Investors hungry for visas pull into drive-in deals with Sonic
By Yudislaidy Fernandez
International investors are driving the entrance of a major national fast-food chain into South Florida, with 50 Sonic restaurants slated for Miami-Dade and Broward in the next four years.
Through the government's EB-5 visa program, foreign nationals are investing $500,000 apiece in these restaurants that are to create about 65 jobs each and, in return, are to get a green card. Among internationals financing the Sonic expansion are Chinese, Venezuelans and Mexicans.
Miami-based development firm QueensFort Capital Corp., led by national developer Arthur J. Halleran Jr., bought exclusive development rights in South Florida to build and operate Sonic restaurants, which is making its entrance to the two counties.
"To control this market with a brand name like Sonic that has been around for more than 50 years is exciting for us as franchisee and for prospective EB-5 investors, who are looking for an EB-5 vehicle to access a green card in the US," said Carolina Oliva, QueensFort Capital's senior vice president.
With its slogan of America's drive-in, Sonic is the US's largest chain of drive-in restaurants, with 3,700 throughout the nation that serve a menu of classic American food.
QueensFort is to develop and operate all the Sonic restaurants it builds. It is seeking six to eight investors per package of two to four restaurants.
Under the development firm's EB-5 project, foreign nationals are required to invest $500,000 each and are to create about 65 jobs per restaurant, Ms. Oliva said.
The first area Sonic fast-food restaurants are to open in the next six months in Homestead and Fort Lauderdale Beach, followed by Miami Gardens near Sun Life Stadium.
Other target locations in Miami-Dade include Miami Beach, South Miami and Kendall.
QueensFort is planning to buy about 98% of the sites, she said, and build the restaurants from the ground up.
Today, the firm has 30 to 40 sites lined up that it has deemed viable based on market studies, Ms. Oliva noted, and it's taking advantage of buyer-friendly market conditions.
"We are purchasing those sites at historically low rates… at about 50% discount," she said. "Certainly now is the time to be buying land."
This aggressive four-year plan to build 50 Sonic restaurants — split about equally between Miami-Dade and Broward — is partially funded by international investors at a time when financing is still scarce.
Fred Burgess, president of Exclusive Visas, an EB-5 consulting firm based in Weston that is advising QueensFort, said this type of project appeals to internationals because it has a limited participation in the venture and generates many jobs.
"You don't have to actively manage their business.… It's a great way to raise capital at a time when it's difficult to get financing," Mr. Burgess said. This is a great method "for people to immigrate because it creates a lot of jobs, many of the restaurants open 24 hours and some have gotten permission to serve alcohol."