Westwood private equity firm Brentwood Associates has doubled down on vegan-friendly restaurant Veggie Grill and will get a tighter grip on the growing company in return.

Brentwood, which first invested in the Santa Monica restaurant chain in 2011, accounted for a big piece of the $20 million that Veggie Grill raised at the end of last year. Brentwood executives won’t say how much they invested, but it was enough to make the firm the company’s largest shareholder and to get two seats on Veggie Grill’s board.

The fast-casual restaurant chain serves vegetarian dishes meant to resemble meat, such as “veggie steak” and “bayou chickin.” It has 16 locations in California, Washington state and Oregon.

Rahul Aggarwal, a Brentwood managing director who will join the Veggie Grill board along with William Barnum, a firm partner, said the chain has huge growth potential as Americans grow increasingly health conscious, and either eliminate or reduce the amount of meat they consume.

“They have an opportunity to be a real leader in an emerging trend in the way people are choosing to eat,” he said. “They’re a leader in the space.”

With the new investment round, Veggie Grill is set to open more West Coast locations. But Aggarwal said there’s plenty of growth potential elsewhere in the United States as well.

“If you look at the rest of the country, there are a lot of healthy grocery stores,” he said. “Whole Foods is successful in a lot of cities, not just in Santa Monica. We fundamentally believe this is not a California-specific phenomenon.”

Aggarwal said the pace of growth for Veggie Grill could mirror that of another Brentwood investment, fast-casual restaurant chain Zoës Kitchen. Brentwood invested in the chain in 2007 when it had 19 locations. It now has 76.

Koreatown Hire

Wells Fargo & Co. wants more Korean business accounts in Los Angeles, and it’s hired a veteran Koreatown banker to help lure borrowers away from local ethnic banks.

The San Francisco banking giant announced last week that it has hired Sung Soo Han, formerly chief lending officer at Wilshire Bancorp Inc.’s Wilshire State Bank and a senior vice president at Hanmi Financial Corp.’s Hanmi Bank.

Wells Fargo and other mainstream banks have long wanted to do more business with local Korean companies and entrepreneurs. Timothy Coffey, an analyst who follows Hanmi and Wilshire for brokerage FIG Partners in San Francisco, said the mainstream banks have so far competed mostly by offering lower loan rates. But in hiring Han, Wells Fargo is trying to attract business accounts through the kind of relationship-building that Korean and other ethnic banks are known for.

“The hiring Wells Fargo announced is probably the most high-profile hiring to date by a mainstream bank,” Coffey said.

Han will split his time between a West Covina office and a Wells Fargo branch in Koreatown. He said he plans to use his contacts with local accountants, attorneys and others to steer him toward potential customers.

“In our culture, I need someone to introduce me to those companies,” he said. “I have sources from my previous banks and I know a lot of the intermediaries. My connections will bring in a lot of opportunities.”

L.A. Partners

Chicago investment firm RiverNorth Capital Management LLC has launched a mutual fund with downtown L.A.’s Oaktree Capital Management LP.

The fund, which has raised about $13 million, will invest in closed-end funds, high-yield bonds and bank loans in Europe and the United States. RiverNorth, which specializes in closed-end fund investments, will manage that side of the portfolio, with Oaktree advising on the high-yield and loan investments.

This is the second time RiverNorth has formed a team with a big-time L.A. money manager. In 2011, the firm created a fund with Jeffrey Gundlach’s DoubleLine Capital LP in downtown Los Angeles. Oaktree owns a stake in DoubleLine.

Israeli Acquisition

L.A. Angeles billionaire Haim Saban’s private-equity firm recently purchased a 31 percent stake in Israeli telephone company Partner Communications Company Ltd.

In a deal that closed last week, S.B. Israel Telecom Ltd., an affiliate of Saban Capital Group, purchased about 48 million shares of Partner Communications for $67 million in cash plus the assumption of $300 million in debt. The stake was worth about $264 million at Wednesday’s closing price of $5.49 per share.

After the deal closed, several Partner board members resigned and were replaced by Saban’s brother, Arieh Saban, and Saban Capital executives Adam Chesnoff and Fred Gluckman.

C-Suite News

Dan Yates has been named president at Grandpoint Bank, one of several banks owned by downtown L.A. bank holding company Grandpoint Capital Inc. Yates was chief executive of Regents Bank N.A., a La Jolla bank acquired by Grandpoint last year.

Staff reporter James Rufus Koren can be reached at jrkoren@labusinessjournal.com or (323) 549-5225, ext. 225.

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