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Top Themes Impacting CRE Retail Strategies in 2H22

RJ Hottovy
Jun 17, 2022
Top Themes Impacting CRE Retail Strategies in 2H22

The second half of 2022 (and potentially longer) is shaping up to be a different consumer environment than many CRE executives have encountered in some time. Still, despite headlines about recession concerns, inflationary headwinds, and changing consumer behavior, data has helped to identify and reinforce several themes that CRE executives need to be aware of as they refine future retail strategies. In this issue of the Anchor, we've revisited several of the key themes we've introduced over the past several months.

Rising Costs to Digitally Serve and Fulfill Will Push Digital Brands into Brick & Mortar

Digital acquisition, customer acquisition costs (CAC), and the cost to serve (fulfillment and shipping) rose appreciably during the past year due to wage and fuel inflationary cost pressures and Apple’s privacy program (IDFA). The Apple IDFA change resulted in social media companies losing their ability to target sought-after audiences and ad networks losing their ability to track users through pixels and cookies. The results of these changes were a reduction in spending on these mediums, a massive shift of ad market share dollars to traditional advertising (TV and outdoor), and increased relative attractiveness of physical retail locations as a means to attract new customers and engage with existing customers. The rising cost and complexity to serve digital-only customers also overwhelmed the operations and margin structure of Amazon, Wayfair, StitchFix, and many others. The consensus view of "omnichannel" shifted as Target became "on spot", with their stores serving as a more economical and sustainable digital fulfillment channel (90% from the stores). As a result, Target’s cost to serve substantially declined during the year. In contrast, the cost to serve via fulfillment and shipping rose by 10%-20% for others. For example, UPS ground will average $10.52 per package in 2022, up $2.00 from 2019.

The above also led to the realization by retail and brand managers that they can’t grow their e-commerce (digital) businesses in a market without having physical business as well. This led Macy’s to pivot from closing many of its 51 "neighborhood stores" to opening 20+ Market by Macy’s stores, a delta of 70+ locations from their pre-pandemic plans. Kohl’s similarly is now looking to open 100 smaller market stores. Relatedly, many formally digitally native brands now have aggressive store opening plans. Our Tenant Overview reports on Warby Parker and Allbirds describe this dynamic.

Consumer Shift from Digital to Physical Catches Many Flat-Footed

A consumer shift to physical retail away from digital retail came very fast off the shortened Omicron wave and it caught many flat-footed. First, it shifted the economy’s mojo to new categories and services. Those that were focused on "in the home" and "cozy" categories were stranded with too much capacity and inventory. Digitally native brands and services lost engagement and customers, including Peloton, StitchFix, Netflix, and Snap all come to mind (something we called out when discussing the E-Commerce Reckoning). Those on the receiving side of the mojo were swamped with demand and had insufficient capacity. Airlines, hotels, restaurants, and other service operators have been unable to hire sufficient staff; as such, higher prices and wait times resulted. Second, this shift came while supply chains were still stretched and as goods were still stuck in ports. For retail, this meant that it was less agile which adversely impacted the 1H22 results for Walmart, Target, off-price retail, and many others. Lastly, the shift has led to a lot of noise and confusion about the strength of the economy and the consumer, leading many to cry that we are heading for a bad recession.

As it relates to real economic growth and recession potential, inflation is the big culprit. We said in January that wage pressures were scalding and a problem. Then came the invasion of Ukraine, which acted as an accelerant of inflation. This week, the Fed moved fast to impose monetary tightening to kill off demand, stimulate production, and cool labor’s expectations for higher wages. The sooner these objectives are achieved, the less the Fed will raise interest rates. What the Fed cannot do is resolve the Ukraine situation, increase refining capacity, or reform immigration (which could bring in 2-4 million skilled workers). Moreover, one large obstacle  to bringing in additional workers is a massive housing shortage in the U.S. (something we have observed this year). Only continued homebuilder activity (another of our themes from this year) can alleviate that need, while also cooling housing’s contributions to unsustainably high inflation.

