A pizza restaurant in Houston filed for bankruptcy last week. While that might get a yawn from people who think that 90% of restaurants fail anyway, there is a story here that is a little different; one centered on its crowdfunding campaign.
There is a world-renowned cooking school in San Francisco, the California Culinary Academy (CCA). It offers professional chefs a semester-long course in restaurant management. It includes how to price menu items, how to sell the menu items that produce a higher margin (typically appetizers and desserts), how and where to advertise, and items of “kitchen economics”. The latter includes how to select and deal with vendors and manage multiple chefs in a kitchen.
There are established formulas regarding the ratio of food/beverage sales that guide restaurants to greater profitability. There are myriad case studies reviewing both successful restaurants and failures available for review.
Pizza restaurants are used as a basic example of a simple and profitable restaurant operation. I offered the same breakdown of a pizza restaurant to my students when I was teaching Economics to business school students. It is a simple demonstration of superior efficiency and profitability.
The owner of a pizza restaurant can stop by the market in the AM and pick up everything needed to make enough pizzas for one day’s business. Your one-day inventory will be turned back to cash by the end of the day.
Very few businesses offer the opportunity to profit from that type of high-speed inventory turnover. Too much Inventory in the freezer can impact a restaurant’s cash flow.
Selling pizza and beer together is almost always a winning combination. A $30 check for a large pizza and a pitcher of beer might cost the restaurant less than $5.00-$7.00 in ingredients, a very high mark-up, combined with the very high turnover.
The Houston pizza restaurant that filed for bankruptcy was called Shoot the Moon. It opened in the middle of the pandemic which clearly increased the difficulty of filling the seats. But that is not what killed it.
The crowdfunding campaign for Shoot the Moon, and several other Houston-based restaurants, was hosted on a crowdfunding portal called NextSeed. NextSeed is now part of Republic, one of the largest crowdfunding portals.
Shoot the Moon was trying to raise $535,000 to finish construction of its restaurant, purchase equipment and train its staff. The offering was structured to give investors 10% of the revenue, that is, $1 for every $10 that rang through the cash register.
This type of revenue-sharing agreement is common in crowdfunding. NextSeed used it over and over to fund other restaurants. With proper marketing, Shoot the Moon’s offering might have sold out quickly.
Instead, the offering initially stalled at $140,000. According to the owner of Shoot the Moon, NextSeed suggested that he offer “perks” such as free beer to investors as an inducement to invest. NextSeed had used this same gimmick to help at least one other tap room in Houston raise capital.
The owner of Shoot the Moon apparently told NextSeed that he thought that he was not allowed to offer free beer because it was illegal. NextSeed advised him to offer free pizza instead.
Let me stop the narrative at this point. If one Houston restaurant that is selling food and beer can accept NextSeed’s advice and give away free beer and another selling food and beer thinks that it cannot, it should certainly raise a red flag that one or the other is incorrect.
One of NextSeed’s founders, Mr. Abraham Chu, has an MBA from a very fine business school. I would think that something like this might have gotten his attention and the correct answer ascertained.
Put aside for a moment the fact that no business school teaches that modern finance requires that you should give investors “perks” in order to raise capital. Business schools still teach that investors seek ROI more than anything else. The owner of Shoot the Moon says that supplying all the free perks that NextSeed advised him to offer negatively impacted his working capital.
The perks were enough to increase the total amount raised to $410,000. The owner of Shoot the Moon has said it paid a total of $80,000 to raise $410,000 which is more than a Wall Street firm would have charged to raise the same amount as a private placement. Wall Street firms don’t require issuers to give away free beer or pizza.
The raise netted Shoot the Moon closer to $330,000. The offering was clear that it was trying to raise $535,000, the amount it said it would need to get its business off the ground. That too should have been a pretty big red flag, which NextSeed ignored as it permitted the offering to close and took its fee.
Shoot the Moon did open its doors and it made sales, 10% of which should have been paid to the investors. Its owner acknowledges that the payments were due from day one, but that he has not been able to make them.
NextSeed, for its part, interposed itself between the restaurant and the investors as the “collateral agent” for the transaction. I haven’t reviewed the exact paperwork, but it does raise some questions why the portal thought that it needed to do so.
It seems that the only “collateral” supporting the offering from which investors might recoup their investment if the restaurant fails, would be the used restaurant equipment, some of which might be sold at $.10 on a dollar; the rest simply discarded. Calling it “collateral” is somewhat misleading.
It is clear that NextSeed was supposed to monitor the payments and notify the investors if there was a default. NextSeed was clearly aware of the default at Shoot the Moon and at other restaurants it had helped to fund but decided not to notify investors or declare a default.
Mr. Chu has been quoted as saying that NextSeed’s policy regarding defaults was changed several times after offerings had closed. Republic, which purchased NextSeed in 2020, apparently thought this was a good idea because it did not begin to send out notices of the defaults until April of this year.
In the real world, if you can negotiate the deferral of a payment that has come due, there is usually a penalty to be paid. I have seen nothing to indicate that NextSeed/Republic negotiated any additional payments to the investors to compensate them while waiting for their payments. Had there been a formal contract providing for a deferral of payment by each of the restaurants, they might not be in default today, and Shoot the Moon might not be in bankruptcy.
Two things stood out to me.
First, If Shoot the Moon had an initial capital requirement of $535,000 but settled for $410,000 the first question should be: “what got cut from the budget?” In all likelihood whatever got cut from the budget increased the risks of failure of the venture.
One item that was apparently absent from the budget was any cash reserve. Even if Shoot the Moon sales were $10,000 in its first week of operation, it could not spare $1000 to pay investors. Because the smaller raise probably added to the risk of failure, Shoot the Moon might have been better advised to up the ROI rather than provide free pizza to attract investors.
Second, was the question of whether it was legal to give away free beer in support of the offerings. Confronted with that assertion that it was not, NextSeed did not say that it was legal, or even, “let us check with our lawyers” but rather advised that the restaurant give away pizza instead, which was much more costly.
NextSeed has clearly advised other restaurants that free beer was okay. Did NextSeed’s failure to help Shoot the Moon understand that free beer was permissible to torpedo its opportunity to raise more money? Should NextSeed have told Shoot the Moon that there were less expensive ways to attract investors?
Let me repeat something that I have been saying for quite a while now: every well-run crowdfunding campaign should be able to raise 100% of the funds it seeks, 100% of the time. The idea that a company should offer free beer, pizza, or other perks in order to have a successful campaign is simply false.
NextSeed apparently gave that very bad marketing advice to a number of companies. I wonder how many companies spent their money foolishly following the advice and who now wish that they had never engaged in these expensive, unnecessary promotions.
Republic has positioned itself between the restaurants and the investors. Does Republic intend to act as the investors’ champion or is this just damage control on Republic’s part?
If investors begin to question Republic’s financial responsibility for the very bad advice that NextSeed gave, again and again, they are likely to get stone-walled. With reports that investors in NextSeed offerings may have already lost $2.4 million, I suspect that Republic will tell those investors to go cry in their beer.
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