Dana Delivers: Growth is About More Than Money

August 15, 2022

In today’s episode of Dana Delivers, Lauren Fernandez, CEO of Full Course, discusses the importance of helping diverse restaurant owners with their development and growth, not just investment. She also speaks on the lack of fair capital, how education makes a difference to all business owners, and how food connects people of all cultures in a unique way.

Transcript:

Welcome to Dana Delivers by Aprio podcasts, the podcast that helps restaurant owners and operators learn from industry experts about trends and opportunities. On every episode, Dana Zukofsky, the leader of Aprio’s restaurant advisory team, explores the topic impacting our industry in a candid conversation. And now, let’s hear what Dana is serving up on this episode.

Today on Dana Delivers, we have Lauren Fernandez, who is the CEO of Full Course Restaurant Development and Investment. So Lauren, thank you so much for joining us.

It’s my pleasure. Thanks for having me on today.

Of course. So, I know very well what you do, but why don’t you start off by telling our audience a little bit about you, your background, and what Full Course is doing right now? 

Yeah, thanks. So Full Course is a restaurant development and investment firm. We have an equity fund that we use to support the early stage investment and development of fast casual restaurant concepts that are usually less than five units, although we look at anyone under 10. And we specifically are out there looking for owners who are diverse, who have a different point of view, brands that are owned by women, minorities and immigrants. We believe at Full Course there is room at the table for all faces and flavors. And so a big push is not just our investment strategy, but also our education, to help give and coach on the playbook for growth to early stage entrepreneurs.

Wow, I think if there’s any time to have, and I’ll use your words, your conscious capital, and putting it into the system, is now. And everyone’s doing a DEI push, right? It’s all you’re hearing about, we talked about different events we’ve been at. It’s all anyone’s talking about. So when you think DEI, what makes you guys different? What are you guys doing to stand up and actually use the money and put it in the right hands, not just give it to give it?

I created Full Course, I’ve always wanted to work with emerging restaurant brands. My background is actually in product development as an attorney, and when I was the General Counsel at Focused Brands, I was able to see the power of adding additional revenue streams to restaurant brands through product licensing or product development and commercialization. And that was the foundation of really wanting to work with some of these early stage brands on a deep seated belief that restaurants need diversified revenue streams as just a point of stability, but also just to really maximize the brand awareness and leverage that brand equity. But it was truly my experience as an operator of our 11 Chicken Salad Chick units that I think informed me of some issues we have in our industry around diversity with ownership of restaurants, and restaurant brands themselves, but also within franchising. I genuinely believe franchising is a phenomenal vehicle for entrepreneurs to grow and develop generational wealth for their families. So it makes sense that as an industry, we are as inclusive as we can be when getting those types of owners on board. 

The problem is access to fair capital and to fair debt. So it’s no longer enough, in my opinion, to just hand an entrepreneur the playbook and expect them to go and find access to that capital. That’s a function of our banking system and underwriting, but let’s consider who we’re talking about here. These are folks who may not have perfect immigration status. These are folks who might be first gen, they might have been born somewhere else and come to this country. They may be a single mom who’s divorced and has bad credit, so you can’t just sort of throw the playbook out into the universe and say, ‘yes, we want our franchisees to be more diverse’ and not put all of the pieces of the puzzle together. And that is one of the reasons why when I sought to fix this problem, I knew we had to raise a fund to do it. We had to provide a new way of investing in these entrepreneurs to give them the fair shot they needed to succeed.

Right, no, and I think that that’s super important not to just say, ‘here’s what you need’, or even when you’re assessing the capital, looking at it as just a credit score, right? You have to look at it as more and there’s so much more to it. And I think the most important thing is that fair part. We were just talking about some funds who are giving money, but maybe charging exorbitant interest rates or maybe looking a little differently. So do you want to talk a little bit about some of the things that aren’t? I know you like this part.

I will get on my soapbox for a minute. And now I’m just going to share my personal experience. So first and foremost, understanding the different types of capital as an entrepreneur, whether that be your crowdfunding, it’s venture capital or it’s private equity. So we spend a lot of time at Full Course making sure that early stage entrepreneurs understand the differences between all those different types of equity investment and all the different types of debt vehicles that are out there and the pros and cons of both. I want them to come to the table and partner with Full Course because they have that education, they understand the differences, and then they can equally evaluate our offering against everything else that’s out there. I’m very proud of the way that we’ve structured our deals, it is something that’s very different. I think that I’m uniquely positioned, not only as someone who’s lived the experience as an equity partner, I also have been offered as a minority business owner debt that is, and I’m going to use air quotes here, DEI or ESG backed by a debt fund. And, ‘here, we’re here to help you and your fantastic Latina owned business, we’re offering debt’ and it’s a bridge loan at 18%. And it’s obscene, it has a two year balloon. I’m like, oh my God, like really?