Store-in-Store? More like Store-as-a-Service

2021 and 2022 have brought about several store-in-store partnerships, including Sephora at Kohl’s, Ulta at TargetApple at TargetBed Bath & Beyond and KrogerToys R Us and Macy’s, and Lowe’s + Petco. The rationale behind these partnerships is relatively straight-forward: the larger retailer fills a gap in its product assortment to differentiate itself from competitors, while the smaller retailer gets a capital-efficient way to broaden its target audience and leverage the larger retailer’s online ordering and distribution platform, in many cases. In many ways, store-in-store partnerships are an extension of the retail trend toward smaller-format stores, which we see as a way for retailers to optimize their ability to reach consumers and offset rising digital customer acquisition costs.

However, we think it’s worth looking at the store-in-store partnership from the larger store’s perspective. Large-format retail has been one of the clear winners during and coming out of the pandemic, benefitting from trip consolidation (particularly within the grocery category), more than a decade of online retail and logistics investments, and other changes in consumer behavior (work/school from home has benefitted consumer electronics retailers like Best Buy, while the migration to the suburbs has clearly helped home improvement retailers like Home Depot and Lowe’s).  As such, it’s not surprising that smaller-format retailers have sought out these partnerships to improve transaction trends.

The economics behind store-within-store partnerships can differ from partnership to partnership, but most involve the smaller retailer or consumer brand leasing square footage from the larger retailer and sometimes paying a percentage commission on sales taking place at the larger retailer’s store. Because the smaller retailer assumes the rent and often the labor expenses for the store-in-store square footage, these arrangements can often be extremely margin-accretive for the larger retailer. Coincidentally, this strategy also explains QSR franchisor’s move to almost entirely franchised systems in the past decade, as well as Amazon’s ongoing shift to a third-party marketplace (56% of units sold are through a third-party arrangement where the company takes a 15%-30% commission depending on whether the third party uses Fulfillment by Amazon (FBA) services). While these types of arrangements are reminiscent of the model that made department stores popular in the 1950s and 1960s, we prefer the way others have described it more recently: store-as-a-service.

Kohl’s + Sephora is a prime example of the store-as-a-service shift
. data continues to indicate that the Sephora at Kohl’s partnership has been a success, averaging higher visitation trends by a mid-single-digit clip at these locations compared to legacy Kohl’s stores (below). Consistent with commentary by CEO Michelle Gass regarding incremental visitors to these locations, we’ve seen the trade areas for these stores increase by an average of 15% (and up to 30% in certain markets) into areas with younger and more culturally diverse audiences. While overall visitation trends have decelerated across much of retail thus far in 2022 (at the same time the retailer is deciding if it is to be taken private), the Sephora at Kohl’s location's trends have continued to outperform the rest of the chain (below). Given the success of Sephora at Kohl’s, it’s not surprising that Kohl’s announced plans to open another 400 store-in-stores during 2022 and remains committed to 850 total Sephora at Kohl’s locations by the end of 2023. Based on the incremental customers coming into these locations, Kohl’s also announced that it will add six new cosmetic brands to these store-in-stores, including Murad, Clarins, Jack Black, Living Proof, Versace and Voluspa.

Beyond Kohl’s + Sephora, data confirms that store-in-store concepts opened in 2021 tended to drive a mid-single-digit lift in comparable store sales for the larger retailer, expanded their average store True Trade Area by 5%-25%, diversified its customer base, and increased customer loyalty. As such, we expect new store-in-store announcements to be a recurring theme in 2022. Assuming these partnerships continue to gain in popularity, larger retailers will be able to command higher lease terms and commission rates from their store-in-store "tenants", which has the potential to alter lease negotiations between landlords and larger retailers in the future.

Brands Pivot their Focus on the U.S. Consumer, Elevating the Value of CRE

Over the past six months, we have observed a significant shift in where durable and stable growth can be found by global consumer brands from international markets to the U.S. consumer. Consequently, these large global brands are pivoting their investments to attract and serve U.S. consumers. Such brands include luxury (Kering, LVMH, and Hermes), mass (Uniqlo and Primark), CPG (Pernod Ricard, Diageo), and auto OEMs (BMW, Mercedes). How are these brands going to attract and serve U.S. consumers? Retail-led omnichannel.

Additional related themes that we have brought forth were that the U.S. domestic luxury consumer is far larger than anyone would have imagined pre-pandemic, and that U.S. Beverage Alcohol retail industry is likely structurally larger than pre-pandemic because consumers learned to broadly explore flavors and higher price points, and they are now more devoted to spending time at home and entertaining with family and friends.

