A Fun QSR Chain or “Big Sandwich”?

November 27, 2023
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big sandwichAs the small business financing space contemplates competition from merchant-integrated platforms like Square, Shopify, and Intuit, one behemoth is taking over the franchises themselves. The company is Roark Capital, an Atlanta-based PE firm with $37B in assets under management, and they taste delicious.

Roark Capital already owns Arby’s, Auntie Anne’s, Baskin-Robbins, Buffalo Wild Wings, Carvel, Cinnabon, Carl’s Jr., Hardees, Culver’s, Dunkin Donuts, Jamba, McAlister’s, Moe’s Southwest Grill, Schlotzky’s, Seattle’s Best Coffee, Jimmy John’s, SONIC, Jim’n Nick’s Bar-B-Q, Miller’s Ale House, North Italia, Nothing Bundt Cakes, and the Cheesecake Factory. Three of those are among the top fast-food sandwich chains in America (Arby’s, Jimmy John’s, and McAlister’s Deli). Roark is also presently in the process of acquiring Subway, the leading company in that category by nationwide sales. The deal was announced in August.

But now the FTC is saying not so fast on the basis that it might create a monopoly. According to Politico, “the government is focused in part on whether the addition of Subway gives Roark too much control of a lucrative segment of the fast food industry.”

“We don’t need another private equity deal that could lead to higher food prices for consumers,” railed Senator Elizabeth Warren on social media. “The FTC is right to investigate whether the purchase of Subway by the same firm that owns Jimmy Johns and McAlister’s Deli creates a sandwich shop monopoly.”

While many comments on social media made fun of this regulatory effort, perhaps such consolidation is a wakeup call for the small business finance industry. Once upon a time the textbook definition of a non-bank funding merchant was a restaurant or QSR sandwich shop. Although the target customer has broadened considerably since then, it may be worth keeping in mind that a large diversified portfolio of QSR funding customers might not be so diversified at all. Behind the scenes, it may actually all be a single counterparty. A small business might not be so small. You could be dealing with Big Sandwich.

Could More Free Money Be Coming to Restaurants?

April 11, 2022
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what type of restaurant?The House passed a $55 billion bill on Thursday to provide assistance to restaurants that were not successful in receiving help from the federal Restaurant Revitalization Fund (RRF) last year. In a 223-203 House vote the measure was approved by lawmakers and was backed by only a few Republicans.

Over $40 billion in COVID-19 assistance was approved, replenishing the fund. An additional $13 billion would be provided for other businesses that remain struggling to recover.

The Restaurant Revitalization Fund was established under the American Rescue Plan, and signed into law by President Joe Biden on March 11, 2021 which issued $28.6 billion in direct relief funds. However, three weeks after launching, the funds ran out leaving only a third to receive relief funding out of 300,000 applicants.

Recipients are not required to repay the funding as long as funds are used for eligible uses no later than March 11, 2023.

If the bill passes the Senate, the 177,000 restaurants that were approved for RRF grants but did not receive funding before the portal closed are already in line as stated by legislators.

To overcome the 60-vote threshold to end a potential prolonged debate and pass the measure, it is undetermined whether Democrats in the evenly split Senate will be able to win over at least 10 Republicans.

Despite protocols of the pandemic being lifted, restaurants are still facing the negative effects with less staff and fewer customers. According to the National Restaurant Association, 9 in 10 restaurants have fewer than 50 employees and restaurant industry sales in 2021 are down by $65 billion from 2019’s pre-pandemic levels.

The main sponsor of the bill, Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., and Rep. Dean Phillips, cited a survey from the Independent Restaurant Coalition and stated that over 80 percent of restaurants that didn’t receive grants have reported that they are on the verge of permanent closure.

NYC Restaurants Have Had Enough, Two Lawsuits Filed to Reopen Indoor Dining

September 9, 2020
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class action lawsuitThe five buroughs of New York City are still quiet. Restaurants remain closed to inside dining; gyms still await their regulars to return (beefcakes deflating with inactivity), and in-person schooling has been pushed back once again, while the districts take an extra week to prepare.

Through it all, business owners are losing money. Some have had enough.

Il Bacco, an Italian restaurant in Queens, is leading the charge. The restaurant recently filed a $3 billion class-action lawsuit against New York, signed by more than 300 restaurants. Il Bacco is a three-story eatery in Little Neck, 500 feet from the Nassau county border where restaurants can open to 50% capacity.

Another group of restaurants met separately at a rally in Staten Island to speak out against the inaction of lawmakers and to formally propose a separate lawsuit to force the reopening of restaurants.

On behalf of Bocelli, Joyce’s Tavern, and the Independent Restaurant Owners Association Rescue- (IROAR) papers were filed in Richmond County, calling for the emergency opening of restaurants throughout NYC at 50% capacity. IROAR was started last week as a confederation of 14 disgruntled restaurants. More recently the association has grown to 180 members.

