Mike Pruitt is the Chairman and CEO of Amergent Hospitality Group, which owns, operates, and franchises casual and full-service restaurants such as American Burger Co., Little Big Burger, and PizzaRev. Mike has a demonstrated history as a chairperson in multiple industries and previously played on two NAIA World Series baseball teams while working toward his business degree at Coastal Carolina University.
Here’s a Glimpse of What You’ll Hear:
- How Mike Pruitt’s time as a college baseball player led to a career in the restaurant industry
- Mike shares the story of how he bought and franchised Hooters
- How did Mike bounce back from failures in business?
- Mike’s keys to success for his burger restaurants
In this episode…
In today’s episode of the SpotOn Series, Chad Franzen talks with Mike Pruitt, Chairman and CEO of Amergent Hospitality Group, about the secret to success for buying and franchising restaurants. Together, they discuss Mike’s success with his burger restaurants, how he purchased Hooters, and how he overcame failures in his business deals.
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Welcome to the Top Business Leaders Show. Powered by Rise25 Media, we featured top founders, executives and business leaders from all over the world
Chad Franzen 0:20
Chad Franzen here, co host for the show where we feature top restaurateurs, investors, and business leaders. This is part of our SpotOn Series. SpotOn has the best in class payment platform for retail and they have a flagship solution called SpotOn Restaurant, where they combine marketing software and payments all in one. They’ve sorted everyone from larger chains like Dairy Queen and subway to small mom and pop restaurants. To learn more, go to spoton.com. This episode is brought to you by Rise25. We help b2b businesses to get ROI clients referrals and strategic partners through done for you podcast. If you have a b2b business and want to build great relationships with clients, referral partners and thought leaders in your space. There’s no better way to do it than through podcasts and content marketing. To learn more, go to Rise25media.com or email us at support@Rise25media.com For the past 16 and a half years Mike Pruitt has been chairman and CEO of Amergent Hospitality Group whose portfolio includes Little Big Burger, Burgers Grilled Right, American Burger Company, PizzaRev, and Hooters. He has he has a demonstrated history as a chairman in multiple industries and played on to NAIA World Series Baseball teams while earning his business degree at Coastal Carolina. Mike, thank you so much for joining me today. How are you?
Mike Pruitt 1:34
I’m doing great. I appreciate you. And thank you for having me.
Chad Franzen 1:37
My pleasure. So what position did you play at Coastal Carolina?
Mike Pruitt 1:42
So I was I was recruited there to play third base. I had a kind of an interesting, you know, I’d say storybook baseball, grew up in Maryland and Cal Ripken and I were actually played on the same summer league team. We were our tribals in high school, Cal played shortstop and pitch. And I played third base. And so yeah, it was did really well in high school and was recruited to coastal previous tier two years prior to me getting there they had went to the World Series didn’t make it for the next couple of years. And they recruited me there to replace a third baseman that decided he thought he’s gonna get drafted, not come back. And so I went down there as a third baseman, and unfortunately, he didn’t get drafted high enough, he came back. And so the coaches convinced me that as you know, I was a really good hitter can really run fast that if I could play second base, you don’t have a chance to get drafted pretty high. So I ended up playing second base, my first year in the World Series. And then then my senior year, we got beat by the eventual national champion. And the next last round my junior year, my senior year, the coach said for the good of the team, but I moved to first base, which gives you an indication that wasn’t a great second baseman, so but I was still a really good hitter. And unfortunately, we went to the World Series again and lost to the eventual national champion zooms that the next the last round that year as well. So but I am actually leaving, I sit on the Board of Trustees for coastal for baseball, their foundation board their endowment, and I’m actually leaving to go there tomorrow, because it’s our homecoming weekend, and I’ve played in our homecoming charity golf event for 17 years with my three roommates that I played ball with. make great friends and and in fact, it kind of leads to the most interesting story of how I got in the restaurant business because through coastal I made a donation back in 2000 to fund a scholarship for a kid that played on the team with me who passed away and they asked me to join the board. Well on the board was the founder of Hooters. You know, the founder of Hooters grew up on a farm about nine miles from coastal where he never had indoor plumbing. He went, he went he was grew up on tobacco farm, went to Clemson on an agricultural scholarship, started naturally fresh salad dressing. And, and then this concept called Hooters started in Clearwater, Florida. And he was selling them ranch and blue cheese salad dressing. And so went down and said, Oh man, you’re buying a lot of ranch blue T salad dressing. Have you thought about growing this? And they said, well, we don’t have any money to grow beyond this. So he licensed the concept and created a business called Hooters of America. And he grew that concept and was incredibly successful as was naturally for a salad dressing. And he gave coastal in 2002 the money to start a football program. And so they asked him to sit on the board with me. And he and I met he became a friend, kind of a mentor. And I was running an investment fund with about 40 families. And he came to me in 2006 and said, Hey, I’ve never had a partner in my life. I like trust and