Ex-Olive Garden boss Brad Blum envisions FoodFirst as next great American restaurant firm - Orlando Sentinel

By Kyle Arnold
November 28, 2018

The offices FoodFirst Global Restaurants on the ninth floor of downtown Orlando's CNL Tower II are not the bustling headquarters of a national restaurant company — at least not yet.

Only a handful of offices are occupied, boxes are still being unpacked and the main floor is full of empty desks, awaiting workers to bolster the upstart restaurant company.

Chairman and CEO Brad Blum's corner office overlooks Orlando and beyond, a region that has fostered restaurant industry successes such as Olive Garden, Red Lobster, Ruth's Chris, Sonny's Barbecue and more.

Blum thinks FoodFirst could one day be listed among those nationally known companies.

In what could be the final and toughest act of the 64-year-old Blum's career, he's trying to build a new restaurant company, starting with the acquisition of two struggling restaurant brands in Brio Tuscan Grille and Bravo Cucina Italiana.

In the next few months, he said there will be 40 employees in the Orlando office. FoodFirst is closing a deal for a new 6,000-square-foot culinary test kitchen downtown as well.

But a turnaround at Brio and Bravo are just the first steps. Blum and investors in FoodFirst Global Restaurants also plan to make acquisitions and develop new restaurant brands, he said.

If anyone has the resume to do it, it might be Blum, who ran Olive Garden for seven years. After that he was CEO at Burger King and Romano's Macaroni Grill before spending three more years back at Darden on its board of directors until he resigned in March to embark on his new venture.

"It might take the rest of [Blum's] career, but he has the passion … and he clearly likes Italian restaurants," said John Gordon, a restaurant consultant with Pacific Capital Management in San Diego. "He's a well-respected restaurant operator and really drills down into the basics."

Building a new restaurant company

Blum, along with a Brazilian investment group called GP Investments, spent $100 million to purchase Bravo Brio Restaurant Group and take it private. Blum said he put a significant investment into the company himself.

Since the acquisition, the investment group also spent $15 million paying down debt from Brio and Bravo. There will also be a "few million dollars" put into a fund for investing in the company, he said.

"This won't be the normal private equity deal where they come in and try to make as much money as they can and sell it," he said. "This is a long-term investment."

FoodFirst announced it was moving to Orlando in mid-November, choosing the Sunshine State over Brio and Bravo's current headquarters in Columbus, Ohio. It will keep a sizable workforce in Ohio to support the Brio and Bravo operations there. But the core of FoodFirst's executive team will be in Orlando.

"There is a lot of talent in this part of the country," Blum said. "We don't only plan to be in casual dining, but this is a bit of the epicenter of casual dining. We think this is going to be a good headquarters for us."

Some of that talent includes former colleagues from Blum's past with Orlando ties. Dave Pickens, another former Olive Garden president at Darden, was tapped as FoodFirst's president and chief operating officer. Mike Ellis, another former Darden executive and most recently at Ruby Tuesday, is the new chief development officer.

Turning around Bravo and Brio

FoodFirst may be a new company in one sense, but it inherits a lot of history and baggage with its first acquisition. The restaurants serve two segments of the Italian restaurant scene. Brio Tuscan Grille has 61 restaurants and serves a Northern Italian-themed menu of seafood, steaks and pasta. Bravo Cucina Italiana, with 44 locations, focuses on American-style Italian pastas.

The combined companies have about 10,000 employees.

Brio and Bravo have struggled in recent years. It built up $42 million in debt, closed unprofitable locations and struggled as revenues dropped.

"They were dank and dirty, and they have these big restaurants that never got really busy," Gordon said. "And with Brio, they didn't establish much of a name for themselves in terms of corporate dining, which is big for making a profit and keeping busy on off-peak nights."

The FoodFirst team, including chief culinary officer John Imbriolo, introduced a new test menu at the Winter Park and Mall at Millenia locations for Brio.

That menu is one of the first moves to rebrand Brio into a more upscale casual dining restaurant and put some separation between it and Bravo, a more traditional Italian brand in line with Olive Garden.

The average check at Brio in 2017 was just more than $27 for dinner, compared with about $21 at Bravo, according to regulatory reports from before the sale. Blum thinks Brio's average check could go higher as it introduces new dishes and emphasizes alcohol sales.

The new Brio menu includes more seafood such as a ravioli appetizer stuffed with thick chunks of lobster, crab cakes that Imbriolo said are "mostly crab and less cake," and a Caprese salad with Buffalo mozzarella cheese. In time, FoodFirst plans to rename Brio Tuscan Grille to Brio Italian Mediterranean. Bravo Cucina Italiana will become Bravo Fresh Italian.

