Emerging Brands

Investors are betting big on these emerging chains

Money was slow to start flowing at the outset of 2021, but M&A interest in emerging concepts picked up in the back half of the year.
Photograph courtesy of Bangin' Buns

Money was slow to flow to emerging chains during the first half of the year. But that funding picked up as the year went on and the pandemic uncertainty of 2020 crystallized into what appears to be a new normal.

From a rapper investing in a hot chicken concept to a cash infusion for a mini-golf eatertainment brand to a financial boost from restaurateur Danny Meyer to a neighborhood taco chain, here are some of the notable deals involving emerging brands in 2021.

Bangin’ Buns. In September, fast casual Ike’s Love & Sandwiches made an undisclosed investment in a three-unit Nashville hot chicken concept, Bangin’ Buns. Leaders from 80-unit Ike’s will assume responsibility for the chain, taking over development, operations and marketing.

Blank Street. A year-old, 14-unit coffee brand known for its ultra-small units received a $25 million investment in October. Blank Street said it hopes to have up to 100 locations across New York City by the end of 2022.

Dave’s Hot Chicken. Canadian rapper Drake took a minority stake in the fast-growing hot chicken chain in September, becoming one of the 22-unit concept’s largest individual investors.

Dig. The fast casual, “vegetable-forward” chain received a $65 million investment led by a Danny Meyer-backed fund in October. Dig, which has 30 units, said it would use the money to reopen five of its restaurants that remained temporarily closed amid the pandemic. It also said it intends to double its units over the next three years.

Dirty Bird Fried Chxx. With just one location, the hot chicken concept scored a $20 million majority investment in August from Wags Capital. The investment was to be spread out over 12 to 14 months to speed the chain’s growth.

Everbowl. In September, the fast casual entered into an unusual partnership with private-equity firm Sloan Capital to open 50 locations in Texas. Sloan is serving as Everbowl’s area development partner to grow the brand there.

Hash Kitchen. This five-unit brunch brand secured a multi-million-dollar investment from strategic investor Savory Fund in November. Hash Kitchen intends to open 25 new restaurants in new markets over the next four years.

Lou Malnati’s. The Chicago-style pizza chain was sold to investment firm Meritage Group in October. Marc and Rick Malnati will retain a stake in the business that was founded by their father, Lou, in 1971.

Mighty Quinn’s Barbeque. This New York City-based BBQ concept, which has eight locations, received a minority investment from Bolt Ventures early in the summer. The chain plans to use the money to add corporate and franchised units and also expand its consumer-packaged goods line.

Native Grill & Wings. Acquisitive restaurant operator Fat Brands acquired the 24-unit wing chain, a casual-dining concept, for $20 million in November. The deal gave Fat Brands its third chicken wing brand.

Playa Bowls. The 126-unit, health-focused fast casual received an undisclosed investment from two private investment firms in August. Tamarix Equity Partners and Pacific General Holdings said it would work with Playa to continue its growth and innovation.

Pincho. This eight-unit fast casual received a $20 million majority investment from private-equity firm Mercato Partners’ Savory Fund in September. The money will help the Latin American chain add more locations, as well as buy out existing franchisees. Pincho has plans to restart franchising at a later date.

PizzaRev. Struggling fast-casual pizza brand PizzaRev was acquired for just $1.1 million by multi-concept operator Amergent Hospitality Group in September. Five years ago, the chain had 44 locations. It has since closed all but 12 of them.

Pupatella Pizzeria. The five-unit Neapolitan pizza concept received $7.5 million in investments in August. The chain, which started out as a food truck, said it would use the money to open new restaurants in the greater Washington, D.C. area.

Puttshack. The high-tech mini-golf food-and-games brand secured $60 million in funding in May to speed its growth. Puttshack, which started in the U.K., has three U.S. locations open with several more signed leases.

Rapid Fired Pizza. Franchisees purchased the 33-unit fast casual pizza concept for an undisclosed amount in October. The new owners said they would focus on unit growth and brand building, with franchise development plans throughout the Midwest, Southeast and Texas.

Shell Shack. This six-unit casual-dining chain focused on seafood boils was acquired by private-equity firm TriSpan Partners for an undisclosed amount in December. It intends to start opening five new locations each year.

Smallcakes Cupcakery and Creamery. The 180-unit cupcake brand was acquired by The Derbyshire Group in September. Smallcakes is largely run by franchisees and is known for serving its cupcakes in signature pink boxes.

Starbird Chicken. This tech-driven fast-casual chicken concept secured a $12 million investment, led by private-equity firm KarpReilly, in November. The cash infusion came less than a year after Starbird scored a $4 million investment. At the time of the latest investment, the chain had nine locations, with plans to open four more in the coming months.

Taco Bamba. The parent company of Golden Corral took an undisclosed stake in the six-unit fast-casual taco chain in November. Future growth will be focused on the mid-Atlantic and East Coast regions.

Tacombi. Danny Meyer’s Enlightened Hospitality Investments put $27.5 million into the 13-unit Mexican fast-casual brand in December. The chain said it would use the money to open more taquerias and boost its consumer-packaged goods business.

Toppers Pizza. An investment firm took a “long-term minority equity investment” in the 70-unit pizza chain in October. Toppers said it plans to open up to a dozen stores next year and up to 30 locations each of the two following years.

Velvet Taco. Fast-growing fast casual Velvet Taco in November got a new owner in Leonard Green & Partners, which acquired a majority stake in the chain from L Catterton. Details of the transaction were not disclosed, but Velvet Taco said it’s ready to embark on the next phase of its national expansion.


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