I guess the thing there is you’re smart enough and educated and have a background to know, this isn’t a good idea. But if someone’s coming in and selling it to someone who doesn’t understand it, then now what?

Exactly, and consider that the vast majority of minority owners and immigrant owners that we work with, when we hear their stories of funding, it sounds like this: ‘I saved for five years, I put the money under my mattress, because I couldn’t get a bank account, because I didn’t have immigration status. Then when we had the money for the first one, and it was successful, we went back to our family, and our community, and our church, and we raised money for the second one.’ You hear these stories where there is zero institutional money lending or borrowing of any kind, because it’s not available to them. And you see the enormous success they have, despite these obstacles. I’m like, ‘you know what, let’s get out of their way.’ I will bet on and bankroll immigrant hustle every day of the week, because I know that game. I have hustled for days, and one of the things I love about our clients, and our first two investments we’re going to be announcing very soon. They have so much hustle, they out hustled me, and that’s hard to do. 

So I’m looking at this, and I’m saying all right, number one is education. To your point, Dana, people don’t understand how these deals are typically structured. They don’t understand the pros and cons, and I’m talking about both equity and debt. And they don’t know what’s a sarlacc pit, what’s a pothole, don’t step in it, let’s not go there. Let’s figure out a better way. And so if I could just speak for a minute about how we structure our deals at Full Course, because I want people to understand, it took a lot to sit down and model this so it would work for our investors, it would work for us as an operating company, it would work for our investment clients and our partners. So Full Course never takes more than 49%, we have a deep seated belief that these owners deserve to be at their first major liquidity event sitting on 51% and majority control. So that’s number one.

That’s already a huge difference from what most people are doing.

Huge. And the reason we can do that is because I am uniquely positioned as an attorney to look at this and go, ‘how can we structure this fund, and our legal documents that were somewhere in between venture capital and PE?’ We are providing two to four million in capital injection. But we can do it at 49% because we have the legal framework and the partnership and the trust developed with our clients that allow us to do that. So that’s a really big thing. The second piece is we do not capital call. So some people out there might go, ‘oh, we’re a minority investor.’ But then the first thing they’ll do is a capital call to erode the original owner from their 51 or 50 plus position. So we’re able to do this in a very thoughtful and conscious manner where it is very much a collaboration and a partnership with operational support, development support. And it is a team effort. That alignment is absolutely critical to this working, and I make no shame about that. If we don’t have alignment with our investor target, we can’t proceed. It’s a fact. We work very hard to make sure in the early phases, it’s about six to nine months of invested time and energy with these brands before we make the investment to ensure we have that alignment. So it’s a very fair, principled and equitable way to invest in these brands that is such a value add. We’re not just writing a check and handing it to them. We are giving them the playbook. We are side by side with them in the trenches as their player coach. And we all get to the finish line together.

And that’s the most important part is you want people to be able to be in their business, start their business, grow their business, and then actually walk away and have something to show for it both, maybe as a legacy, but also financially, because at the end of the day, no one is starting a business just to start it, they want something to come out of it.

Yeah, we do a lot, also, the awareness around it being a major financial moment for them generationally, but also for them personally. So there’s a significant amount of tax estate and wealth planning and education we do with these clients at least two years before exit. So we are aware of the fact that there is an enormous impact on families as a whole when we have these major liquidity events, and we don’t want them to feel unprepared or uneducated. As you can tell, my whole thing is education. I’m from an immigrant family, and my dad is proud Cuban-American. And my family’s deep seated belief is education is the key to unlocking opportunity in this country. And so it shouldn’t be a shock that the first money we ever spent on Full Course was an education platform. And I’m very proud of that. Show me another PE or VC that has a fully baked education platform that’s industry specific with original content. I say this all the time, when people refer us clients, I say, we may not be able to help them, they may not be a right fit for us as an investment, but we will have coaching to offer them, consulting to offer them, and an entire ed platform, and if it’s not for us, I will connect them to someone who can help them because that is the point. We are paying this forward, we are lifting everyone up. And I think at this stage, what I’ll say about DEI is, it’s no longer acceptable to just have the program. You have to lift up and pull people with you. It has to be conscious, it has to be intentional. And that’s the hallmark of everything that we do.

Again, I heard your story for the first time at leadership, and that’s where we met. I didn’t start my podcast for the first time ever with where I met you. That’s how I always start. Oh my God, I was just so excited to jump right in. We met at Restaurant Leadership because Tommy said, you have to meet these great two people. Kyle was the other, who we’ll speak to another day.

Yes, you should. 

It is all about connecting and being with each other, and talking about these things. And if we can help each other, then what’s the point of doing it because we were lucky, and we had great opportunities afforded to us. And why not help those who can’t help themselves right now, because they just don’t have the resources or access to the resources? And we can give them that access.