Nicole Jordan-Gant, who lives in Seminole County, said she eats at Brio about once a month, partially because its easy to get a seat.

"I love their environment, and they are very friendly," she said. "I did try something new last time I went and it was absolutely delicious."

Both Bravo and Brio restaurants undergo remodels in the coming years, including a handful starting this year to make them brighter and more modern, Blum said.

Expanding beyond

Blum emphasizes running an efficient restaurant company, focused on the basics of cooking good, consistent food and using its size to keep prices down.

One strategy, Blum said, is to cut the number of ingredients and focus on higher quality produce and meats.

"You don't have to be more complex to be better," he said.

Blum said the new culinary and beverage training center will be close to the current headquarters office in the CNL Tower II. At about 6,000-square-feet, it will be roughly the size of a full-size casual dining restaurant and built to test new recipes and train chefs and managers.

"The idea is all about innovation and being flexible," he said.

After Brio and Bravo are put on the right course, FoodFirst will start looking for other restaurants to buy or develop.

"We're not just focused on being a casual dining company," Blum said. "There are a lot of areas in the restaurant industry we are interested in."

FoodFirst, Bravo Brio's new owner, moving headquarters to Florida
Columbus Dispatch

By JD Malone
November 7, 2018

The Italian chains founded in Columbus 26 years ago, are moving staff to Orlando, Fla., as its new owner establishes a new headquarters.
Bravo Brio's brass is moving to Florida, 26 years after the restaurant company was founded in central Ohio.

The new parent company of the Italian chains, FoodFirst Global Restaurants, will move its headquarters from Bravo Brio's offices in the Grandview Heights area to Orlando, Fla. About 40 positions will relocate from Columbus to Orlando. The Columbus office will continue to serve as a support center for the Bravo and Brio chains.

"We see (Orlando) as the epicenter of casual dining," said Brad Blum, CEO of FoodFirst. "We will be better able to recruit the best and brightest people."
Orlando is the home of Darden Restaurants, the parent company of Olive Garden and Longhorn Steakhouse, and of course Disney. Blum was an executive at Darden for several years and also at Burger King, which at the time was based in Florida.

Blum cited Orlando's larger airport which offers far more international and direct flights than John Glenn International does as another factor in the headquarters move. Blum is hoping to tap into the talent in Orlando to fuel the growth of FoodFirst.

"We think Bravo and Brio have a great deal of long-term growth potential," he said, "and we have an opportunity to acquire other brands and create brands from scratch."

With that in mind, FoodFirst is also building a culinary center in Orlando.

FoodFirst will keep a staff of 20 to 25 in Columbus for the foreseeable future, Blum said, and staff in Florida will make frequent trips north. Ohio and Florida are Bravo and Brio's largest markets. The change does not affect the company's five central Ohio restaurants (including Bon Vie).

"I do have to say, we really like Columbus a lot," said Blum, a Cincinnati native and graduate of Denison University, "and we will continue to spend a lot of time in Columbus."

Bravo Brio was founded in central Ohio in 1992 by Rick and Chris Doody. Chris Doody left the company years ago and has since founded his own chain, Piada. Bravo Brio has 110 stores split between the two brands across 32 states.

The company staggered through years of declining sales, saw its CEO leave for Bob Evans Farms, and attracted a few activist investors who pushed the company for major changes. In the end, Bravo Brio ran out of money and agreed to sell itself earlier this year to GP Investments, which formed FoodFirst, for $100 million.

FoodFirst Global Restaurants, Inc. Announces the Establishment of New World Headquarters in Orlando, Florida

FoodFirst to Locate in a Prime Downtown Business, Cultural and Residential Part of the City

The Company will also Build a New State-of-the-Art Culinary & Training Center to Focus Keenly on Menu Innovation and Premier Guest Satisfaction

ORLANDO, FL - November 7, 2018 - FoodFirst Global Restaurants, Inc., a newly formed restaurant company whose mission is to provide Good Food for the Planet™, has established its headquarters in downtown Orlando, Florida. The company is building a platform to own a variety of brands and businesses in the restaurant and food industry. Its first two brands are BRIO Tuscan Grille, which is being repositioned in the polished, upscale segment of casual dining as BRIO Italian Mediterranean and BRAVO Cucina Italiana, which will be renamed BRAVO Fresh Italian as a core casual dining brand.

