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Is the Future of Restaurants Grassroots Funded?

Regulation crowdfunding allows people to directly lend to businesses they want to see grow — and earn profits from having done so

When Reesa Kashuk was ready to take the next step toward growing her Bay Area bagel business, she knew that she’d need to raise some money. A former account manager at an advertising agency, Kashuk started making bagels under the moniker Poppy Bagels in 2018, but only pivoted careers during the pandemic. Initially, she missed the New York-style bagels she grew up eating and over time, she created a local brand known for its chewy, heavily seasoned bagels with a touch of malty sweetness.

Currently, she takes pre-orders for bagel deliveries across the Bay Area and serves composed “sandos” — including a popular spicy and sweet number with jalapeno-serrano cream cheese and local honey — at Oakland’s Grand Lake Farmers Market on Saturdays. Like many other successful pop-up operators, Kashuk’s goal is to open a brick-and-mortar shop. As she worked to secure a lease for the bakery (which will be in the Temescal neighborhood of Oakland), she projected she’d need $150,000 to complete the build-out of the space, buy equipment, and upgrade her website. Then she started exploring her options to secure the money.

Even though it seems like the obvious first step, getting a loan from a bank wasn’t really an option for Kashuk: It’s difficult for nascent businesses (particularly restaurants, which are considered risky) to secure a loan. “They’ll talk to you, and they might get your hopes up, but they do not want to lend to businesses of this size,” Kashuk says. She also considered the crowdfunding platforms Kickstarter and GoFundMe, but not for long, because she felt uncomfortable asking her friends and customers for money without a tangible sense of what she owed them in return. Although Kickstarter allows its creators to issue rewards in return for money as opposed to GoFundMe’s donation-based model, “it’s hard to value them and know how much they’re worth both for me as a business giving something away and for the people on the receiving end,” she says. When she heard about SMBX, a platform that would allow people to invest in her business and get paid back over time, she was immediately drawn to it.

SMBX stands for Small and Medium Business Exchange and works by issuing bonds (loans that come from individuals instead of a bank) from business owners to everyday investors in increments of $10. Anyone with a credit card or a bank account can buy bonds in local businesses on SMBX, which entrepreneurs like Kashuk are then required to pay back with interest over time. Kashuk first heard of the exchange from other local businesses already using it, specifically the famed San Francisco ice cream brand Humphry Slocombe and the Salvadoran pop-up Popoca. “I was looking for a way to raise money that was relatively affordable and flexible, and SMBX fit that bill,” Kashuk says. “The bonus was that my community could get involved in a real and tangible way.”

The ability for anyone to financially invest in a small business and earn passive income is called regulation crowdfunding, and it’s beginning to gain traction with its promise of transparent, equitable, and collective investing in local businesses. Regulation crowdfunding didn’t exist until 2017, when Title III of the JOBS Act passed, making it permissible for businesses to publicly raise capital, including from individuals with less than a million dollars in net worth (otherwise known as non-accredited investors). Previously, investments in private companies had to be solicited directly, and only from wealthy citizens. “You couldn’t post on Facebook, ‘Hey, I’m looking for investors. Invest in my company,’” says Nick Mathews, the co-founder and CEO of Mainvest. His Massachusetts-based company is one of several SEC-registered intermediary platforms that launched in the aftermath of the new legal framework.

The difference between investing in a project on regulation crowdfunding platforms as opposed to making a donation through Kickstarter and receiving a reward with financial value (such as a free meal at a future restaurant) is the potential to earn a profit. Crowdfunding in general enables people to support the creative and business efforts of their peers, while regulation crowdfunding is also a way for individuals to diversify their investment portfolios outside of stocks. Mohammed Khonizi, a YouTuber who covers how to build passive income through financial technology companies on his channel Wealthy Panda, has invested in several businesses on SMBX (including Poppy Bagels), Mainvest, and similar platforms such as Honeycomb Credit and Republic Local. His reasoning for these investments, he says, is two-fold: to “help more businesses achieve their goals and help diversify my portfolio.”

For Chris Haugh, an author and friend of Kashuk’s, investing in Poppy Bagels was his first experience with regulation crowdfunding. He says his decision to invest over $1,000 into Poppy Bagels was not only about supporting Kashuk, but also because he believes in the business and thinks it will be a meaningful addition to the community. “Look no further than [Berkeley’s] Boichik Bagels selling out by 11 a.m. on the weekends, they just can’t meet the demand,” he says. “Not to mention Poppy did a pop-up in the same area that the store is going to be and there was a line three blocks long.” Furthermore, since business owners who fundraise on SMBX and other regulation crowdfunding platforms are required to provide their SEC filings, business statements, and financial records, Haugh was able to understand the potential for Poppy’s economic success. “I would like to think that I would donate as much as I did to her business regardless, but the fact that it’s going to make me some money makes it a lot easier to allocate the pool of cash [to Poppy Bagels] that I would have been investing elsewhere, whether an index fund or real estate venture,” he adds.

