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A group of chefs and startup founders wants to scale Japanese fine dining from Arkansas with ‘Bentoville’

Bentoville has sold a limited number of sushi and Shojin-style tempura boxes that purchasers could pick up at Onyx, a local coffee shop.
Courtesy of Bentoville
It was Oct. 2022 when I met founders Phil Libin and Tammy Sun in person for the first time. The two of them—who had started dating after they both left the company Libin ran until 2015, Evernote—packed up everything during the pandemic and left San Francisco. They, like me, ended up in Bentonville, a miniature city in the Northwest corner of Arkansas, where the two of them now run their respective tech companies remotely: Sun’s fertility health services startup Carrot and Libin’s virtual meeting company mmhmm and startup studio All Turtles.
Over wine and several plates at a farm-to-table restaurant off the Bentonville square, the three of us tossed around a short list of items we missed about Big City-life. For Libin and Sun, a top item on that list was excellent Japanese food. In true fashion of Silicon Valley roots, Libin and Sun told me they figured they could solve this problem themselves: by starting a company. Since our dinner, the two of them—and seven other cofounders they pulled into the project—have launched a new restaurant concept from their new hometown. Should they be able to scale it, they hope to ultimately bring Japanese fine dining to mid-size cities around the U.S.  “Like most things in my life—it sort of started out as a joke, the idea that we would start a restaurant,” Libin told me in an interview earlier this week. “The more I talked about it with people, the more people seemed to think it was a good idea.” Their new startup, called Bentoville (pronounced “Bento-ville” if you read it too quickly the first time), is planning to open its first brick-and-mortar restaurant location next fall in Bentonville. Think Eataly or the food court at Herrods in London—essentially an upscale dining hall that is centrally run but with multiple stations serving a variety of foods. In that restaurant space, they plan to host fine-dining events, bringing in chefs from Japan and other locations to do short-term dinner events, like Japanese curry or yakitori. Naturally, Bentoville has plans to sell bento boxes at its restaurant location, and it’s already doing so on a limited basis at a coffee shop in the downtown square (Libin says he hopes to eventually sell the bento boxes within Walmart’s enormous new headquarters that is still under construction). Libin declined to share the exact location they have landed on for the restaurant but said they are currently working with both local and Japanese architects and designers to make plans for the space. They’re hoping to open in Sep. 2024. 

The cofounding roster includes a wide range of talent—including former Apple and Evernote Japan executive Hitoshi Hokamura, who has started many of his own ventures; Shinichiro Takagi, who is the head chef of Zeniya, a two-star Michelin restaurant in Kanazawa, Japan (he was also a competitor on Netflix’s culinary competition show The Final Table); and Kevin Girkins, who opened the Bentonville coffee shop where Libin and Sun are regulars. Cofounder Chef Billy Kong, whose San Francisco restaurant Kinjo held a Michelin star for three years, has moved to Bentonville, Ark. to help launch the project.