admire you, would you and your families consider making an investment in Hooters, because I want to take it public, and I don’t know how to do it. And then you can represent you and me as an owner and put the deal together to try to make public. So we made an investment in the Hooters brand in in 2006. And we spent the next four months with my two analysts and his CFO putting together initial stuff to have intelligent conversations with investment banks over what their thought would be in terms of going public. And, and one week, three investment banks after those first meetings, he unfortunately jumped at, have a brain aneurysm. And so, so in the documents from that investment, he put it in there something ever happened to him. If the family wanted to sell it, he gave me the right of first refusal to buy the company, not his own son, who was president of Hooters at the time. And so needless to say, the son wasn’t happy. And actually tried to sue me to break the right of first refusal. But his is his best friends who are executors of his will, you know, said that’s what Mr. Dad wanted. And they made sure that, that back that right of first refusal stayed in place. And so I ended up partnering with a private equity firm, and four years ago through the estate courts, but we ended up buying Hooters in 2012. And it turned out to be an amazing investment. And I met two of the best private equity partners possible in the restaurant space. We brought in the former president of Coca Cola North America to run it, he doubled the profits of the business over the next six or seven years. And in 2019, we sold the controlling stake in the brand to another private equity firm. And we still maintain, you know, a small equity stake myself, our clients and Amergent Hospitality Group in the Hooters brand. But from that experience, you know, we made a decision in 2015 to broaden, you know, into other concepts of non Hooters related. And we picked the better burger category where we bought American burger. And then burgers grilled right, DC, as you mentioned, and then what’s now our most, our largest and most profitable brand, little big burger that was started up in Portland, Oregon. And then recently, pizza ref, as you mentioned.
Chad Franzen 7:42
So what I’m sure you mentioned that what were you doing when this Hooters opportunity came up?
Mike Pruitt 7:49
So I was brought into two situations, you know, out of college, I was a manufacturer’s rep for three AP, which is a glorified commissioned sales job. And, you know, I used to get up every morning, going back to baseball, and brush my teeth and say to myself, but I can be successful one out of three times, today, I’m going to the Hall of Fame. And so I built the territory, then I built the Salesforce underneath of me and got very fortunate to Charlotte, North Carolina where I live and I’m based, you know, who would have thought back in the late 90s, that, you know, first union ncimb, were going to start buying every bank, you know, regional bank, national banks in the country and moving their corporate data centers to Charlotte, and three own company that I represented their data storage division, they created a storage product for data that was the number one in the industry. And I became the number one three M rep in the United States and maintain at night. And so they flew me to Palm Springs, California to celebrate. And while I was there, a guy offered to buy it on a cocktail napkin, and I sold the business. I became a subsidiary of his company. And, you know, he could afford to pay me more than I could pay myself because he took all my overhead away from me. And that guy, Mike Carroll’s his name, is still a mentor a friend and was on my board for a number of years. I have tremendous respect for him. And, and so, so I kind of got in this niche of, you know, building sales and sales forces around unique technology. And so I did two different projects for two different investor groups, the last of which we sold to a public company. And that was my first experience with public stock. I’d be honest with you, I was 40 years old, give or take. I didn’t have a brokerage account at 40. So I remember coming home to my wife with three kids and saying, honey, I got this stock certificate and it’s worth $750,000 and her reply was the last time I checked the grocery store would take doesn’t take stock certificates. You No, you can’t sell it for a year. That was the that was a condition of the sale. She goes, what are we going to do between now and a year from now, so ended up. Two of those investors in that business said, Hey, we really liked what you did for us. You know, why don’t you look for other investments, you know, for on our behalf that one was a very wealthy guy. And so I created this business called Avenel Financial Group to look for investment opportunities that those two guys and others can invest in. And where I could add value, and myself, and then, as luck would have it, and I do say it was a good piece of luck. By the time we could sell the stock year later, the stock went up seven times the original amount. Wow. So yeah, so the guys that it put in like five to $7 million in the deal, were up 50 to $70 million. So, you know, it was pretty easy to get them to want to invest. So I ended up. I’m a diehard Warren Buffett fan. So I ended up doing a partnership model, that was what Buffett’s original partnership model where I charged no management fees, for 6% yearly went to the investor, and it was a hurdle, right? And then I got sick 25% above that hurdle, right. And so in, I typically did convert preferred deals where we could cover the hurdle rates. So when there was an extra, actually they get 25% of it, and I put my own money, and alongside of them, and Hooters is a perfect example of that. It’s 17 investors, we put $5 million in to Hooters in the form of a convertible note. And that was kind of what I did for 10 or 11 years. And you know, rest is kind of history.