"This is a dream come true for me, said Founder, Owner-Partner, Chairman & CEO Brad Blum. "It is important to have The Right Purpose, to have The Right Leaders and to have The Right Owners. We have all three. Everyone is aligned around the same values, vision and strategy. And now, we have chosen an exciting high-quality environment in which to build our strong and dynamic company."

As for The Right Purpose, each brand and business that makes up part of FoodFirst Global Restaurants, Inc. will be committed to the philosophy of Good Food for the Planet™. It is something Blum developed with five principles, to provide restaurant food in this country, and around the world, that is:
  1. Exceptionally GOOD tasting
  2. Remarkably GOOD for you
  3. You feel GOOD afterwards
  4. A GOOD everyday value
  5. GOOD for the environment
As for the Right Leaders, Orlando will be the primary base of operation for FoodFirst Global's executive team including: Blum; Chief Culinary Officer, John Imbriolo; newly appointed President & Chief Operations Officer, Dave Pickens; Board Director, Strategic Partner, Chief Marketing & Technology Officer, John Wong; Chief Development Officer, Mike Ellis; Chief Financial Officer, Diane Reed and a number of other key leaders. FoodFirst Global Restaurants has uniquely structured its leadership team so that the Chief Culinary Officer reports directly to the CEO alongside the Chief Operations Officer, Chief Financial Officer, Chief Marketing Officer and SVP of Beverages & Global Distribution, a decision which the company believes will make it better able to craft the optimal guest experience and grow guest counts profitably.

As for the Right Owners, GP Investments, Ltd. is a leading alternative global investment firm with a strong track record and who is also working effectively with progressive restaurant companies. Having offices currently in Sao Paulo, London, New York and Bermuda, they are individual investors who are partnering closely with Blum, who is also a major investor, and his executive team, each taking a long-term view to build this business in a highly valuable way. Antonio Bonchristiano, who is the CEO of GP Investments, serves as the Vice Chairman of FoodFirst Global Restaurants, Inc. Danilo Gamboa and Felipe Ohanian also serve as FoodFirst board directors. Said Blum, "I am thrilled to be working with a global partner with the qualities of GP Investments and look forward to building something quite special together. They are great owners."

The decision of where to locate the new headquarters is rooted in the accessibility of Orlando from an international travel and infrastructure standpoint and the quality of life in Central Florida, coupled with Blum's personal ties to the Greater Orlando area. The area offers a thriving economy and a culture of innovation known to attract families and millennials alike. "As a long-time resident of Winter Park, FL, I have been an admirer of the way in which the greater Orlando area has grown," said Blum. "Our new company headquarters will be an excellent environment as we work together to foster innovation. It is a diverse community and has a great deal of international tourism."

The current support center based in Columbus, Ohio, the birthplace of both BRAVO and BRIO, will continue to play an important role in certain parts of support operations for FoodFirst Global Restaurants, Inc. Making up the current portfolio, 17% of the BRAVO and BRIO restaurants are located in Ohio and 16% are located in Florida. The company sees excellent growth potential for these two brands throughout the United States and eventually internationally.

For more information, please visit us at www.foodfirst.com.

About FoodFirst Global Restaurants, Inc.

FoodFirst Global Restaurants, Inc.™ is a collaboration between restaurateur/owner-partner Brad Blum and GP Investments, Ltd. At FoodFirst Global Restaurants, we are building a platform to own a variety of brands and businesses. The mission for each of these brands and businesses is to provide Good Food for the Planet. We are passionate about good food, know good food, enjoy good food, and are dedicated to always improving upon and consistently providing good food. For more information, visit www.foodfirst.com.

Media Contact:
Coltrin & Associates, Inc.
Jennifer Webb, 212-221-1616

Former Darden Senior Executive, Dave Pickens, to Join FoodFirst Global Restaurants, Inc. as President & Chief Operations Officer

Pickens to Elevate Operations at BRIO Tuscan Grille and BRAVO Cucina Italiana

COLUMBUS, Ohio - November 6, 2018 -- FoodFirst Global Restaurants, Inc., the owner of polished upscale casual dining brands BRIO Tuscan Grille and BRAVO Cucina Italiana, today announced the appointment of industry veteran Dave Pickens to the position of President & Chief Operations Officer. Pickens will be responsible for the oversight of all BRIO and BRAVO restaurants to ensure Operations Excellence, Guest Count Growth and Effective Cost Management. In addition, Pickens will focus on improving efficiency and elevating the quality of service for guests in accordance with FoodFirst Global's mission of providing Good Food for the Planet™.