“I was a little bit skeptical,” Kong told me, noting how he had never heard of Bentonville when Hitoshi Hokamura suggested the idea to him. “Where is Arkansas?” he recalled thinking. Kong, who has spent his whole career in fine dining, said he’s still getting used to working with tech-types like Libin. While we were speaking, Kong pulled out his iPhone and showed me a Bentoville app Libin and All Turtles had built for internal Bentoville staff, to manage orders and pop-up dinners. Kong says he was shocked that Libin and All Turtles employees had built it in a few weeks’ time.
Bentoville, which is an All Turtles portfolio company, has hosted five fine-dining pop-ups so far—the first of which was an invite-only Kaiseki dinner in Dec. 2022 hosted at the Bentonville-based contemporary art museum, The Momentary. At that event, Chef Takagi and Chef Kong flew in to prepare an 11-course meal that included grilled nodoguro, monkfish liver, sea urchin, steamed turnips, and negitoro hand rolls. Since then, Bentoville has hosted four more pop-ups and sold 150 sushi and Shojin-style tempura boxes that purchasers could pick up at a local coffee shop. Bentoville raised a $1.3 million pre-seed round from its founders and All Turtles to get things going and now is bringing in some institutional capital—something Libin and Sun have gotten rather good at reeling in over the years. Libin’s companies have been backed by Sequoia Capital captain Roelof Botha and SoftBank’s Lydia Jett. Sun’s Carrot has raised more than $116 million, according to PitchBook, and is backed by Tiger Global and OrbiMed. Libin said investors Bentoville is speaking with for its next round are friends, locals, or Japanese strategic investors, though he declined to provide specifics, including whether Bentoville is in talks with anyone in the Walmart family, the Waltons, who—through various investment firms and a family foundation—have their hands in a series of local companies, restaurants, and projects in the Northwest Arkansas region.  There’s a host of reasons the startup may struggle to get off the ground. While Libin says all of Bentoville’s pop-up events have been sold out, there’s still some uncertainty as to what kinds of dishes locals will appreciate. At a yakitori dinner in mid-November, one of the chefs told several guests he had left a couple of things off the menu, including chicken cooked medium rare, as he was unsure if it would revolt some attendees. Right now, there are no fish distributors in Northwest Arkansas, meaning Bentoville is flying the seafood in itself, which isn’t sustainable at scale. Libin took a week-long trip to Japan earlier in November to try to learn how to develop some of those logistics, among other things. Kong has been working with local farms in Arkansas to start growing Japanese vegetables like daikon radishes, shisho flowers, and yuzu. Some aspects of the opening may be easier than if Bentoville were located elsewhere. The cost of real estate, as you might expect, is much more affordable in Bentonville than it would be in San Francisco. Libin thinks they can get a larger wallet share from customers, too, based on less competition. And Kong said he was surprised that Bentoville had received 80 applications in one month for an open position they posted on Indeed—multiples more than the five or 10 he would receive per month for the five restaurants he was at one time operating all at once San Francisco, he said.  For Kong, some of the excitement around the project is more personal. During the pandemic, Kong made the difficult decision to shut down two of his restaurants, including Kinjo, which had held a Michelin star between 2018-2020 and had demanded long work days and constant pressure. 
For the first time in 20 years, Kong has free time for himself, and he is learning about life outside of the kitchen. In June, Libin and Sun invited him to a rodeo. Since moving to Bentonville, Kong went camping for the first time, and he bought a mountain bike.  “Having time to do other things—it’s definitely a great thing,” Kong says. “It’s very new to me.” Until Monday,

Jessica Mathews
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- , an Amsterdam, Netherlands-based grocery app, raised €35 million in funding from Keen Ventures, Target Global, Adriaan Mol, John Caspers, Sanne Manders, and others.

- a West Lafayette, Ind.-based biotech company developing imaging agents designed to illuminate cancer during surgery, raised $30 million in Series C funding from H.I.G. Capital, The Hurvis Group, Johnson & Johnson Innovation – JJDC, and others

- , a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based e-bike marketplace, raised $30 million in Series B funding. Korelya Capital led the round and was joined by Sequoia Capital, Exor Ventures, and the European Climate Fund Transition.

- , a New York City-based developer of at-home cold brew and nitro cold brew machines, raised $20.3 million in seed funding. Valor Ventures led the round and were joined by Maveron, Howard Schultz, and others

- , a San Francisco-based asset management firm, raised $14 million in Series A funding. Distributed Global and CoinFund led the round and were joined by Breyer Capital, Galaxy, Arrington Capital, Road Capital, CMT Digital, and others. 

- , a Los Altos, Calif. rental marketplace, raised $11.5 million in seed funding. Ulu Ventures led the round and was joined by University of Chicago, Frontiers Capital, Heroic Ventures, NJP Ventures, and others.