Chad Franzen 11:42
Sure. You said you’re so you’re in your 40s by the time you acquired Hooters. Up until that time, did you ever envision yourself kind of having restaurants as big a part of your life as they are now?
Mike Pruitt 11:55
Absolutely not, you know, I always joke, I’m 61. Now, so I always joke that if somebody would have told me at any age, and forget about the fact 4050 or 60, that I’d get up most days with some reason to think about the Hooters restaurant chain, I would have told them, they were absolutely nuts. But it really was never our intention. Our intention was to go public, get stock, sell it, make a return not be a part of, you know, what’s become a what, nine year journey, you know, of it, you know, but when he died, you know, him giving me that right of first refusal. I felt responsible for the legacy that he had created. I mean, when you think about South Carolina, and, you know, he’s got to go down as one of the top entrepreneurs of all time, I mean, given the fact where he came from the fact that we gave their family over $200 million dollars for the Hooters Bran naturally fresh, got a ton of money as well. He had real estate holdings he had, I mean, but you would have never known how to Nicholas Robin galley drove a 12 year old car, where tacky kind of clothes. You know, he was a great guy. And I remember asking his two best friends when he died, who I used to have lunch with all the time. Why was he so good to me? And he said, because you never asked him for something. I mean, his whole life, people were always asking him for something. And instead, you actually gave him money and helped him. So it’s a relationship that I cherished. I really enjoyed it. And, you know, it was shocking when he passed away the way he did. And I still have maintained a friendship with his widow, and his daughter, who is now in college. But you know, so I feel a kinship and the original founders of Hooters in Clearwater, the president of that group, has become one of my best friends. So. So it’s, it’s, you know, it’s still something that, you know, think about the brand, you know, each day, probably at some point in the day, if we were doing this at our conference room, you’d see a number of pieces of memorabilia associated with, you know, our Hooters business.
Chad Franzen 14:18
When did you decide so during your kind of tenure as owner of Hooters? When did you decide, okay, this industry is something that I think is, you know, a worthwhile investment, and you and what made you decide to start to acquire other types of restaurants?
Mike Pruitt 14:36
Um, you know, I’ll be honest with you fairly quickly on the Hooters side, because, you know, they, you know, they were, his philosophy was 1/3 corporate stores to third franchise. So, you know, he had a very simplistic view of business that is, for every two franchises I sold, I take the profits from them open a corporate store debt free. He didn’t even have a lineup added at the bank, you know, when we bought, he was ultra conservative and how he managed it. And so when we looked at the business to value in order to make our investment, I was like, this doesn’t take a lot of rocket science. So look and say, You got 30 Some million dollars coming in this thing called royalty revenue, and you got about two or $3 million of overhead, that you’re spending to operate that part of the business, it’s pretty hard to mess that up. And so I said, you know, so everything hits the fan, you knew that part of the business was going to be pretty stable. And we could historically look at the last 15 years and see how stable it was, it’s a lot harder to operate those restaurants, you know, so therefore, he had whatever 100 And some corporate stores, they struggled to make the same dollar amount is the franchise arm, yet they were, you know, whatever, four, five times, you know, the size, revenue, and you had all these people, all the people to manage. So, you know, I became fairly fat. I’m an entrepreneur at heart. So I came really fascinated by the franchising piece of the restaurant industry. And when you look at the industry, and you see how many people you know, whether it’s a Subway franchise or whatever, make, you know, Jersey, Mike’s in my area, I go to all the time, and I got another guy that ends up I mean, there’s those owners pour their heart and soul and everything into making it work. And I’ll be honest with you, I always found interesting is so many times over the last 20 years, you find guys that made a bunch of my did really well in the restaurant business they sold out. Soon as their non compete was up. They got right back in. Because they knew the playbook. They knew the formula. And the guys that knew the formula, they could they were really good at it, and they knew how to make money at it. And that’s to me is always been fascinating to watch.
