Michael Golden sat back with a jungle-colored Mo'Green smoothie at Bryn and Dane's in Plymouth Meeting, telling how he's diversified his investments since his days as an e-commerce pioneer.
That same Thursday, King of Prussia-based eBay Enterprise, a business built on the online retail-fulfillment business Golden cofounded with Michael Rubin, announced it had been re-sold for $925 million to Georgia rival Innotrac and its private-equity backers. EBay had paid $2.4 billion for Enterprise, then known as GSI Commerce, just four years before. It had been the anti-Amazon, filling online orders for retailers not ready to do their own. But it suffered as online sales morphed, from an exotic specialty, to the heart of every big retailer: "When you succeed too well, they move everything in-house, and you can end up out-of-business," Golden observed.
That's someone else's problem now. Like Rubin, Golden says, "I have made tons of investments alongside venture capitalists. Real estate. Tech companies, software, e-commerce. Things I know about. Also, things I get passionate about."
The things he knows about include upstarts like Swirl Mobile (beacon-based marketing technology), Yieldify (it pings your orphaned online purchases when you visit stores with similar products), CandiDate (a Philadelphia tech recruiting/matchmaking service, soon available in New York). He's in funds like Metamorphic, a New York venture investor that, like Philadelphia-based FirstRound Capital, specializes in early-stage invesments, and Vast Ventures, a Softbank spinoff which is among the backers of Sweetgreens, one of a string of venture-backed green "fast casual" restaurant chains -- others include Tender Greens and LifeKitchens -- that are challenging the burger kingdoms.
Among his passions, you can count Bryn and Dane's, which is why we're sitting in this boxy white-and-wood smoothies-wraps-salads-fruitwaters restaurant out in Plymouth Meeting, with its west windows drawing a resort-quality summer breeze, its lunch crowd of clean-cut families and teens, mint and basil growing on its roof.
Are green-themed restaurants inevitable for VC investors, this year? "There's a lot of thematic investing going on," Golden agrees. "People who have invested in technology and social media companies, are now invested in this space. This has exactly the right profile. It's a concept doing much better than we expected."
Golden met founder Bryn Davis at a junior-high business-incubator event at tony Chestnut Hill Academy, where Golden's son and Davis' kid brother were schoolmates last year. "Since I've been going to Bryn and Dane's, which I do four times a week, I've lost five pounds," Golden bragged.
"As an investor you like to see really big markets. And you don't find many industries as big as fast food," he adds. "I see the KFCs and McDonalds all being replaced by healthy, more socially responsible type fast food solutions. Kids, that's what they want."
I note there are still plenty of grilled-meat-smelling chain-burger joints on nearby Germantown Ave. The rising generation has grown beyond that, Golden insists: "When I was a kid at (Plymouth-Whitemarsh) High School, me and my friends hung at Burger King on Ridge Pike. Now my kids (they are 11 and 14) won't eat the things we grew up eating. Now all the kids in that school are at Bryn and Dane's. My daughter gets the chicken strips. My son tries a different wrap each time. They love the smoothies."
Mickey D's has updated its menus, and has marketing muscle to spare, I protest. Chipotle's gives the people choice, and they're flocking flock in. "Our menu can change in real time. That's what's neat about it," countered founder Bryn Davis, who joined us. The chains seek consistency; this, by contrast, "is a marketplace where we can assemble the freshest local ingredients. Our whole business will be as an ingredient sourcer. We gather it on a digital screen. We don't have to print menus. We are known for our philosophy. Not defined by burgers or burritos."
Yes, they serve meat -- but it won't show up on your smartphone Bryn and Dane's ordering app if you've shown you are a vegan. There are baked sweet-potato 'fries,' and berry cups, and kegged ice tea, sparkling water, even kale lemonade, instead of Pepsi. Beverages alone clear $1 million a year at that store. "We just partnered with La Colombe to start breakfast this month."
But Golden has urban aspirations, too. "With the City of Philadelphia shutting down so many public schools, we're starting to do interesting things with them," he said. He's partnered with Davin Lamm (whose father Harvey set up Subaru America) to buy the James Alcorn School and neighboring buildings in Grays Ferry, close to the ex-DuPont paint plant where the University of Pennsylvania engineering school has set up a business incubator. As they recruit social services tenants (veteran programs, drug rehab), "on the roof we have an opportunity to build a working farm for Bryn and Dane's. Up on the fifth floor -- it's the same level as the Schuylkill Expressway -- that will make for great signage" as Bryn and Dane's adds its first Philadelphia locations to its stores in Plymouth Meeting and Horsham and the Ambler YMCA, Golden says.
Davis worked at his insurance executive grandfather's retirement farm in Schuylkill County, graduated from Elizabethtown College, and started his first smoothie stand in Ocean City in the late 2000s, renting from boardwalk landlord Jay Gillian. Physical-therapy clinic founder, ex-Sixers frontman and past O.C. fixture Pat Croce -- who also backed GSI -- helped hook up his early backers. It was a good time to start a business, in a recession: Equipment and rents were cheap.
Expanding to Horsham, Davis hit up friends and family and, through the prep-school encounter, Golden. "He may do a bigger round soon," raise $20 million or more, add a a dozen stores, says Golden. "Bryn has been very, very entrepreneurial. The business in Horsham cost less than $150,000 to set up, and it does a couple million dollars of business a year. And we are applying so much new tech, new mobile apps, for a new experience."
Nextep Systems, based in Troy, Michigan, (CORRECTED) powers the ordering touchscreens. The company also supplies the locally-based Honeygrow chain.
LevelUp (which also works with La Colombe) does the social-media "engagement piece." "This is, I think, the first time those two are working together," Golden says. All the marketing is on social media. "We can change it realtime and always stay relevant." That "customization and personalization" -- with convenience and competitive prices, $5 for a shake that feels like lunch, another $10 for a wrap or salad and sides -- "is what customers want today. Restaurants have found that difficult to combine with being big and scaleable."
Bryn and Dane's suburban character, and its focus on substituting McDonald's and fast-food, rather than modeling itself toward Applebee's and the fast-casual market as other green chains do, sets it apart a bit: "We're proving ourselves in the suburbs. A lot of those guys don't want to go that way," says Golden, of his downtown and college campus-focused hip competition. "We're like McDonald's, Wendy's, Burger King, with kids' meals, with breakfasts. We're stealing all the notes of what works."
"I'm absolutely going to particpate in the next fundraising round," Golden concludes "This is what I imagine an Apple restaurant -- an iRestaurant -- would be."