BET Founder Bob Johnson Opens Up About His New Food Venture With Legal Sea Foods

Bob Johnson has repeatedly proven his business acumen by starting up a broad mix of companies that have become dominant players in multiple industries.

Johnson is the founder and chairman of RLJ Companies. The Bethesda, Maryland-based company’s current portfolio of holdings includes everything from financial services to automobile dealerships to hotel real estate investment to video gaming among them. RLJ McLarty Landers Automotive Holdings with revenues of over $1.8 billion, ranked No. 1 on the 2019 BE Auto 40 list within BLACK ENTERPRISE’s annual BE100s, a list of the nation’s largest black-owned businesses.

Of course, Johnson cemented his place in business history by leading the sale of the Black Entertainment Television (BET), the nation’s first black cable TV network he co-founded, to media conglomerate Viacom Inc in 2000. The deal, valued at $3 billion, made Johnson’s America’s first black billionaire.

Now, Johnson is entering a fresh industry with Legal Sea Foods to open smaller versions of the renowned restaurant at U.S. airports as BLACK ENTERPRISE reported last week. RLJ Cos. just formed a joint venture with the Boston-based chain to open restaurants under that company’s brand. Legal Sea Foods already operates top-notch restaurants at Logan International Airport in Boston, Philadelphia International Airport, and Reagan National Airport in Washington, D.C. New plans call for the joint venture to boost the number of locations nationally.

BLACK ENTERPRISE connected with Johnson via email to get an inside peek at his Legal Sea Foods venture.

BE: What will be the combined investment in the joint venture from both companies?

Johnson: The combined investments will be based on the number of markets we choose (to) enter. We do not have a specific investment amount that will cost at this time.

BE: Why is RLJ Cos. now expanding into the upscale casual-dining seafood restaurant business with this joint venture?

Johnson: The RLJ Cos. has a history of being invited by strategic partners to invest in business opportunities. We did this with John Malone of Liberty Media in BET and with Hilton Hotels in RLJ Lodging Trust. Roger Berkowitz, founder & CEO of Legal Sea Foods, fits that mold of an investor who wants to partner with a highly-successful minority firm to create value for both companies and expand diversity opportunities in the U.S. economy.

BE: How many new restaurants will the joint venture open?

Johnson: The venture wants to locate restaurants in the major airports across the country. We are currently making plans to reach out to those airports to discuss their timetable for adding new restaurants. We expect to open restaurants within a year or so after we have reached agreements with the airport authorities for the right locations and the appropriate amount of operating space for our restaurants.

BE: On average, how much will the joint venture invest to open each restaurant?

Johnson: As two privately-held companies, we do not disclose the amount of investment that we will make in this business. However, (we’re) committed to making the necessary capital investment to make our restaurants the best properties for customers who are traveling airports.

BE: How will this joint venture help boost annual revenues for RLJ Cos?  Will a new restaurant business category be created under its portfolio of holdings for the joint venture?

Johnson: The RLJ Cos. always seeks the highest returns on its investment capital and we expect the Legal Sea Foods joint venture to meet that objective. We have not decided to create a new restaurant investment division at this time.