Migration to Smaller Markets by Households, Brands, and Retailers

Historically speaking, smaller markets (populations under 200K) have not offered retailers access to enough customers to make unit economics work. For chain retailers that have succeeded in smaller markets, it usually comes down to unique merchandise assortments that promote higher visit frequency and large basket sizes (Tractor Supply is a great example). However, migration changes have flipped the script and made smaller markets more viable for many retailers, with market populations as small as 50K now in play.

Using’s migration data, it’s easy to piece together why smaller markets have become more attractive to retailer’s commercial real estate strategies. Out of the Top 25 markets that have experienced the greatest absolute population growth since April 2019, roughly half are markets with populations under 500K and a third are populations under 250K (below).

As such, it’s not surprising that several retail and restaurant companies have started to incorporate smaller markets into their longer-term unit growth strategies. In February, Chipotle announced it was raising its longer-term U.S. store base target to 7,000 locations from 6,000 (and compared to 2,966 locations at year-end) due to the success of smaller markets (as well as the ongoing success of the Chipotlane digitally-enabled drive-thru/pick-up window locations). Chipotle CEO Brian Niccol justified the 1,000 unit increase in the chain's longer-term store goal target by noting that small-market Chipotle locations have proven to deliver the same or better store-level economics as traditional locations. While it's not surprising that buildout and lease costs are lower in smaller markets, it was interesting to hear that average unit sales volumes in these markets are roughly equal to the rest of the chain. The company attributes some of its success in smaller markets to being an employer of choice and having strong success in staffing these markets. data confirms that Chipotle locations in smaller markets do see stronger visitation trends than large urban markets. We started by looking at 2021 visit trends for Chipotle locations in the Top DMAs in the U.S. (which collectively represented a little more than half of the chain’s locations), which came out to about 110K visits per location for the year (and still ahead of the QSR and fast casual category average of just under 100K). Using the chain average of 121K visits per location, we were able to back into a non-Top 25 DMA visit per location average of almost 131K. This outperformance makes a compelling case for smaller markets as the path to 7,000 units (and supporting management’s target of 235-250 planned openings for 2022).

Petco has also made the case for smaller markets. According to management, specialty pet products represent a $7B total addressable market (TAM) in rural markets, with Petco having an opportunity to capture $1.3B. To this end, the company has been testing a "Neighborhood Farm & Pet Supply" format in several southern markets combining traditional pet merchandise, livestock merchandise, and services (vet clinics, mobile grooming, and self-wash stations). data confirms that Petco is already seeing success in smaller markets, with visits per location in non-Top 25 DMA markets running almost 8% higher than Top-25 DMA markets in 2021 (below). (With many consumers migrating to smaller markets during the pandemic coupled with high pet adoption rates and expanded omnichannel capabilities, the conditions might be right to facilitate rural store expansion efforts).

Rising Cost of Capital and Demand for Profits from Digital Brands Improves Financial Returns For CRE

It’s often said that history doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes. This year’s tech wreck in the stock market strongly rhymes with the dot-com bubble. The similarity is that both saw a massive misallocation of capital caused by an almost zero cost of capital, resulting in both a valuation bubble and a lot of market capitalization attributed to businesses with uncompelling unit economics. The difference is that the dot-com period also saw a massive amount of excess investment spending in the internet’s infrastructure and in PC hardware/software.

This time around, there has been no infrastructure overinvestment. The "overinvestment" this time was really in fiscal and monetary stimulus to offset the economic contraction caused by the pandemic. That stimulus is a one-year burn-off, not a collapse of a multitude of industries and massive job losses. That said, the current wreck means less enterprise investment in new jobs and expansion into new markets, fewer new companies, and a curtailment in demand for employees and enterprise services. It also means that earlier-stage companies have to demonstrate robust unit economics and can no longer operate under the philosophy of "growth at any cost." Should this come to pass, production capacity constraints, supply chain shortages, and wage expectations will all come under control and become more predictable, as is the Fed’s intent with its tightening.

