Piper, the private equity backer of Loungers and Be At One, has acquired a stake in Hickory’s Smokehouse, the north west-based American BBQ restaurant chain, M&C Report understands.

Piper is investing £6m to support the roll out of the current three-strong brand, which is the brainchild of experienced operator Neil McDonnell, who founded the business in 2010 following extensive research into the smokehouse sector in the US.

The company plans to open a further 10 restaurants over the next three to five years following Piper’s investment. It is understood that Piper and the management team believes there is potential for at least 100 Hickory’s sites across the UK.

As part of the deal, Paul Campbell, the former chief executive of Clapham House Group and current non-executive director at Hawksmoor, Vinoteca, Tortilla and New World Trading Company, has become chairman of Hickory’s.

Hickory’s currently operates has three units in Chester, West Kirby and Rhos-on-Sea. Its format features chef’s tables, milkshake bars, children’s play areas, coupled with an emphasis on “exceptional customer service”. Its food offer focuses on meats that are slow cooked for up to 12 hours on smokers specially imported from Memphis, Tennessee.

Hickory’s becomes the fifth investment from Piper’s £107m, fifth fund. Three of these investments are Be At One, Loungers and Turtle Bay.

McDonnell said: “We are delighted to have selected Piper as our partner. I know we will benefit from the team’s extensive knowledge and experience of the sector, and have already seen the value they can bring to bear so I am confident that together we will continue to build Hickory’s into a uniquely valuable business.”

Peter Kemp-Welch of Piper, said: “We have been tracking the BBQ segment for some time, and approached Hickory’s after learning about its outstanding reputation amongst its customers. Hickory’s provides them with a truly authentic dining experience and Neil has already built a highly experienced management team around him to support the growth of the business.”

Comment by M&C Report editor Mark Wingett

When Piper’s Peter Kemp-Welch says that the private equity firm has been tracking the BBQ segment for some time, the timing of his investment in Hickory’s Smokehouse couldn’t be more apt. A year ago, nearly to the day, I bumped into Kemp-Welch - firstly at the opening of Trinity Kitchen in Leeds - and then later that same day in the much-talked about debut site from Red’s True BBQ.

He wasn’t the only sector investor who had made the journey to Yorkshire to check out Red’s – Luke Johnson had made the same trip earlier that year and followed it up with an unsuccessful approach to invest in the Scott Munro and James Douglas-led fledgling business. In just over a year, BBQ, and - indeed in some part Red’s - has become a key component of the current UK eating-out sector – built on the pillars  of communal dining, theatre, craft beer and authenticity. It has also led to pulled pork being added to almost every pub and restaurant menu and supermarket shelf in some form or another.

Red’s has been the big story of this part of eating-out market over the last year and is currently closing in on completing its own round of fundraising. With its investment in Hickory’s it seems that Piper has gone for a BBQ concept that is aimed at a wider demographic, more family focused and less reliant on finding city centre locations. Like Red’s, it is also very popular, with the group’s three sites thought to average around the £40k-45k mark in terms of weekly sales.

It is thought that the initial roll out of Hickory’s will continue to focus on the north west before spreading elsewhere. All three of the group’s current sites are c5,000sq ft and all are former pubs that weren’t working in that format until converted to a Hickory’s – giving the business a wider pool in which to select prospective sites.

The original founder of the Pitcher & Piano chain has got history of backing regional-based concepts and helping them successfully grow; Loungers is the obvious example, but the firm’s most recent investment Turtle Bay is also showing early signs of being another impressive pick.

The addition of Paul Campbell as chairman brings together arguably two of the most successful sector investors of the last five years behind the same business. With that kind of experience on board and the UK’s love affair with all things smokehouse and BBQ-influenced set to continue, you may be hard pressed to find anyone that would bet against Hickory’s achieving similar success to its Piper stable mates.