I just want to say this: The restaurant industry is uniquely positioned to show the world how this should be done. We have enormous diversity in the ranks of our employees. We are the fourth largest employer in the United States and massively contribute to the GDP. And we are an industry. Everyone thinks this is about food, it is not about food, it’s actually a people business. We are in the business of serving people. And there is no greater vehicle for understanding and empathy from cultural points of view than food. Food connects people. Food is a wonderful bridge for talking about cultural differences and provides a nice neutral way to start connecting to people on a different level. And that can be true, whether you are breaking bread together, or you are learning how to eat lentils with your left hand from another culture that you’ve never tried before. And we just have such an enormous opportunity to help shape the next generation of restaurant leadership in this sort of mindset of really putting people first. And that’s not just a reset for our industry, because we need that. It’s also a way that we can use food and a powerful way to show the world how this can be done better, to be more inclusive, to really put a seat at the table and to set that table, so you have equal voices around. Not just minorities, not just people of color, not just our LGBTQ plus community. We’re talking everyone.

Right, right. I was going to say if there’s not a seat for everybody, then it’s not good enough.  

Yeah, and I want to say to the people in our industry, I have been so inspired recently and looking at senior leadership and so many companies really upping their game on this and making sure that they have diversity programs that reach down, coach, mentor and educate franchisees out of their management teams, that they really go out and recruit to mean it. And I just want to say thank you. Doing something matters. You don’t have to be the Latina GP of a fund. All right, I know that I’m taking a big stand and doing this because it’s important to me. And this is where I’ve landed in my career. But I just want to say thank you to all of the leadership out there, who realize that they have had privilege and doors opened for them. But then they’re turning around and helping.

Let me ask you a question, though. Anyone specific that you want to call out? Because I know at the event you were at last week, there were some really great conversations around this.

Yeah, I was absolutely floored and almost moved to tears by some stories out of Jersey Mike’s.

That’s what always comes to mind for me. So that’s why I was hoping, secretly hoping that’s what you said, because if you didn’t, I was about to, because every time I hear their stories, I’m like, what? Amazing. And I’m a Jersey girl.

Yes, I was equally impressed. There were so many moments, right? Hearing them talk about how they lift up and support diversity with their crew members was so incredibly moving. There were also some really interesting moments where we heard how Yum! Brands is really going deep, deep, deep, deep into their structure to make sure that they are identifying talent and lifting it up internally for opportunities in leadership, management, opportunities for franchising. So what I love about really removing the stigma of talking about this, and just coming from a place of gratitude and empathy for anyone who’s trying to do better in our industry, is you get to actually talk about solutions. That’s, that’s my jam, right? Like, let’s not sit around and complain about this, I’m done. I’ve been living with this and the reality of working in male-dominated industries, and being female and outspoken and Latina, check, check, check. I’m not here to complain about it. I’m here to provide solutions, like let’s go. So I’m very, very motivated by those examples and just the phenomenal way in which I feel supported by these CEOs who are doing great things in their companies. And I spoke and they were like, ‘yay, this is great.’ I’m like, thank you, I appreciate that. Just even getting that level of acknowledgement is huge. So I’m grateful for that.

I’m thankful for what you’re doing, and for introducing me to Full Course and everything there, and wherever I can be of help, and you know that and obviously, the whole Aprio team is behind everything you guys are doing. So thank you so much. I love talking to you. We’ll continue these conversations. And most importantly, as soon as you’re ready to announce who those investments are, I’m sure everyone’s going to be excited to hear.

We’re incredibly excited. It’s probably two to four weeks off. And it’s been a long time coming. This particular investment, there’s some folks that I’ve known for probably five to six years or more, and that we have been able to partner under the umbrella Full Course is so exciting for me and for them as well. And I cannot wait for you guys to hear their story because it’s such an incredibly powerful example of what we’ve been talking about as the theory behind Full Course for over two years. And now we’ve got a great example to show the world so I’m ready to get started. Let’s go build some restaurants.

Yes, perfect. Well, thank you again, Lauren, and I’ll talk to you soon. Thanks, everyone, for listening.

Thank you to all of our listeners to the Dana Delivers by Aprio podcast. If you like today’s podcast, please hit the subscribe button. Dana Delivers, brought to you by Aprio, a premier accounting and business advisory firm with offices across the US and clients around the globe.

About Lauren Fernandez:

Lauren Fernandez is the CEO and founder of Full Course, a restaurant development and investment firm that helps fast casual restaurant owners see real growth without giving up full control of their business. She loves, as a first generation Cuban-American, continuing to learn about Hispanic foods found all over the globe. Fernandez is also passionate about fundraising for the battles against food insecurity.

Lauren received her Bachelor’s degree in English from Stetson University, her JD from Emory University School of Law, and her MBA in Marketing from the Goizueta Business School at Emory University.

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About the Author

Dana Zukofsky

Dana Zukofsky is the Restaurant, Franchise & Hospitality Practice Leader at Aprio, providing advisory, accounting and consulting services to help foster profitability and growth.