Where this leaves commercial real estate, besides the obvious returns, cap rates, and occupancy outlooks, is that physical retail of goods and services will have less competition from free-spending (negative unit economic) digital disruptors. Longer-term, this would imply that tenants should be able to earn higher rates of return as they are no longer competing against digital disruptors that effectively had no cost of capital. Higher rates of return vis-a-vis higher margins should allow these businesses to pay higher rents. Obviously, higher real interest rates mean that rents and cap rates will have to move higher. The good news here is that those higher rents may not push occupancy higher (ceteris paribus) because the tenant’s margins and profits will have also moved higher.

Digital Loyalty Programs Becoming Important Visitation Drivers

The past several weeks have been eventful for the restaurant industry, with QSR chains continuing to post solid visitation trends, fast casual chains seeing moderating visitation trends (but still positive YoY), and full-service restaurants seeing steeper YoY visitation declines (below). These trends can largely be tied back to gas price increases and other inflationary pressures. Historically, rising gas prices have been a negative for QSR operators, but when coupled with food-at-home and food-away-from-home inflation, we've seen lower-to-middle-income households continue to visit QSR chains (as well as convenience and dollar stores). At the same time, these factors present headwinds for sit-down restaurant visits as consumers more carefully consider discretionary purchases (although we continue to see evidence of higher checks at casual dining chains, and not just because of inflation as some casual dining restaurant chains noted that units per transaction was also a positive contributor this past quarter).

Another factor may be driving visitation trends across the QSR category: digital ordering platform and loyalty programs. Most QSR and fast casual restaurant chains have unveiled some sort of loyalty program during COVID as a way to increase visitation frequency and improve one-to-one marketing capabilities. McDonald’s is a good example. After rolling out the program six months ago, management reported that McDonald’s loyalty program now encompassed 30M members in the U.S. and 21M actively earning rewards beyond their initial enrollment. This is helping to drive greater consumer engagement, with the company reporting a 10% increase in digital customer frequency during the first few months following the launch. With roughly 25% of transactions coming through digital channels (including its own app and delivery aggregators), we’re seeing a meaningful increase in customer frequency, with estimated visits per customer up nearly 15% since 2019 (below). While McDonald’s has committed to new restaurant openings in 2022 (25 net locations with, 100 new openings and 75 closures), we believe customer frequency will become a more prominent part of McDonald’s and other QSR chains' growth engines in the years to come.

Chipotle Rewards program, which now has nearly 28 million members, has been effective in driving repeat visits.  Similar to McDonald’s, Chipotle’s rewards program (in conjunction with new product innovations and restaurant layouts) appears to be having a positive impact on visitor frequency trends (below).

Home Improvement Cycle Still Has Legs Despite Interest Rate and Inflation Concerns

While CRE executives have likely been asking themselves questions about the impact of inflation, rising interest rates, and the overall health of the U.S. consumer, recent results from Home Depot and Lowe’s reinforced our previous views that homeowners remain relatively healthy, and that the home improvement retailer category will remain a structurally large part of the economy going forward. While visitations are down YoY as we lap two exceptionally strong years of demand, and there are signs of slowing new home construction, the outlook for home improvement visitations is positive, as they have a higher correlation with home price appreciation for existing homeowners:

Richard McPhail, Home Depot CFO
"[T]o start with who our customer is, you need to keep in mind our customers are homeowners. Virtually all sales to our Pro customers are on behalf of a homeowner, and over 90% of our DIY customers are homeowners as well. So let's talk about home improvement demand and what drives it.

Over our history, we've seen that home price appreciation is the primary driver of home improvement demand. When your home appreciates in value, you view it as a smart investment, and you spend more on it. So let's look at what's happened at home prices. We've seen appreciation of over 30% over the last two years. In fact, home equity values over the last two years have increased by 40% or over $7 billion just in the last two years. So the homeowner has never had a balance sheet that looks like this. They've seen the price appreciation, and they have the means to spend. And in surveys, our customers tell us that their homes have never been more important, and their intent to do projects of all sizes has never been higher. And our Pros say the same thing about their backlogs.

So let's talk about interest rates. I think it's important to remember that our addressable market is the 130 million housing units occupied in the U.S…Of those 130 million housing units, on any given year, only about 4% or 5% are sold. That means that over 95% of our customers are staying in place. They're not shopping for a mortgage. Nearly 40% of those homes are owned outright.