- , a San Francisco-based banking, payroll, bookkeeping, and taxes platform for companies, raised $9.5 million in seed funding. Base10 led the round and was joined by Y Combinator, Formus Capital, and Rex Salisbury.

- , a Munich, Germany-based startup developing fusion power plants designed to provide emission-free energy, raised €7.5 million in pre-seed funding and a pre-seed extension from Visionaries Tomorrow, Hummingbird Collective, Plural Platform, UVC Partners, and others. 

- , a remote-based collection of digital collectibles built on the bitcoin blockchain, raised $7.5 million in funding. Standard Crypto led the round and was joined by Geometry, Collider Ventures, StarkWare, UTXO Management, and others.

- , a Boston, Mass.-based developer of estimating software for contractors, raised $6.5 million in seed funding from Suffolk Technologies

- , an Austin, Texas-based company designed to provide public relations professionals with better insights through the use of AI, raised $6.4 million in funding. Silverton Partners led the round and was joined by Floodgate, Firebrand, Bill Wood Ventures, and others.

- , a Paris, France-based cybersecurity startup that uses AI to investigate cyber hacks, raised $5 million in seed funding. EQT Ventures led the round and was joined by others. 

- , a New York City-based AI-powered customer support platform for e-commerce businesses, raised $4.7 million in seed funding from Sierra Ventures, Parri Passu Ventures, SpaceStation Investments, Village Global, The Council, OpenSky Ventures, and SuperAngel.Fund.

- , an Atlanta, Ga.-based provider of power amplifiers to the wireless communication markets, raised $4 million in seed funding. Squadra Ventures led the round and was joined by Cambium Capital, Draper Cygnus, Georgia Tech Foundation, and others.

- , a San Francisco-based platform designed to help B2B companies list and sell on cloud marketplaces, raised $3.5 million in funding from Craft Ventures, Intel Capital, Y Combinator, and others.

- , a New York City-based platform that connects business development professionals with company campaigns, raised $3 million in funding. Felicis and Crossbeam led the round and were joined by Liquid 2 Ventures, Browder Capital, SOMA Capital, Gold House Ventures, and others. 

- , a San Francisco-based market analytics platform for B2B companies, raised $2.7 million in seed funding from General Catalyst, YCombinator, Soma Capital, Uncorrelated Ventures, 645 Ventures, Austen Allred, Jude Gomila, and others.


- Thoma Bravo agreed to take , a Munich, Germany-based corporate communications and compliance firm, private for around €400 million ($434 million). 

- Gemspring Capital Management acquired , a Riverside, Calif.-based fencing installer and distributor. Financial terms were not disclosed.

- Manulife Investment Management agreed to acquire , a London, U.K.-based alternative credit manager. Financial terms were not disclosed. 

- Prime Pensions, a portfolio company of Mill Point Capital, acquired , an Irvine, Calif.-based provider of retirement plan design, administration, and consulting services. Financial terms were not disclosed.

- SonicWall, backed by Francisco Partners, acquired , a Woodbridge, Va.-based provider of cybersecurity solutions to managed service providers. Financial terms were not disclosed. 


- Cryoport acquired , a Valley Stream, N.Y.-based provider of international air and ground transportation services. Financial terms were not disclosed.

- Hightouch acquired , a San Francisco-based company using AI to help sales teams identify conversion opportunities. Financial terms were not disclosed.

- SplitMetrics acquired , a Graz, Austria-based marketing and analytics platform for businesses with apps. Financial terms were not disclosed. 


- , a Washington D.C.-based venture capital firm, hired Tom Davis as a general partner. Formerly, he was with Centana Growth Partners

- , a New Rochelle, N.Y.-based private equity firm, hired Will Swayne as senior principal. Formerly, he was with Partners Group.

Correction, Nov. 17, 2023: The online version of this newsletter has been corrected to reflect that On Target Laboratories raised $30 million, not $40 million.

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