Yardbird is spreading its wings.
The finger-lickin’ chicken biscuits, fried green tomatoes and deviled eggs that transformed a dilapidated corner grocery store on South Beach into an award-winning restaurant are now helping it go national. Yardbird Southern Table & Bar has sold a minority stake to investors with the goal of opening at least two new restaurants a year in major cities in the United States and abroad, its founder said.
Yardbird’s dining companion? Trispan Rising Stars, a private equity firm that claims to have invested more than $400 million in more than 20 restaurants around the world. Terms of the deal were not disclosed.
“We needed a financial partner to help us hit the gas,” said founder John Kunkel, who will remain Yardbird’s CEO.
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Kunkel, who started and sold the Lime Fresh taco chain and founded the 50 Eggs restaurant group (Swine, Spring Chicken), stuck gold when he opened Yardbird on South Beach in 2011. It was named one of Bon Appetit’s best new restaurants, and its chef at the time was nominated for a James Beard Award.
The recipe for Yardbird’s success was simple: Add an upscale twist to cuisine that could have been created by a Southern grandma (the fried chicken actually is a tweaked version of Kunkel’s grandmother’s recipe), add bourbon and serve it in a rustic, country-cool space as southern cuisine was coming into vogue nationally. Bam: It quickly became a favorite among locals and tourists.
Yardbird has been building toward expansion since Kunkel opened a location in Las Vegas in 2015. That led to a first international spot in Singapore and an upcoming one in Beverly Hills.
Now, with more cash to spend, Kunkel says he hopes to fill international yards with his chicken, in Chicago, Boston, Dallas, Washington, Dubai and London.
“We’re really looking for gateway cities,” Kunkel said.
Each restaurant will have the Yardbird Southern DNA but also reflect local culture. About a third of the menu will rely on locally grown, seasonal ingredients, Kunkel said. Chicago’s will have more steaks and charcuteries to go up against that city’s steakhouse culture. Boston will have more seafood. Beverly Hills will offer roasted chicken, salads and grilled fish to reflect the health culture.
Kunkel is staying in charge as the majority owner to oversee the expansion, from selecting locations to approving menu changes. This is a lesson he says he learned the hard way from the “sad story” with Lime.
He took out a second mortgage on his house and charged $75,000 to credit cards to open Lime Fresh on Alton Road in 2005. It served fresh, light, locally sourced ingredients on a Mexican-inspired menu with tacos, stuffed burritos and salty, crispy chips — and it became a hit.
He licensed the name to Ruby Tuesday in 2010 and, he said, watched the brand fall apart. It expanded to 19 locations, and Kunkel said the Ruby Tuesday owners let standards waver from restaurant to restaurant. When he had the chance to sell Lime three years later for $24 million, he did. By 2016, Ruby Tuesday sold to a new group of investors.
That bad experience is not going to happen to Yardbird, insists Kunkel, 46, who was named the Ernst & Young Florida Entrepreneur of the Year in 2013. The deal with Trispan says Yardbird will keep corporate chef Patrick Rebholz, sommelier Daniel Toral and beverage director Joshua Holliday.
The question is whether the rest of the country is ready for so many Yardbirds.
“I want to see it grow the right way,” he said. “I want to see it achieve what it can achieve.”