Of those who have mortgages, about 93% of those mortgages are fixed rates. So when you think about our addressable market, the vast majority aren't really paying attention to mortgage rates. And what we've -- what's interesting about that is what we've heard, when they do look at moving, they're actually more and more tempted to stay in their low fixed rate mortgage and remodel their home instead. So these low locked-in mortgages are probably a benefit to an improvement.

With home prices remaining healthy, existing homeowners locked in fixed rate mortgages, and other non-traditional tailwinds (including increased wear and tear as more consumers work and school-from-home), it’s easier to piece together a positive outlook for this retail category. There will be temporary disruptions, as we saw with the late start to the spring selling season due to unfavorable weather that impacted other retailers as well as cost inflation running in the low-double-digits across many categories (including copper, building materials, and lumber, although lumber prices have fallen recently and are down 35% Y/Y).

Despite the headwinds,’s visitation numbers still point to relatively strong retailer health across the home improvement category. In particular, Home Depot and Lowe’s continue to see strength with their Pro customers, driven by underlying strength in project demand. Home Depot said that its big-ticket comp transactions (those over $1,000) were up +12.4% YoY during the most recent quarter (with strength across categories like pipe and fittings, gypsum, and fasteners) and Lowe’s also noted strength in its Pro customer sales (up 20% YoY in 1Q22, with management also noting a 600-basis-point improvement in Pro sales penetration in the U.S. over the past three years, improving from approximately 19% in 1Q19 to 25% in 1Q22).

Healthcare Retailers Shrinking to Grow

Two key CRE themes have emerged among pharmacy chains in 2022. First, while many expected visitations and sales growth to see some mean reversion in 2022 as these chains lapped last year’s vaccination push, the decline has not been as severe as expected with visitation trends remaining ahead of pre-pandemic levels. Second, with both CVS and Walgreens already undergoing store base optimization efforts (with CVS already 100 locations into its 900 planned store closure plan over the next three years) we can start to see future retail plans for the category taking shape.

With evolving consumer behavior regarding healthcare access and strong post-vaccination foot traffic trends, the decision to reinvigorate its retail base with healthcare-focused locations (including primary care services, enhanced versions of Health Hubs, and CVS locations combining prescription, health and wellness services, and traditional retail offerings) strikes us as prudent. That said, the closing of 900 locations will free up a number of potential real estate options in the 10,000-15,000 square foot range, and CRE executives may want to start examining these store closures in greater detail.

  • Increased healthcare retail visitation trends continue. While it's not surprising that visitation trends at CVS and Walgreens have moderated the past few months as we lap more difficult comparisons from last year’s primary vaccination period, visitation trends remain ahead of 2019 (below) and could indicate that consumer demand for alternative healthcare solutions and health and wellness products is likely to remain elevated in the future. In particular, CVS and Walgreens both called out its strength in the front of the store this quarter, including over-the-counter COVID testing (not surprising) as well as other categories (perhaps more of a surprise). CVS’s visitation trends are also being helped by its CarePass membership, which is up 33% year-over-year to 6 million members, and should help to drive increased visit frequency in the future (while also serving as a customer acquisition tool for its more comprehensive healthcare-oriented retail formats going forward).
  • Optimized retail store footprint taking shape. CVS continues to optimize its retail portfolio and will emphasize three distinct models going forward: (1) advanced primary care clinics, (2) enhanced HealthHUB locations and (3) traditional CVS Pharmacy locations. Thus far in 2022, the company has closed approximately 100 stores out of the 300 planned for this year (and the 900 planned by the end of 2024). What does data indicate about these closures? We’ve identified roughly half of the 100 locations CVS has closed this year (below). The bulk of closures appear to be in two types of markets: (1) urban markets with higher migration away trends the past few years, including Chicago and San Francisco; and (2) smaller markets (typically between 50K-150K in population) in Midwest states (including Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Michigan, and Minnesota) that previously had multiple CVS locations (below). This isn’t terribly surprising, as CVS Chief Customer Officer Michelle Peluso had previously discussed the intention to "de-densify" its portfolio and that 85% of its consumers will still live within 10 miles of a CVS Health once the company has completed its store closures. Over time, we would not be surprised to see many of these markets add an enhanced HealthHUB or advanced primary care location offering comprehensive services.

