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Kona Grill has made another executive change.

Kona Grill Exploring Sale as CEO Resigns

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Marcus Jundt is one of the founders of the polished brand.
By Danny Klein March 2019 Chain Restaurants

Marcus Jundt, the chief executive of struggling polished-casual chain Kona Grill, resigned from his post, effective March 31, the company revealed in a securities filing Friday. Jundt took over as sole CEO in January, less than two months after Kona Grill said it would try a dual arrangement with Jundt and Steve Schussler. At the time, it was Kona Grill’s third CEO move since August, when Jim Kuhn replaced Berke Bakay after a yearlong run as COO. The former chief executive of Chalak Mitra Group stepped down in November.

Jundt is one of Kona Grill’s founders and previously served as CEO from 2006–2009 before resigning amid investor pressure. According to the filing, he informed Kona Grill he would resign as CEO and as a director of the board on March 22. Bakay, the company’s executive chairman, is also stepping down, effective immediately. So is director Alex Nanyan Zheng.

Shawn Hassel, co-founder and managing partner of investment firm Bestige Holdings LLC, was appointed to the board.

According to the filing, Hassel “will serve as chair of the company’s strategic alternatives committee, utilizing his experience to advise the company in reviewing certain strategic alternatives for the purpose of maximizing the enterprise value of the company.” Before Bestige, Hassel was a managing director with Alvarez & Marsal, and led the Phoenix Turnaround and Restructuring Practice. He will receive $50,000 for his first month on Kona Grill’s board of directors, with a minimum of $25,000 for each month thereafter, the company said. He will earn no less than $150,000.

Jundt, who agreed to cash compensation at a rate of $360,000 per year when he took the job, received an aggregate of $90,000 pursuant to the annual figure, the filing said.

The filing also noted that Kona Grill, on March 4, retained Piper Jaffray as its financial adviser “to assist the company in exploring and evaluating potential strategic alternatives focused on maximizing stockholder value such as a sale of the company, merger, financing transactions, or other potential alternatives.”

This isn’t the first time Kona Grill has explored a sale. Mill Road Capital, the investor Jundt grappled with 10 years ago, tried to buy the brand outright after his resignation in 2009. The company offered $28 million, or $4.60 per share, which was double Kona Grill’s stock price at the time. Kona Grill declined. The brand was trading for 90 cents Friday afternoon.

Bakay, an activist investor and director, was named CEO in 2012 and helped Kona Grill's stock more than quadruple in the next three years. It also scaled up units in that span. The brand had 22 locations when Jundt first departed in 2019 and was at 44 this past September following the closure of two restaurants. All but one of those new locations opened between 2013–2017. Some more recognizable restaurants, like a store on Las Vegas’ Strip and one in Miami, shuttered last year.

Kona Grill has fallen on hard times lately. In January, the Nasdaq Stock Market notified Kona Grill it failed to comply with market rules and could be delisted. According to documents filed, Kona Grill fell below Nasdaq’s listing standard of $15 million minimum market value within the previous 30 consecutive business days.

During the third quarter of 2018, the brand witnessed a same-store sales drop of 14.1 percent, driven primarily by a double-digit decrease in customer traffic. Stacked on the prior-year quarter’s 7.2 percent fall, Kona Grill was on a 20-plus percent two-year decline of comparable results.

Kona Grill’s same-store sales have slid for two years now. They rose 2 percent in 2015 and 0.5 percent in 2016 before dropping 5.9 percent in 2017 and 11.6 percent in the first nine months of 2018.

Kona Grill’s loss is widening, too, after generating profits from 2011–2014. The company swung a loss of $5.1 million, or 39 cents per share, in Q3. In the year-ago period, it was $3.3 million, or 33 cents per share. Revenues dropped 15.7 percent to $37.4 million versus $44.4 million in the prior-year period.

Comparable average-unit volumes have also dropped, falling from $4.5 million in 2016 to $4.1 million in 2017.

The company made strategic moves, including a menu refresh in the summer and another one in the fall, throughout 2018 to help kick start the brand’s turnaround. Jundt said in November the company would “revitalize the Kona Grill brand with what has made us successful over the years. These areas include becoming once again America’s best happy hour with items that provide a great value proposition without significantly impacting gross margin.”

He added the company would return some recipes to long-term favorites and get back to the pillars that made Kona Grill successful in the past. To become “America’s best happy hour,” Jundt said Kona Grill would take significant price reductions, and reprint its menu.

In July, the chain launched its Konavore Rewards Program rolled out a mobile app in conjunction with the platform to make it easier to track rewards and redeem points.