'Cook-it-yourself' Asian chain GEN Korean BBQ plans an IPO

The 32-unit concept, started by a pair of longtime restaurateurs including the former owner of Baja Fresh, plans to raise $25 million in an initial public offering.
GEN Korean BBQ is the second restaurant IPO filing this year. / Image courtesy of GEN Korean BBQ.

A chefless Asian chain cofounded by the former owner of Baja Fresh Mexican Grill is planning an initial public offering.

GEN Korean BBQ, an 11-year-old, 32-unit chain that doesn’t employ chefs and serves meals family style that customers mostly cook themselves, this week filed documents for an initial public offering, the second restaurant chain to do so this year. The company plans to raise up to $25 million.

The Cerritos, Calif.-based chain was founded by a pair of Korean immigrants: Jae Chang, a longtime restaurateur who worked with Shabuya, Sumo, Octopus, HSO Sushi and California Gogi, and David Kim, a former franchisee with several brands who in 2006 acquired Baja Fresh Mexican Grill from Wendy’s.

The brand was founded in 2011 in Tustin, Calif. It operates locations mostly in the Southwest. The restaurants play Korean pop music and customers sit down to an assortment of side dishes, or banchan. Customers order entrees and cook most of the meals themselves on a grill in the center of the table.

This enables the company to operate without chefs while saving on kitchen staff. Menu items come ready to serve from its suppliers, which the company says enables it to operate more efficiently than many of its competitors.

Prices for dinner typically range from $26 to $30, though that increases to $33 to $37 at the chain’s Las Vegas location.

The company’s revenue in the first quarter increased 14.7% to $43.9 million. Restaurant-level adjusted EBITDA, or earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization, increased 3.6% to $8.4 million. But that decreased as a percentage of sales, to a margin of 19.2% from 21.2% a year earlier.

For the year, revenues increased 16.5% last year to $163.7 million.

Still, the company says that it paid off the 21 restaurants opened before the pandemic within 1.4 years on average. It typically spends $1.9 million to open a new restaurant and boasts average unit volumes of $6 million.

GEN hopes to keep building new restaurants. It opened three locations last year and has deals for nine other locations, in Hawaii, Florida, Arizona, Texas, Seattle, Dallas and California. It is also eyeing other markets including Oregon, Georgia, Virginia, Utah and the District of Columbia.

This is the second notable IPO filing of a restaurant company this year, following a filing by the fast-casual chain Cava Group. Several other chains, including Panera Brands, MOD Pizza, Fogo de Chao and others, are expected to make a run at an IPO in the coming months.

The company plans to use the funds on a corporate reorganization. It plans to list on the Nasdaq Stock Exchange under the ticker GENK.

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