Fitness Rebound Has Legs

Now that we’re almost halfway through the year, it’s clear that our thesis that 2022 could be a big rebound year for the fitness category appears to be playing out. The overall fitness category was one of the hardest hit by the pandemic, with fitness club trade group IHRSA data suggesting that 25% of fitness club locations have permanently closed compared to March of 2020. However, we saw significant industry consolidation among more affordable chains like Planet Fitness, Chuze Fitness, and Blink Fitness during 2021 and wanted to see if these trends have continued into the new year (especially with the first quarter of the year typically being the heaviest recruitment period for fitness chains, accounting for 50%-60% of annual recruitment).

After a slow start to the year due to Omicron in January, overall visitation trends for fitness chains (excluding independent fitness locations) has recovered nicely, with recent weeks tracking well ahead of 2019 levels, and May 2022 visits approaching the category’s all-time previous peak in January 2020 (below). This also squares with commentary from Target and others about the consumer shift to out-of-home services.

At the chain level, we’ve seen continued outperformance from Planet Fitness, Blink Fitness, Chuze Fitness, and Crunch Fitness. In our view, this supports our previous thoughts about those competitors enhancing their in-center experience with digital offerings, maintaining affordable options, and strong franchisee partners outperforming in 2022 and the years ahead.

Where is the next Austin, Phoenix, or Miami? The Mid-Central Electric Valley

During 1H22, we discussed an emerging big-picture theme of the electric vehicle industry and its other constituents (battery and semiconductors) setting up substantial new production in what we titled the Mid-Central Electric Valley. Ford has selected Tennessee and Kentucky, Volkswagen has chosen Tennessee, Fisker picked Ohio, and Rivian set up shop in Georgia. We also wrote about "What Apple Learned from Tesla" and expect Apple to partner with Foxconn for an eventual plant in the Electric Valley. The region was selected for its lower cost of living and the availability of workers, power, and water, and the lower risk of disruptions.

GM CEO Mary Barra noted, "[B]y the end of 2025, we will have installed capacity to build 1 million EVs in North America, representing approximately $50 billion in annual revenue. And we will have 3 EV programs in North America, each with annual production volumes of more than 125,000 units with opportunities to expand." Ford announced that it was re-segmenting into two separate organizations, "Ford Model e" for its software-led EV business and "Ford Blue" for its ICE business (which is to be the cash cow). Its targets are for producing 600K EVs by the end of 2023 and 2M by the end of 2026. We previously discussed how significant the transition is to be to the industry and all its stakeholders, including dealerships, auto part retailers, and independent auto repair shops.

When you combine that with the plans of Intel to build a $20B supply fab in Ohio, along with the synergy potential of the demand and supply, the outlook for the Mid-Central region starts to look incredible, with the precedent clearly being Silicon Valley and the start of the PC industry. We reviewed the Semiconductor Industry Association’s 2021 State of the Industry report and were struck by two insights. One, the size of the U.S. semiconductor manufacturing industry is $56B (2021), but it has a very large economic multiplier of 5X. In other words, the GDP created from the $56B in semiconductor manufacturing from both direct and indirect sources is $246B. Two, there is no semiconductor manufacturing in the Mid-Central region (the square on the map below), other than a little in North Carolina.

If the U.S. production industry is successful in increasing its "share" of the U.S. semiconductor market from 12% currently to 30% by 3030, the industry, along with market growth (at 6% annually), would grow to $218B in chip sales and $1.1T in GDP from the direct and indirect components. If most of the incremental $840B in GDP was concentrated in the Mid-Central Electric Valley, along with the production of new electric vehicles and battery supply, that would be stunning. Not only would success in the CHIPs Act’s goals and the establishment of a domestic EV industry be significant to U.S. economic security, but it would also be historic to the Mid-Cental Electric Valley’s economy and dynamic for the region’s commercial real estate.

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RJ Hottovy

Head of Analytical Research,

R.J. Hottovy, CFA has covered the restaurant, retail, and e-commerce sectors for nearly 20 years as an equity analyst and strategist for Morningstar, William Blair & Co., and Deutsche Bank.

R.J. also brings a wealth of experience with early-stage investments as an investment committee member for the IrishAngels / Vitalize venture capital group. Over the past three years, he has advised over 50 foodservice and foodservice tech companies on more than $200 million in early-stage capital raises and M&A transactions.

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