” said Blum.
The Brio and Bravo brands have each been “revered over the years,” he said. “They have good bones, great real estate locations, open dining rooms, open kitchens where chefs can show what they’re creating, wood-fired ovens, open bars and also outdoor dining.”
As part of the refresh, the brands new “spiritual home” will be the Amalfi Coast of Italy, he said, with more seafood, use of fresh lemons and a higher grade of extra-virgin olive oil, for example.
Some of the concepts’ restaurants can be pretty dark, Blum said, but the new design will be high energy, casual-yet-elegant, comfortable and “really high quality,” he said.
In its last quarterly report as a public company, representing the 13-weeks ended April 1, Bravo Brio Restaurant Group recorded a net loss of $5 million for the 110 restaurants, including 63 Brio Tuscan Grilles and 47 Bravo Cucina Italiana locations. The company said at the time it did not have sufficient cash flow to meet debt obligations.
As soon as the going-private deal closed last week, however, the company was in a much stronger position, Blum said.
“The liquidity crisis was resolved, and we have much lower debt on the balance sheet today than we did a few days ago, which puts our company in a much more solid foundation,” he said.
Blum said the investors have put significant additional equity capital into the business that’s unallocated.
“We’re not sure how we’re going to use it yet, but it is there, so we can set our teams up for success, increase our training, put more investment into the restaurants, [and] into the marketing of our brands, so we can grow the business properly.”
Blum said the average unit volume for Brio is about $4 million, though some units do between $7 million to $8 million in sales. Bravo’s average unit volume is a bit lower than $4 million, though the restaurants are smaller, he said.
Going forward, the plan is to remodel existing units before opening new restaurants, though Blum said there is potential to grow the brand in the western U.S.
The focus now is on keeping the concepts company owned, but Blum said, “I’m not saying we would never consider franchising. But right now, that’s not the core focus.”
Another former Olive Garden executive Bob Mock will serve as FoodFirst’s chief operations officer. Diane Reed, who was chief financial officer with Bravo Brio, will be CFO of FoodFirst.
Though traditional casual dining has struggled in recent years, Blum said he feels confident there’s room for new ideas within the segment.
“These things go in cycles,” he said. “But I just don’t think there’s been that much big innovation in casual dining, frankly for several decades.
“We believe we need to break out of that and be able to innovate,” he added.
Contact Lisa Jennings at [email protected]
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