Chad Franzen 17:07
Sure. So you say you must have somehow learned the formula or had people around you that knew the formula because you hadn’t had a background in the restaurant, restaurant industry. What was that? Was there a learning curve? For you, even though you had been very successful prior to, you know, getting into Hooters?
Mike Pruitt 17:24
Well, I think it’s a couple of things, going back to being a buffet guy, you know, everything we invest in, we try to have a moat, right, that protect the downside. So, you know, we did our best upfront to analyze all the risks to have a moat. And part of that was, it could be the concept, it could be the marketplace, but most likely it was the people, you know, in the restaurant industry. So I, I have no claim to be a great restaurant operator, even today, 20 years later, I do think I’m pretty good. Now that identifying good restaurant operators and good concepts. But myself, I don’t know that I’d be the guy to develop the concept. But I certainly wouldn’t be the guy to operate it. But I have great empathy and excitement. And for the team that we have in the team. We’ve made a number of acquisitions, and the teams that we’ve been picked up through acquisition. And when they’re good at it, they love it. And you know, our president, Fred Fleck, I think he skips to work. I mean, he loves running our restaurant businesses, and he loves running and dealing with the people it takes to run those businesses and the customers and creating the loyalty programs. And so, you know, and night, the same thing was with Terry marks, who was the president of Hooters under our rain, you know, he built a team that was unbelievable, and it was a true joy to watch them work. And see the joy and their accomplishments, as I said, they doubled profits over a seven year period. And that’s pretty darn good. And so, you know, that look, I’ve also learned from mistakes, because, you know, I’ve often said, when I look back at my life, you know, made money, you know, certainly overachieved out kicked, you know, my coverage in terms of what my wife thought probably when she married me, and my professors thought, you know, when I was a coastal, some of which have confirmed that, but, you know, I say, I’ve made more money in my life, I’ve lost more money than I ever thought I’d make in my life too. So I’ve made plenty of mistakes. But when I look back at those mistakes, you know, which I don’t try to dwell on, but when I look at the successes, it was usually where, you know, I invested with are in great people, and Hooters being one of them, you know, and By finding a truly a management team or leadership team where their interests are purely aligned with the investors and, and I’ve always said, I’m not looking to make money off people, I’m looking to make money with people. So sharing that incentivizing them, and being in a position where, you know, we all make do well, when everybody does well, you know, typically where I’ve messed up is, you know, there’s been times where, you know, things were going so well, that maybe I took, I definitely took risks that I didn’t really think through. And, and a lot of times, when that occurs, those risks come to fruition and you lose money. And then there’s a lot, right, I always tell people, you know, you don’t ever want to think it’s blind luck. But you know, there’s a lot of luck and being in the game, when the game is going the right way. And, you know, if you can grind it out and hang in there, there’s gonna be times where, you know, the, if you know, when the ball is, you know, going the right way the game is going the right way, you can truly benefit by being in the game.
Chad Franzen 21:06
What’s an example? If you don’t mind talking about it? What’s an example of maybe a risk that you took, that didn’t work out? Well for you, but maybe you’ll learn to learn something from?
