David Smith helps Atlanta restaurateurs build brands

David Smith and Paul Jones are the principals of Trowbridge Partners, an Atlanta brand development and commercial real estate firm founded in 2003. Their projects include Farm Burger, El Super Pan and Pizza Verdura Sincera. Recently, Smith talked with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Could you talk a bit about your early life and education?

I grew up on Long Island. I did four years upstate at the School of Hotel Administration at Cornell. But, my very first job was in a pizzeria in Plainview, Long Island. I also did kosher catering. ... Later, I went to (New York University’s) Stern Business School, while still working. I ended up on Wall Street, in investment banking, and all my clients were hospitality and real estate companies.

When did you move to Atlanta?

I got recruited by Intercontinental Hotels Group in 1999. I’d love to say I had some great plan, but I wanted to make sure that whatever I was doing along the way added to the repertoire of tools in the kit for whatever I was going to do subsequently. The MBA was in finance and strategic planning, and these days I use strategic planning more than the finance. It’s brand-building.

How did Trowbridge Partners come about?

My business partner, Paul Jones, and I used to own homes in Dunwoody Club Forest, and Trowbridge Drive connected our two streets. We were urban developers for the first several years, until the recession. We would go into neighborhoods that were beginning to show the early green shoots of redevelopment. The urban pioneers were there, but none of the goods and services, jobs or individual investment opportunities.

What were you doing in response to that?

Shopping centers; it was neighborhood-scale retail. We might put an assemblage together, somebody else could do the residential. We would master-plan it, put the land together, get the entitlements, and sometimes we would build it. But, we didn’t find developing, and then trying to lease out all the retail spaces, nearly as interesting as being on the tenant side.

What was your first foray into that side of the business?

Farm Burger was our first tenant client, and we worked with them for years. When we first began our relationship with them, they had one store in Decatur. By the time we wound it down, I think they had 13 stores in eight states, and we did the majority of the deals.

Can you describe what you do in more detail?

We help entrepreneurs grow full consumer-facing brands, by affording them skills they probably don’t have, themselves, and then finding the right cities, markets, sites and deal terms to create good growth — not just growth for its own sake.

Are most of the restaurant concepts you’re involved with nowadays fast-casual?

Yes, though not entirely. We did Lady Ha on the Beltline, and it’s sit-down. So, I’m not saying fast-casual is the solution to all opportunities. It works where you have a large flow of people, compressed in a shorter period of time, who want something better than quick-service restaurants. And, they want something that’s somewhat chef-driven, but casual, and ... a good value. For example, Farm Burger always did a fast-casual service model, but they managed down the expectations and exceeded them.

What’s the dining outlook, post-pandemic, or wherever we are now?

The trajectory for quick-service will be fairly flat, because they didn’t go down during the pandemic. If anything, they went up, because they had drive-through and curbside and third-party delivery. The white-tablecloth, fine-dining guys are going to have a slower recovery. Their clientele is older, they’re more sensitive to health concerns, and they might not be ready to spend three hours and $300, just yet. Fast-casual is the (most positive), because people are willing to invest $30 and 30 minutes.

What’s your take on opening Pizza Verdura Sincera in such an iconic Little Five Points spot?

Zesto (the previous occupant) is still a landmark, and that’s why we’re keeping the mural on the retaining wall. ... Things change, but as way for identifying a location, we couldn’t ask for anything better. We have visibility on Moreland and McClendon, a free-standing building, and parking. ... It’s just pizza, but to the best of our knowledge, it will be the first made-only-from-plants, all-natural pizza. ... Which is to say, every ingredient will be certified organic, non GMO, or kosher, or some combination of those things. It’s sort of like ... Chipotle, which was the No 2 bidder on this building. They really separated from the rest of the Tex-Mex pack by going as close to organic as they possibly could, for a multi-unit chain.

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