"We began the process of reinvigorating our brands by elevating the food through the assembly of a world-class culinary team. Dave's appointment represents the next step toward fulfilling our mission," said Brad Blum, Owner-Partner, Chairman & CEO of FoodFirst Global Restaurants, Inc. "Providing food that tastes amazing and is also good for you is central to our mission. I am thrilled that Dave is joining our team as he brings a wealth of knowledge, leadership and operations experience. I look forward to his positive contributions as we distinguish BRIO and BRAVO into being excellent businesses and the employer of choice." Pickens has a highly successful track record in the casual dining industry. His career began as an hourly employee with Red Lobster and grew through all levels of operations. Pickens served with Blum on the Olive Garden leadership team as Executive Vice President of Operations during the brand's monumental turnaround. He later served as President to carry the vision forward with consistently strong results. Blum and Pickens created extraordinary shareholder value for Darden as Olive Garden became its most profitable flagship brand, achieving 57 consecutive quarters of same-restaurant sales increases.

"I am eager to partner again with Brad and join the FoodFirst Global Restaurants officer team," said Pickens. "I believe I can contribute to the company's exciting vision by further elevating the operations of two brands that already hold enormous potential and positively influence overall performance. By having very high standards, setting restaurant teams up for success and holding people accountable, we will ensure that all facets of the guest experience are exceptional while creating an excellent work environment for our employees. Both of these outcomes are key components to consistently achieving our desired long-term financial goals."

Pickens will report directly to Blum and serve as a key member of FoodFirst Global Restaurants' leadership team. He will directly oversee Executive Vice President of Operations for BRIO, Rob Viveros, and Senior Vice President of Operations for BRAVO, Lou Rios, in meeting and exceeding the company's financial goals. In addition, Pickens, Viveros, Rios and Chief Culinary Officer John Imbriolo will work closely with Senior Vice President of Training and Operations Support for FoodFirst Global, Eric Tucker, on matters related to training and personnel development as the restaurants prepare to introduce significantly improved menus at both BRIO and BRAVO. Rounding out the leadership team are Chief Financial Officer Diane Reed, Chief Marketing & Technology Officer John Wong and Chief Development Officer Mike Ellis.

For more information, please visit us at www.foodfirst.com.

About FoodFirst Global Restaurants, Inc.
FoodFirst Global Restaurants, Inc.™ is a collaboration between restaurateur/owner-partner Brad Blum and GP Investments, Ltd. At FoodFirst Global Restaurants, we are building a platform to own a variety of brands and businesses. The mission for each of these brands and businesses is to provide Good Food for the Planet™. We are passionate about good food, know good food, enjoy good food, and are dedicated to always improving upon and consistently providing good food. For more information, visit www.foodfirst.com

Media Contact:
Coltrin & Associates
Frank Garcia

Restaurateur Brad Blum and GP Investments Announce Formation of New Restaurant Company - FoodFirst Global Restaurants

New Entity Has Closed on the Acquisition of Brio Tuscan Grille and Bravo Cucina Italiana as Its First Brands

COLUMBUS, Ohio - May 29, 2018 - American restaurateur Bradley D. Blum and Brazilian-based investment firm GP Investments, Ltd. today announced the formation of a new restaurant company, FoodFirst Global Restaurants, Inc.™. With the intention to be a progressive, relevant, diverse and highly successful restaurant company for the 21st century, FoodFirst Global Restaurants has acquired its first brands, Brio Tuscan Grille™ (Brio) and Bravo Cucina Italiana™ (Bravo) in a transaction which closed on May 24, 2018.

The all-new board of directors includes Brad Blum as Chairman and CEO with Antonio Bonchristiano, GP Investments CEO, serving as Vice-Chairman. In addition, it was announced that leading restaurant executive Bob Mock will join the FoodFirst Global Restaurants leadership team and again partner with Blum, serving as Chief Operations Officer. Diane Reed will stay on as the company's Chief Financial Officer, Treasurer and Secretary.

"This inspired partnership that has created FoodFirst Global Restaurants represents an entrepreneurial endeavor with all parties contributing significant capital and professional skill," said Blum. "As a private company, the board of directors can take a long-term view and allow the leadership team to focus on developing superior restaurant brands that serve superior food with a superior guest experience. We will set up our diverse employee teams for success, starting with the critical importance of having superior restaurant general managers who are well trained leaders. We believe that focus will create a virtuous cycle that will quickly result in superior profitability. GP Investments is the perfect partner to develop this unique, differentiated company. The opportunities for growth and expansion are significant."

