When Jack Flechner purchased the Florida franchise rights to a New Orleans-based restaurant chain called VooDoo BBQ & Grill in 2011, he had big plans to open 26 stores over the next decade. His enthusiasm may have been somewhat unfounded.
Given the continued credit crunch, especially for risky ventures like restaurants, he had little luck in finding a bank or investors willing to finance his expansion plans. "Unless you're a large established business or have tremendous personal assets to use as collateral, the credit markets are difficult to crack," says Flechner. "Without the cash to expand, you're pretty much out of luck."
Flechner thought he had exhausted all his options, until he learned of a government-run program that offers access to low-cost capital supplied by foreign investors. Called the Immigrant Investor Pilot Program, but more commonly known as EB-5, the program is run by the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, or USCIS, and enables foreign investors to earn green cards in return for investing $1 million or more in a U.S. business that creates at least 10 new jobs.
EB-5 has drawn some criticism since it was established in 1990. For some, the idea of allowing foreigners to essentially buy a green card is a little unsettling. There have also been reported abuses and fraud within the program, such as fudged job-creation numbers and money laundering. However, it has received bipartisan support in Congress and was recently renewed through 2015 by President Obama.
The program has had its fair share of high-profile successes as well. Jay Peak, a ski resort in Vermont, raised more than $200 million to build an assortment of hotels and lodges with the help of foreign investors. The new Atlantic Yards development in Brooklyn, New York, home of the Brooklyn Nets basketball team, also tapped EB-5 funds. As a whole, it is estimated that close to $1 billion was raised through the EB-5 program in 2011.
Most of the investments made through the EB-5 program now go through entities known as USCIS regional centers, which act as conduits for foreign capital. There are 218 regional centers operating in the U.S., most of them based in rural or targeted employment areas. (If a regional center project is located in a rural or high-unemployment zone, then investors have to put up only a $500,000 stake rather than $1 million to qualify for a green card.)
To get his expansion on track, Flechner worked with Exclusive Visas, a Weston, Florida-based firm that helps businesses navigate the EB-5 program. It took about six months for the plan to be approved by the USCIS. It called for money to be raised in six phases, with the first phase targeting 10 investors who would invest a total of $5 million to build the first four restaurants, which would create about 175 jobs.
With the project approved, the Exclusive Visas team began shopping it to potential investors around the world. It began with China, whose investors have been the most active in the EB-5 program to date. "China is more aware and organized when it comes to EB-5," says Fred Burgess, co-founder of Exclusive Visas. "But we're also seeing a lot more interest from India and Brazil, along with countries like Egypt and Venezuela that have been going through political upheavals."
Flechner, who flew to China to meet with several potential investors, says it took four months to land the 10 investors for his first phase. Two were from China, and the others came from Canada, Nigeria, Bangladesh, and Norway. "We have our own little United Nations going on," he says.
A nice advantage of EB-5 is that because investors are participating to earn their green card, most are less concerned with receiving a large return. The investment in Flechner's business, for example, is structured as a five-year loan, with the investors receiving interest at 2 percent to 2.5 percent. Like typical investments, the money is considered "at risk."
"Investors like me are more concerned with just getting our initial investment back," says Anthony Korda, a British immigrant who invested in the Jay Peak project in 2006 to earn his visa and now works as an immigration attorney in Florida. "Although that's changing as more projects are started," he adds. Most of the projects funded through EB-5 to date have been in real estate, manufacturing, and restaurants, in part because it is easier for investors in those areas to estimate how many jobs are likely to be created.
Although the EB-5 program can be an alternative source of capital, there are several caveats. For one, the money doesn't come quickly. It often takes more than a year before funding makes it through the entire USCIS approval process. Then there are upfront administrative costs and consulting fees, along with any travel costs accrued in landing investors. Flechner says he spent about $100,000 before he raised his first dollar.
With his first four restaurants due to open early this year, Flechner is already working on landing investors for future restaurants. In addition, he has decided to invest in another restaurant franchise called Twin Peaks, which he also plans to fund through the EB-5 program. "This program is giving me the ability to open a lot of stores and employ a lot of people in Florida," he says.