Tina Maria, daughter of the owner at Il Bacco, also started an online petition with more than 5,000 signatures at writing.

On Sept 9th, shopping malls can open to 50% capacity and Casinos to 25% capacity, but restaurants like Il Bacco still struggle to make up for six months of decreased activity.

In speaking at the rally on Tuesday, Bob Deluca owner of Delucas Italian Restaurant said he and his workers have put in hundreds of hours of work a week just to see government officials keep his business from opening. Now he said, enough is enough.

“We’re being discriminated against, we’re being bullied,” Deluca said. “My mother told me to always stand up to bullies and stand up for people in need who are being bullied. Right here, this is our knockout punch.”

Deluca dropped the lawsuit on the podium, punctuating his frustration. He said he never wanted it to come to this, but it has come to it. Deluca reacted to Mayor Bill de Blasio’s comment from two weeks ago, stating restaurants were for the middle class and wealthy people.

“We are workers, it’s not a luxurious lifestyle, we are barely middle class,” Deluca said. “What about the waiters, the busboys, what about the dishwashers the bartenders, and the cooks. To say restaurants are for the middle class and wealthy is the most ignorant statement I’ve ever heard.”

Funding Restaurants is Risky Business

April 22, 2013
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high riskPerhaps as a fitting follow up to our recent post on Merchant Cash Advance Default Rates, an article in the Dispatch reveals that of all the businesses getting SBA loans, restaurant franchises are the worst performers. WHAT?! You read that right, but many of us have been saying this all along. Retail and restaurants are inherently high risk and that’s partially why they’ve been the bread and butter of the Merchant Cash Advance industry for so long. A friend of mine works in the commercial lending department of a major bank and he’s told me bluntly many times that their POLICY when it comes to restaurant loan applications is to decline 100% of the time. They don’t care if they have 800 credit, 40 years in business and 50 locations, the default rate is just too damn high and not worth the risk. Now the bank doesn’t come out and market this publicly and that’s why I haven’t identified my friend or the name of the bank, but when you see the numbers, it makes sense.

The SBA states that 20% of their guaranteed loans default

  • Of the loans that defaulted, more than 50% of them defaulted before they were 20% paid in
  • Of the loans that defaulted, more than 33% of them defaulted before they were 10% paid in
  • Of the loans that defaulted, more than 7% of them defaulted before making a single payment towards the principle

Source: Dispatch

The Dispatch points out that the SBA guarantees higher risk loans, as if that somehow justifies these statistics. The maximum allowable interest rate on a 7(a) loan with a maturity under 7 years is prime + 2.25%. Right now prime is 3.25%. Think about this… the interest rate is 5.5% and the default rate is 20%. Most businesses default without hardly paying anything. The taxpayers eat the billion dollar losses that result and Main Street America goes on believing that an interest rate below 6% is reasonable.

In the private sector, there is no government body sweeping billions of dollars in losses under the rug. Alternative lenders like Merchant Cash Advance providers are on their own to price deals efficiently and rationally. As you might guess, that price is usually MUCH higher than 5.5%. Many funders charging in excess of 40% barely break even at the end of the year, and some go out of business. Think about it… many businesses they support don’t even qualify for an SBA loan and the default rate on those is 20%. To operate in such a risky market, many try to hedge those risks by setting daily payments as opposed to monthly, and setting the loan term to 1 year or less. Even then, economic swings and competition have a way of making sustainability difficult.

On another note, here we have the SBA stating that 20% of their loans default, many before making even a dent in the principle and we have some alternative business lenders targeting an even riskier market that is claiming default rates of 2-5%. Something doesn’t add up here. Just saying…

Where’s the Reserve?

February 15, 2013
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cash reserves5 years ago it was merchant account sales. These days it’s all about the average daily ending balance in the business bank account. As the alternative business lending industry evolved, so too did the criteria to qualify, and nothing is more important now than historical cash flow. I spent a lot of time underwriting MCAs and one thing I noticed is that having a significant cash reserve is the exception, not the rule. Many small business owners I’ve encountered rely on overdraft protection just to pay their bills instead of using it as a backup cushion for the extremely rare circumstance that a check clears at the wrong time. The applicants with $1,000, $5,000 or $10,000 in daily reserves are treated very favorably in underwriting because heck, they can probably afford to take on debt. And then there’s the business owners with $20,000, $30,000 or $50,000 stashed away in the business account, a curious rarity that can actually throw up red flags.

Why is this merchant applying for capital when they’ve got $30,000 sitting in the account right now? Something doesn’t add up here,” an underwriter might say. But the only thing that doesn’t add up is the fact that so many businesses are running on fumes. We’ve got a few small business owners writing about matters from their perspective on The Frontline, and we took great interest in something written by Chef Angela Bell. As a restaurant owner, she believes it is important to keep a cash reserve equal to a minimum of 3 months expenses. Depending on the size of the restaurant and seasonality, that reserve may need to be able to cover an entire year. This includes rent and salaries!

