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E2, Bruté?

Yes, even an Englishman would leave home to buy BBQ in U.S.


Woody's BBQ

 It’s easy to see why two Brits would want to trade in English pubs for Southern BBQ.

London businessman takes advantage of E2 nonimmigrant classification to invest in a Southern BBQ franchise. With his accent, he may not talk the talk, but now that the doors are open, he’s walking the walk.

The fate of two Englishmen looking to purchase a Southern-style Bar-B-Q restaurant in Winter Haven, Florida, rested in the hands of one U.S. Embassy official in London. Fortunately, that official granted the necessary E2 nonimmigrant classification, so that British citizens Mark Sharratt and Nick Hart could buy the existing Woody’s Bar-B-Q unit in the resort city where the average year-round temperature is 73-degrees Fahrenheit. 

That 73 degrees is what separates Florida from England. Asked why he chose Florida, Sharratt paused and then asked us, “Have you ever been to London?” The reply was “Yes,” so he continued, “And did it rain?” 

Point taken.

Sharratt has owned a vacation property in Winter Haven for several years, and when the company he worked for, Mitchells & Butlers, a large drink-and-food retailer in England, was sold, he decided to do something different in the restaurant space—especially if that space was someplace warm where the sun didn’t routinely set at 3 o’clock in the afternoon. 

The laid-back Florida lifestyle played into the decision as well.

The two business partners came across this particular Woody’s location for sale during a search on the Internet for U.S. business opportunities. Sharratt liked the concept —“I’m a huge meat eater,” he said—and it held a “little bit of novelty” for him that opening another British pub wouldn’t. The fact that he would be  joining a small company was also a bonus after working for a large conglomerate. 

The process to sign the franchise agreement took about nine months. In order to qualify to buy the business as a non-U.S. citizen, he said, “the investment had to be substantial, it had to be real, as in (physically) there, and you had to employ U.S. citizens and produce a profit.” He believes that because the business was a franchise, the process went much smoother than it would have to open an independent business. But that didn’t stop him from investing “a few thousand” dollars in preparing his case, the result of which was a four-inch thick file. 

“I had heard horror stories about getting visas,” he said, “but to be fair, they were friendly and helpful.”

Foreign nationals receiving visas to run businesses in the U.S. is not new. But it is something Mark Siebert, CEO of iFranchise, a franchise consultancy based near Chicago, Illinois, has seen a lot more of lately. However, unlike this one from the U.K., most cases involve a  person applying for the visa from a country where the economic opportunity and political stability are vastly different from the U.S.’s. The purpose of the visa, Siebert added, is to create jobs for U.S. citizens.

Tammy Poudrier, director of marketing for Woody’s Bar-B-Q, based in Jacksonville, Florida, admits they initially had concerns about the deal because of the difficulty in obtaining E2 status. “When Mark was interviewed, we looked at his success at his other business ventures,” she said, “and his ability to do the hard work that it took to get his E2 status approved.” 

Corporate also knew the process could take longer than finding another candidate who wasn’t offshore. They finally decided that although these types of franchise sales take time, “having a strong franchisee is worth the effort,” she added.

The U.S. Embassy saw Sharratt as a strong candidate as well. He was granted the visa for five years, instead of the usual two. He credits that bit of luck with the fact that his intended restaurant was part of a franchise system and therefore viewed as less likely to fail than an alien starting a concept from scratch. “It’s tried and true,” he said about franchising. But, he acknowledged, buying an existing unit is also “inheriting the past owner’s issues.” 

Sharratt’s tips for business immigrants aren’t that different from what his American counterpart would do:

• Make sure you enjoy the business and have the skills to be able to run it.

• Totally research the business so that you understand what you’re getting into, from business practices to management style. Talk to existing franchisees.

The one thing that is a little different for him, he added, is that he couldn’t officially give notice to his employers until after he was accepted for the visa, slowing down his moving plans.

Service with a tip

Running a restaurant in the U.S. is not terribly different from the process in the U.K., he contends. “Business practices are the same,” he said, “and all issues are exactly the same.” What’s different is that American diners are more demanding than their U.K. counterparts, which he attributes to the U.S.’s tip culture. In England, servers are paid a much higher hourly wage, and a 5 percent tip is considered big, he said.

Which does he prefer? After a momentary pause, he admits the U.S. system is better, because it helps elevate customer service. And the franchise model, he believes, has elevated his business.”Friends in the U.K. ask, ‘Don’t you mind giving away some of your profits?’ and I say, ‘At the end of the day it wasn’t my idea, was it?’” 

What’s an E2 treaty investor?

It’s a classification that allows a national of a country with a treaty of commerce and navigation with the U.S. to be admitted to the U.S. when investing a substantial amount of capital in a U.S. business. The investor must also provide a significant number of jobs for U.S. citizens. For more information, visit the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services’ website at www.uscis.gov.

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