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Former Naf Naf executives look for the next big thing

David Sloan and Franklin Wiener have created a restaurant accelerator called Venture Kitchen and invested in Blackwood BBQ.
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David Sloan figures he learned a lot during his time as the CEO of Naf Naf Grill, helping to take the chain from one to 40 locations in seven years and earning the chain an investment from the private-equity firm Roark Capital.

David Sloan photograph courtesy of Venture Kitchen

“I’m telling you, when you’re growing something that quickly you’re tripping over yourself sometimes,” Sloan said in an interview. “Now we’re careful. We know when to jump.”

So much so, in fact, that Sloan and another former Naf Naf executive and Sloan’s half-brother, Franklin Wiener, have created a brand accelerator, Venture Kitchen, with the idea to find more upstart fast-casual chains and guide them to a growth investment.

Franklin Wiener photograph courtesy of Venture Kitchen

Venture has two concepts: Blackwood BBQ, a Chicago-based fast-casual barbecue chain that Wiener and Sloan have invested in, and their newly created fast-casual Mexican concept Invicto. The first unit is slated to open next month.

Sloan hopes Venture can be the “Lettuce Entertain You of fast casual,” referring to the restaurant group out of Chicago.

“One of the things I love to do is building brands,” Sloan said. “We’re creating our own brands. And we’re bringing on brands we feel have great growth potential. We want to take them to where we can get some private equity or institutional money of interest.”

Sloan and Wiener have also created a U.S. nonprofit, One Feeds Two USA, in which a meal at school is purchased for a child in poverty for every meal purchased at a participating restaurant. It is a sister nonprofit of the U.K.-based One Feeds Two Foundation, backed by billionaire Richard Branson.

Invicto will be the first U.S. restaurant chain to participate in the nonprofit. “I feel we can do a lot,” Sloan said. “It’s easy for consumers to understand.”

Blackwood is a three-unit chain that Sloan calls “one of Chicago’s best-kept secrets.” The fast-casual concept features of menu of barbecue stalwarts such as brisket, pulled pork and chicken. The three locations are in urban markets, where Sloan says the chain should expand, though he believes it could go into suburban areas to “create a new experience.”

The idea behind Blackwood, however, is to “get away from the honkytonk” familiar at many barbecue chains and provide “a much cooler experience for the consumer.”

And he said that “there’s white space” in the barbecue sector at the moment that Blackwood could fill.

Venture negotiated some ownership of Blackwood and has become the concept’s managing partner.

Invicto, meanwhile, “is something I’ve been thinking about for a long time.”

The concept is being designed as a more authentic Mexican fast-casual concept, with Tijuana-style tacos and torta-like Mexican sandwiches called cemitas. The design will feature tables imported from Mexico, writing in Spanish and hand-painted designs.

Invicto’s chef is Jonathan Jimenez Alvarado, who was born and raised in Mexico City and is an alum of the Mexico City restaurant Pujol.

Sloan said he spent a lot of time in Mexico “and have come to realize that there’s much more to offer in Mexican food than what Chipotle is.”

Invicto, he said, “not only has authentic Mexican food but an authentic Mexican experience. It doesn’t have the sterile, artificial look” that a lot of Mexican fast-casual chains have.

Sloan said that Venture Kitchen will, as its early examples suggest, both create its own and invest in existing concepts. He said the focus will be on the fast-casual sector, which, though it has struggled with some sales challenges of late, remains the source of a lot of the restaurant industry’s growth.

“I’m very bullish on fast casual,” Sloan said. “I also think that fast casual is evolving. “The days of Chipotle, and I’d even put Naf Naf in there, where everybody is looking like Chipotle, is evolving into more experiences than just a stainless-steel box. Millennials want everything to be an experience.”

And he believes that Venture’s expertise can help these chains grow and take advantage of those trends.

“There’s a lot of concepts out there that get to one to three locations,” Sloan said. “It takes a different skillset to get from two to three locations to 20 locations. That’s where we really have expertise in. Our job is to take brands like Blackwood that have long lines and help the founders grow to where the private equity is.”

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