Mike Pruitt 21:16
Well, there’s a couple of different things, I think, you know, I look back the two biggest losses I took, personally and from an investing, you know, one, I’m not sure, I can truly blame the guy because I invested in a technology platform around the home building industry. And the first three years did amazing. And then in 2008 2009, came and the world crashed, right from a financial service, the mortgage backed securities, everything crashed. And so home builders froze, they stopped building, they stopped growing, you know, are they. So you know, that business went from a good business to a bad business overnight, and there’s certainly no blame, I could put on the management team, they tried to hold it in there, they probably the only thing they probably had leverage when they wish they didn’t have levers, which also hurt them, their banks called their credit facilities, because every bank was going there. Everybody’s credit facility. And so I took a pretty big hit, including one of which was my best friend growing up, who became a franchise partner, and was growing my old hometown area where I grew up in Maryland. And it bankrupted him. And so yeah, so I lost doubly I lost on the parent company, and I lost banking on him. You know, the other is, I followed, the guy who made you know, and I’ve learned this unfortunate lesson twice. Sometimes it’s really good to partner with hugely successful people. Other times, it’s not, because if they, if it turns out to be a bad deal, it’s a it’s a rounding error for them. Whereas for you, it could be a really devastating error. And so there’s been a couple of cases where they invested in a very wealthy with alongside of a very wealthy guy, in a particular industry, and he just wrote it off. And unfortunately, it didn’t hurt him, but it really hurt me. And, but that’s, you know, though, the first guy is the guy who gave me the opportunity where he made $70 million. And that public company, when, you know, we got to sell our stock. And like I say, I did really well, too. So I almost felt obligated when he asked me to invest alongside him and something. But, you know, I lost a million dollars, you know, he lost a million he must more than a million dollars, but it didn’t, you know, it was like didn’t bother, you know, it was a mistake, and really hurt me. So, but overall, I really do. I think one of my you know, if I have strengths, you know, there’s one of the strengths is I don’t dwell on failures, the live and learn move on. And I always tell people, the net net net still better never thought that I would be in this position at this age. So I got three great kids, you know, the married 36 years, 35 years, all my 36 and, and, yeah, I got no complaints.
Chad Franzen 24:31
Sure. That’s, that’s great. So obviously, burger restaurants have been a pretty good investment for you so far. What would you say are the keys to success of, of your burger restaurants?
Mike Pruitt 24:44
Well, I’d say first of all, we bought successful concept. So you know, I’d say our best our best concept was a Little Big Burger. And that was started by a chef and and at the time, his wife who was a marketing kind of Guru brandy and Guru and then they decided not to be husband wife. So they sold it to split the asset. We bought it. And we did. I told our people and you know, this is a buffet thing to look, just don’t mess it up. It’s working really, really well. And so and then over time, you know, we’ve opened a bunch more of those units. And every one we’ve opened, basically, in Oregon has continued because of the branding, and how well it’s thought of is continued to dis really grow. And then from here, between here and there, we’ve tweaked a couple of things where, you know, we tested a ground chicken burger, it works so well. So we’ve certainly positioned it as a test, because if it didn’t work, well, we were more than happy to pull it off. But it works so well. So it’d be just little things along the way. You know, is this taking something that was working, and they didn’t mess it up. And then we have just been really fortunate, and I give credit where credit’s due to Fred, you know, he got out of head in mid 2018 with a loyalty program, people have apps on their phone for a Little Big Burger, you know, we have over a couple 100,000 people on there now. And so when COVID came, you know, we were in a good position to deal with takeout delivery from the outset. And so we captured, you know, you know, a lot of business through that, and it’s a great product I’ve been my wife is a runner, and for 30 years, he’s been disciplined enough, when I order fries, he takes a couple and little big burgers, truffle fries, he now says, half mine half short, you know, so, so we serve a great product. And, you know, we got great people running it underneath Fred, from our brand leader, and then in DC, you know, BGR has, you know, they’ve won best burger in DC, you know, multiple times. And you know, it’s a high quality product, Robert King, who runs it, who, when we bought it, he was he started out as a store manager. And when we bought it, he was a regional manager. And now we call him brand leader, because he’s over the entire brand. You know, he’s done a very similar job in that market and loves it, and has been with the company more than 10 years. And you know, he just gets up every day loves what he does. And you know, he’s created it. And now, like I said, we’re trying to duplicate that in the pizza business with the acquisition of PizzaRev. And so, you know, we’re excited about that.
Chad Franzen 27:33
What is it? What attracted you to PizzaRev.