It seems in practice, this rule is constantly violated. Maybe holding on to extra cash hurts the competitive edge, maybe a cash reserve existed but was consumed during an emergency, or maybe the business just isn’t doing that great. There are a lot of possibilities to explain the disappearance of cash reserves, and I’m not faulting the businesses for being in this situation, but rather pointing out that in my experience, money seems to go out as fast as it comes in.

This isn’t a 2013 problem or a financial crisis problem. It’s a small business problem and one that has been around for decades. It’s why the purchase of future credit cards spawned into existence. The original Merchant Cash Advance (MCA) program wasn’t created to help people with poor credit, it was designed to help the businesses that had no cash reserves. If a business has $2,000 in deposits every day but also $2,000 in withdrawals, there’s a good chance a debt payment will bounce. Even with 750 credit, no bank would ever take the risk on a business like that, and that’s where MCA came in. Assuming the business’s plans were sound, an MCA funder would withhold a percentage of merchant account sales before they were even transferred to the business’s bank account. That eliminated the risk of bounced checks for the funder and put the burden of operating on tight cash flow on the small business. Funders then reduced the strain by withholding less in times of weak sales and more in times of strong sales. The percentage system was the bridge to ensure the relationship was not predatory.

cash flowI’ve heard the frustrated replies from a business owner that was declined for weak or negative balances. They often sound something like this “Well, if I had cash I wouldn’t be needing a loan from you now would I?!” I feel for these people, I really do, but their approach to debt is misguided. Debt is not something you take on when you are out of money so you can continue business as usual. Debt is for growth or to be used as a temporary cash flow measure. Banks approve applicants that don’t need money because those that NEED IT are more likely to default.

MCA was the good faith option for small business owners that cried foul over the banks that wouldn’t lend to them. How could there be NOBODY willing to take a chance on them? And so MCA funding companies came along and did what the masses demanded, but at a cost to compensate them for the significant risk.

Today, there is high demand for merchant loans, loans that are evaluated based on a daily average bank balance and monthly revenue. Many people will get less than they want and others should consider traditional MCA instead. Those few that are at the breaking point and believe a loan will allow them to pay past due bills and keep them afloat are better off not applying at all. And for the rest that are contemplating using the $50,000 cash reserve they built up to expand should seriously consider financing instead to protect their cushion as best they can.

Tomorrow, the health inspector could close your doors, vandals could destroy your valuable assets, or the town could perform massively disruptive construction right outside the front steps that cripples sales for months. If you’re running on fumes, you’ll run out of gas. Always keep the cash reserve tank full and nobody will be able to stop you.

– Merchant Processing Resource on iPhone, iPad, and Android

Letters from the Frontline

February 12, 2013
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crazed chefI’ve worked in the alternative business lending industry for quite a while and I’ve noticed something off about many of the marketing campaigns. Some lenders have gotten so caught up in the funding that they’re losing sight of what it’s like to run a small business. Admit it, we’re all a little rusty even if we were once small business owners ourselves.

I started working as a deli clerk when I was 15 years old and continued to do it part time until my senior year of college when I began waiting tables at a restaurant instead. I could definitely tell you a few things about the daily grind and the epic drama that happens in the back of the house on a Friday night, but it’s been a while since I lived it.

But don’t you own a small business now? Yes, I do. I’ve been a part of two successful Merchant Cash Advance start-ups and I went off on my own full-time near the end of 2011. These days I have vendors, invoices, customers, contractors, accountants, and lawyers to deal with. I have monthly financials to reconcile, servers to monitor, and office rent to pay. But let’s be honest, my experience doesn’t really translate if I’m on the phone with a merchant that just had a waitress quit, a 12-top walk out on the bill, and an oven break, all while a health inspector is doing an unannounced review. Yeah, something about THAT is a little different than my day-to-day routine.

Sometimes we need to take a step back and stop trying to find the algorithm that best calculates FICO scores and monthly cash flow figures and start analyzing small businesses for what they really are. That led us to an interesting idea; Why not have actual merchants spell it out for us? What better way for us to connect with the retailers and service people of the U.S. than to have a two way dialogue right here on MPR?

Starting today, we’re announcing our experimental Small Business Corner, aka The Frontline. A small group of actual retail store owners or managers are going to contribute regularly with stories, tips, and advice about what it’s like for them. I think it will be insightful for us, as well as for the other small business owners that visit our site.

As the alternative business lending industry gets more saturated, shouting from the rooftops that you have “cash available with fast approvals!” isn’t a way to connect with the actual businesses that may benefit from a cash infusion. I’m guessing we’ll learn what does. These contributors are free to write what they want, so there’s no telling what’s in store. We hope you enjoy it.

Visit the Frontline

– Merchant Processing Resource on iPhone, iPad, and Android