And it all starts with a barbecue legend.
In January 2018, Travis Clark took his barbecue resume of more than 160,000 miles traveled, 160 contests entered, and 41 Grand Championship awards to Famous Dave’s. The brand tapped him as “National Pitmaster,” a newly created role, and, by August, unveiled plans for a fresh concept, Clark Crew BBQ.
Then-COO of Famous Dave’s, Geo Concepcion was central in all of it. Concepcion left Famous Dave’s in May 2019 to head up The Greene Turtle after Bob Barry stepped down following a 12-year run. But there was an element of the original Clark deal that lingered for Concepcion.
Famous Dave’s goal, in many respects, was to figure out how to support an entrepreneur who could build a new brand and also do it in a way where they had economic interest and control, and felt as though they could drive progress from the bottom up.
In mid-June, The Greene Turtle hyper-charged this notion by doing something it hadn’t done since opening in 1976 on the boardwalk in Ocean City, Maryland—it acquired a brand in Clark Crew BBQ. The purchase was completed simultaneously with a recapitalization of the company, with debt provided by Sandy Spring Bank and Pelham S2K.
Since the Famous Dave’s deal, the store had become an independent concept in Oklahoma City and home to more than 700 Top 10 awards. It’s generating north of $8 million in yearly sales.
However, the acquisition itself was only a jigsaw to a larger puzzle for 34-unit Greene Turtle. With the move, it formed ITA Group Holdings. The moniker stands for “In the Arena,” a reference to Teddy Roosevelt’s 1910 “Citizenship in a Republic” speech that came to be known as “The Man in the Arena.”
ITA Group Holdings owns and operates The Greene Turtle, Clark Crew BBQ, and Founders Growth Platform, a consultancy that’s invested in seven fast casuals to date at 50 percent stakes, including Papi’s Cuban and Caribbean Grill; Neo Pizza and Taphouse; tapas and wine bar Madrid; RegionAle, Papi’s Cuban Grill, Cypriana, Fat Patties, and CHX Premium Chicken.
“Support from a capital standpoint,” Concepcion says of the model, “and support from an operations and expertise standpoint.”
Essentially, ITA will look to brands in their early innings, anywhere from one to five units, with ultimate prospects of getting closer to five to 10 locations. The plan being to funnel at least 50 percent of growth capital as each concept evolves.
Connecting with Clark and bringing ITA to life took about six months, Concepcion says. Although they had stayed in touch over the years. What’s key to understand, though, is the foundation of ITA will be a founder-led, founder-shared model that pulls from a center of power. So in the example of Clark Crew BBQ, there’s opportunity within the brand’s existing four walls, where the immediate focus will go, Concepcion says, as well as growth. Yet it’s not about stamping numbers on expansion bingo. “We’re looking at it as based on the founders we have and what they offer to the market,” he says, “and what the market needs and the operators and staffing that we can provide in certain markets, how should we go about that?”
“We’re not saying there are going to be 10 Clark Crew BBQs,” he adds. “What we’re saying is you’ll see a lot more barbecue from Travis Clark and how that looks we'll develop together in the coming weeks and months.”
Clark’s skills will spread throughout ITA’s brands and efforts. With the myriad challenges at hand, from labor to inflation, Concepcion says restaurant can’t rely on concept creation and brand value alone these days.
“That’s a big piece of where I saw the opportunity here. I think companies always have this difficultly of how do we stay nimble, fast, and responsive, and how do we grow to a large size?” he says. “And in a lot of ways, these two goals compete against each other. When I think about the various ways folks are going about how they scale the business, when you’re bringing concepts together, you need those all to work well with each other. You need a lot of things to sync nicely to really realize the value of aggregating things.”
For ITA, this means having founders involved at the ground level, sharing knowledge. Concepcion compares it to the Bell Labs research and scientific community that, in the 1960s, developed the first electronic telephone-switching system.
Envision a group of founders experimenting, tinkering, and passing along findings, which can then be leveraged across every asset in the portfolio.
“That gives us something that is hard to replicate and as we scale them up, allows these things to play together a lot better than trying to phase them in at a much later stage in their life cycle,” Concepcion says.
ITA is not in a mode where it feels compelled to make Clark Crew BBQ work in places where the company isn’t sure it will resonate (the age-old challenge with scaling a regional cuisine like barbecue). Concepcion says the group’s format allows a more methodical aim, and it’s a broader sign of how ITA will operate. “In our format, it’s not about stamping out as many of the single unit or concept as possible,” he says. “It’s about, let’s bring Travis Clark in and use his talents in as many different facets as we can.”
Simply, given the seven fast casuals and even The Greene Turtle, there are a lot of ways Clark can help build and improve those brands.
In turn, ITA doesn’t need to risk the quality and grow Clark Crew BBQ and its famed brisket for the sake of growing it, Concepcion says. “We can take all of the skills that Travis has and, maybe, there’s other places that can scale really rapidly that we can benefit from. Whereas if all Travis was focused on was Clark Crew BBQ, we really wouldn’t be able to unlock that value.”
Concepcion says the idea has been in his head “for a while.” The program started signing partners in late 2021 and began to build units under it this year.
As for The Greene Turtle, sold to private-equity firm Stone-Goff Partners in 2015, it opened a new unit in January in Gambrills, Maryland, which Concepcion says is the company’s highest-performing unit by sales. It’s The Greene Turtle’s first to feature a dedicated to-go area, with virtual concepts MrBeast Burger and George Lopez Tacos fulfilled out of the kitchen.
Two locations have opened since Concepcion joined as CEO (one franchised and one corporate). “We feel really, really good about our new prototypes [unveiled in 2020] and the new direction that we’ve taken the brand,” he says. “When we bring the new menu, the new décor, and service elements all together we feel really good about that.”
Three company units are in development for 2022, as well as a franchise. “There’s a lot of great things happening in Maryland where we have the majority of our units,” he adds. “Sports gaming has been legalized and we anticipate that in Maryland that’ll be a benefit for our brand as well.”