Mike Pruitt 27:37
Well, it was a very unique deal, you know, in that it was a hot brand, you know, back three years ago, unfortunately, got hurt, you know, with COVID, you know, some of the franchise, E’s were unable to continue operating. And so the PE firm that was the CPE firm that was behind it, they had gotten some money from the government to salvage it, you know, and they made a decision that there was probably someone like us better suited to turn the business around. And so, you know, we we were able to come to a fairly quick deal where, you know, we took it over, they have some incentives from us, as relates to future if it does better under our regime than theirs with, they have, you know, some other note that we owe them, and they can convert it into stock and the future if they want. But we picked up a great guy and Matt Vela, who run, you know, he’s kind of that brand leader. And, you know, we all really come to appreciate Matt like them, and we look forward to building, you know, other pizza concepts around Matt and his brand leadership and underneath Fred, as well. So, so, look, we’re early into the, you know, we’re in the first innings, you know, we bought it, you know, September 1, I believe we closed and so, you know, we’ve got two months under our belt. And, you know, we look forward to, you know, we got about three stores that are opening between now and the end of the year. And so it’s going to be interesting times ahead, and we’re excited about it. We look, we pizzas, burgers and pizzas, I think the top two categories of people eating outside of the home. So, you know, having a presence in those two verticals is a good thing. And
Chad Franzen 29:28
sure, so few more questions for you’re about to wrap it up. Okay, you said you played on the same summer league team, summer league team as Cal Ripken, and you played third. So he played short.
Mike Pruitt 29:40
Yeah, he did. He played short. And by the way, it was a hell of a pitcher. Growing up, yeah. You know, obviously, the big leagues. He played third and short. But growing up, he you know, he pitched as well as, you know, play shortstop and, you know, he was actually In high school, we were arch rivals. We were in the same county. So he played for Aberdeen I played for Bel Air and we are traveling we beat on both games including the pitched against this, but in one of the two, but I played for just two years. And a summer league team traveled team. He ended up going to a different team. The last two years of high school that he played for the night did. But, you know, for a couple years we played together and and we knew each other incredibly well. In fact, my sister and his sister have been 10 pin bowling partners for over 30 years. Oh, wow. So yeah, so our families, you know, when Mr. Rifkin died, my mom was invited back to the house, the whole nine yards because Ellie’s mom, you know, cows, mom and my mom, you know, go watch the girls bowl on Monday nights. And so, you know, they families, they very close friends are still close friends.
Chad Franzen 30:58
Could you tell? I mean, could you tell? Basically, the whole area could probably tell that this guy was, you know, pretty special.
Mike Pruitt 31:07
Yeah, you know, cow was a cow was a was a really good athlete. You know, I played a lot of pickup basketball games with him, you know, he could dunk the basketball, forward and backwards. So, so the answer is, you know, absolutely, because he was, you know, he was bigger, you know, he’s six, four, I think he was bigger, more developed than most and it’s funny because his dad was a little tough as nails kind of guy, but wasn’t a very big guy. Cow was, you know, like, I say six four. And, and he was and he was a great guy. I mean, he was a great teammate, a great guy. Like I say, I hung around a lot with them playing basketball in high school, and I went down to my buddy who I played ball with was the clubhouse manager for the Orioles so even after that I went down a few times to the clubhouse and and met Cao hung out with them. And in fact, coastal when Cal Bilt Ripken complex down at Myrtle Beach near coastal and had some extra astroturf leftover and the baseball coach because last by Colin see if there was any way he donated. And so I did call and he didn’t hesitate. He donated it to the school. And so you know, he’s he’s a he’s a really good good persons as as Billy his brother, is another brother Freddy that I didn’t know very well. But Ellie, his sister, obviously, we think the world of her. So you know, so we good family.
Chad Franzen 32:39
Very nice. Very nice. Hey, I really appreciate your time today. Mike, how can people find out more about everything you’ve got going on?
Mike Pruitt 32:46
So obviously, they can go to amergenthg.com. But HG stands for Hospitality Group. So amergenthg.com. And, you know, on there my email address, everything is under my bio, and I’m happy to answer email, I answer every email return every phone call. And if you’re out there, and you have a concept in the fast casual sector, that you potentially would have an interest in selling. You know, obviously, we’re constantly looking at new opportunities. And if we said press releases, we have a number of ello eyes out that we’re hoping to acquire some other concepts as well. And so please call and we look forward to
Chad Franzen 33:28
Okay. Hey, I appreciate your time to today. Mike, thanks so much and best of luck with everything in the future.
Mike Pruitt 33:33
Thank you. Bye, appreciate you.
Chad Franzen 33:35
Thank you so much, everybody.
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