The Brio and Bravo brands have historically enjoyed success in the polished casual dining segment. The brands now have the opportunity to be refreshed. "We will do this by relentlessly focusing on the quality of the food, improving the menu, sharpening the operations, remodeling the restaurants and delivering a highly differentiated guest experience," said Blum. "We took the company private, so we could invest in the company. That begins with our almost 10,000 employees who represent the face of the Brio and Bravo brands. By being a private company, this has enabled the liquidity crisis to be solved with much lower debt on the balance sheet and significant investment capital added to profitably grow the business."

GP Investments, one of the leading investment firms in Brazil, has deep experience in the restaurant industry with brands including Fogo De Chao where the firm enacted a highly profitable turnaround and successfully expanded the chain into the U.S. GP Investments is the lead investor in LEON Naturally Fast Food, a progressive restaurant company headquartered in London that is quickly expanding throughout the UK and northern Europe, and will soon be introduced into the United States.

"Brad has a proven track record with multiple restaurant companies. That is why we are making this investment. His diverse teams drive profitability by creating a great culture, focusing on the food, achieving operations excellence, consistently offering an enjoyable guest experience and providing strong brand communication," said Antonio Bonchristiano. "As owner-partners, we place our confidence in his leadership and that of his team. We expect a long, profitable relationship."

"We thank outgoing CEO Brian O'Malley for his leadership in helping to orchestrate a smooth transition as the company went private. We also thank co-founders Rick Doody and Chris Doody for having created a legacy that they now leave in our care. We have great respect for the work that has been done to build these valuable brands."

FoodFirst Global Restaurants will be grounded within a philosophy Blum created which is referenced as Good Food for the Planet™. The five defining pillars are to consistently provide food that is:
  1. Exceptionally GOOD tasting
  2. Remarkably GOOD for you
  3. You feel GOOD afterwards
  4. A GOOD everyday value
  5. GOOD for the environment
About FoodFirst Global Restaurants, Inc.™
FoodFirst Global Restaurants is a collaboration between American restaurateur/owner-partner Brad Blum and Brazilian-based investment firm GP Investments, Ltd. At FoodFirst Global Restaurants, we are passionate about good food, know good food, enjoy good food, and are dedicated to always improving upon and consistently providing good food. For more information, visit www.foodfirst.com.

About Bravo Brio Restaurant Group, Inc.
Bravo Brio Restaurant Group, Inc. (BBRG) is a leading owner and operator of two distinct Italian restaurant brands, BRAVO! Cucina Italiana™ and BRIO Tuscan Grille™. Since its founding in 1992, the brands have been positioned as multifaceted culinary destinations that deliver the food quality, service, ambiance and design elements reminiscent of fine dining restaurants, but at a value typically offered by casual dining establishments. Fresh flavorful ingredients and authentic Italian cooking methods are combined with attentive service in an attractive, lively atmosphere. The group strives to be the best Italian restaurant company in America by focusing on providing its guests with a consistently excellent dining experience.

About GP Investments, Ltd.
GP Investments is a leading alternative investment firm. Since its founding in 1993, GP Investments has raised $5 billion from investors worldwide and has completed investments in more than 50 companies and has executed over 20 equity capital market transactions. GP Investments has a consistent and disciplined investment strategy targeting established companies that have the potential to grow and be more efficient and profitable by becoming leaders in their industries. Since 2006, GP Investments has been listed on the Brazilian Stock Exchange (B3 S.A. - Brasil, Bolsa, Balcão) under the ticker symbol GPIV33 and on the Luxembourg Stock Exchange. The firm currently has offices in São Paulo, London, New York, and Bermuda. For more information, visit www.gp-investments.com.

Media Contact:
Coltrin & Associates, Inc. (on behalf of FoodFirst Global Restaurants)
Frank Garcia

Bravo Brio's new owners plan food, restaurant improvements
The Columbus Dispatch
By Tim Feran
May 29, 2018

Bravo Brio's new parent launches FoodFirst Global Restaurants Inc.
Former Olive Garden president Brad Blum to build multi concept group
Nation's Restaurant News
By Lisa Jennings
May 29, 2018

Bravo Brio acquisition sparks new restaurant company formation
Food Business News
By Rebekah Schouten
May 29, 2018

Casual-Dining Chains Step Up to the Plate
Wall Street Journal
By Tim Feran
July 3, 2018