For her bond offering of $150,000, Kashuk received an interest rate of 7 percent from SMBX to be paid back over five years. She had also considered a loan application through the Small Business Administration, but ultimately decided on SMBX because it was simpler, more affordable, and more flexible. For an SBA loan, she says the interest rate would’ve been variable and higher, and that her use of funds would be more highly regulated. By timing her SMBX raise launch with some local press, Kashuk was able to meet her target in just 11 days. There were 173 people who invested, many for the minimum amount of $10. Her largest investment was $20,700.

“[A] $100 investment would yield $119 at the end of the term [for the investor], while a $1,000 investment will yield $1,188,” Kashuk explains. The final return is a compounded amount of the principal investment plus 7 percent interest, but SMBX bonds are designed to be paid back equally on a monthly basis — for example, $19.80 per month for a $1,000 investment — so that businesses can have (and investors can expect) consistent payouts. An investment in Poppy Bagels or another food business by way of regulation crowdfunding is low-interest compared to other financial investments, albeit one that has the primary goal of supporting one’s community. On Kashuk’s SMBX page, she laid out how the funds would be used: 78.5 percent for the build-out of the bakery, 16.5 percent for equipment, and 1.5 percent for website upgrades. The other 3.5 percent went to SMBX, which is the percentage that the platform takes to generate its own revenue.

Along with money to spend, regulation crowdfunding also gave Kashuk a way to make investors out of her customers, who are now intimately interested in her success. “I really felt like it’s a true win-win for the investor,” she says. “They can help support a business, they care about helping it grow, they’re eager to get involved, but they also get to make money at a competitive rate.”

That’s not to say there is zero risk involved for Poppy’s investors. If Poppy were to go bankrupt, SMBX says they would work with Kashuk to try and recover as much investment as possible, but investors would likely still lose money. Mainvest’s website informs potential investors that investments on their platform are “inherently risky” since “it is very likely that some of the companies listed on our site will fail to repay their loans.”

While SMBX and Mainvest do provide potential investors with information on how regulation crowdfunding works, there’s still a long way to go when it comes to educating the public and making this way of investing mainstream. Many people are confused by financial terms like “bond” and “securities” and are taken aback by the fact that you have to give your social security number as a means of protection to invest in companies on SEC-regulated platforms. Kashuk says she had to do an AMA (“Ask Me Anything”) on her Instagram and field a barrage of DMs to explain how SMBX worked. “As I started explaining it more and more, I saw more people from my community invest as they learned what it was,” she says.

As the regulation crowdfunding space grows, it’s important to note that there are differences in the way that each platform has designed the financial framework of the investments that they power. For example, Mainvest issues revenue-sharing loans for a minimum of $100 as opposed to SMBX’s $10. It also enables entrepreneurs to issue equity to investors if they want to, meaning that investors would be granted an ownership claim in the company’s profits — instead of their money paid back plus interest — and could stand to make a significant profit if the business became a runaway success.

Granting an equity stake in the business is a common deal structure when wealthy individuals give money to restaurants. A big reason that regulation crowdfunding is appealing to small food business owners like Kashuk, though, is that they aren’t required to surrender any of their ownership. “I own 100 percent of the business and I never considered giving up equity,” she says. Benjamin Lozano, the co-founder and CEO of SMBX, says that he has found that “most small businesses do not want to give up equity in their company, they want to borrow money at reasonable rates, pay off that loan, and walk away.”

Another draw of regulation crowdfunding is the lack of barriers that exist in more traditional methods, such as bank loans and venture capital. Racism is prevalent in institutional lending. Lozano, the son of a first-generation Mexican American, says that while working for his father’s boutique accounting firm in Santa Ana, California, he saw firsthand how minorities struggle to gain the same access to financial opportunities that people of more privileged backgrounds can acquire more easily. By contrast, SMBX doesn’t even require a credit check for those looking to raise money on the platform.

As Lozano points out, Americans already lend to small businesses indirectly through their banks, which borrow money from customers to support businesses in need of loans, and then reward those customers with minuscule interest payments. “The only difference is that we don’t have any say in who [i.e., which banks] lend it to, in what our money is being used to support and create — and then the bank keeps the profits,” he says. Regulation crowdfunding gives people a way to directly lend to the businesses they want to see grow, and earn profits from having done so.

This notion of built-in community validation is promising for the future of regulation crowdfunding, especially when it comes to restaurants and food businesses. That feels true for Kashuk at least, who is hopeful about how her investors will engage with her business in the long term as they continue to receive payments, whether that engagement is encouraging others to invest or simply getting others to buy some bagels. “They’re going to be constantly reminded that Poppy is earning them money, and maybe be more invested in my success, telling people about the business and coming to support,” she says.

Emily Wilson is a Los Angeles-based food writer from New York. She has contributed to Bon Appétit, TASTE, Resy, the Los Angeles Times, Punch, Vegetarian Times, Atlas Obscura, and more. Carolyn Figel is a freelance illustrator and animator living in Brooklyn, New York.