ESPN did a story not too long ago called “The doom of athlete restaurants.” At that time, the advice to sports stars was to run—not walk—away from the temptation of sinking their signing bonuses into the restaurant industry.
While the draw is understandable—restaurants are a relatively simple business model to understand and a highly visible stake to plant back in one’s home city—the article warned that the business is brutal (“Los Angeles Clippers NBA draft track record brutal”). And it listed a veritable graveyard of failed examples from Larry Bird, Pete Rose, Wilt Chamberlain and more.
Well, the game has changed. The LA Clippers is now one of the top teams in the West. And athletes are turning a page on the restaurant-running playbook of the past—taking better-calculated risks, having a hands-on role in operations and applying legit strategies even seasoned restaurateurs would endorse. Here's a look at some players from the latest roster of restaurants.
Rule #1: Trade sports bars for juice bars
Sports bars have long been the natural fit for sports stars looking to break into the restaurant industry. But lately, a number of athletes are capitalizing on their association with fitness and conditioning—as well as on consumers’ current demand for better-for-you options—and opening organic, health-minded restaurants, giving some of the industry’s trendiest concepts some real competition.
Ray Allen, Grown
Ten-time NBA all-star Ray Allen permanently stepped off the basketball court in November. The shooting guard, widely praised for his work ethic as much as his three-pointers, is now sinking his time into Grown, the organic fast-food restaurant he opened in March in Miami with his wife.
The family-friendly quick-service restaurant—with a drive-thru and play areas for kids—was born out of the Allens’ struggle to find fast, healthy restaurant options for their son who was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes.
On the menu: breakfast, customizable bowls in individual or family-size portions, salads, sandwiches, soups, $7 kids’ combo meals
Novak Djokovic, Eqvita
Professional tennis player Novak Djokovic, ranked No. 2 in the world, is serving up raw and vegan cuisine at Eqvita, the restaurant he opened with his wife Jelena in April 2016 in his home country of Monaco.
Billed as a “nature-centric” restaurant, the concept’s website makes a point to note that it’s not trading on Djokovic’s celebrity; but rather, that it's a reflection of the couple’s passion for a natural, sustainable lifestyle: “We are not relying on Novak’s name to carry us through … What makes us unique and gives us the edge is his extensive knowledge and expertise in ‘fueling’ for performance, not only in sport but also in life.”
On the menu: Raw quiche with topinambour “eggs”; Crunchy burger made with nuts; organic soups and salads; smoothies; bottled, cold-pressed juices; organic wine
Andy Murray, Tossed (U.K.)
Djokovic’s competitor on the court has lobbed his own investment into the health-restaurant world by backing Tossed, a London-based salad chain with 14 locations (not to be confused with the Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based Tossed chain run by Patina Restaurant Group).
The British tennis star made his undisclosed investment in the restaurant (plus two tech startups) last year through the U.K.’s equity crowdsourcing firm Seedrs, where Murray also sits on the board.
At the time, Murray said in a statement, “Healthy eating is something I have to be passionate about as a sportsman, so Tossed was immediately one to consider. … I’m hoping that I can learn something from how they are edging ahead of the competition and take that vision onto the court with me."
On the menu: Tossed pots (grain bowls), Muscle Builder salad, piri protein wrap, yogurt snacks, smoothies, fair trade coffee with free organic soya or almond milk
Rule #2: From franchisee to franchisor
Peyton and Papa John’s. Lebron and Blaze Pizza. Magic and Starbucks. Athletes' franchisee arrangements are as old as the game. When looking for operators with capital to spend, franchisors see potential in current and former sports stars. And for the athletes, the draw of running a business under the guiding hand of a corporate parent can offer more comfort than going it alone.
But a handful of athletes are finding themselves on the other side of the franchisee-franchisor relationship, expanding their restaurant empires by offering others a piece of the brand.
Usain Bolt, Tracks & Records
Usain Bolt’s Tracks & Records' flagship restaurant opened in Kingston, Jamaica, in 2011, the year before the sprinter defended his 100-meter and 200-meter titles at the London Summer Olympics.
This summer—after Bolt recaptured those same titles in Rio—KLE Group, the entertainment and retail parent company that owns the casual-dining restaurant and bar, announced its first franchise location of Usain Bolt’s Tracks & Records in Ocho Rios, Jamaica, to be run by a local couple. Target locations for future franchises include the U.S., U.K. and Middle East.
On the menu: Codfish fritters, jerk chicken spring rolls, burgers, pizza, pasta
Drew Brees, Walk-On's Bistreaux & Bar
New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees is hands-on as a franchisee for Jimmy Johns, setting the competitive goal of operating stores in the top 5% and even delivering sandwiches from time to time, according to Franchise Times.
Now, with about eight locations of the sandwich chain operating in New Orleans—part of a deal to develop almost two dozen—Brees is stepping into the owner’s box with Walk-On's, a Baton Rouge sports bar started more than a decade ago by two Lousiana State University basketball players.
After Brees signed on as a partner in 2015, Walk-On's launched a franchise program. Today, there are three franchisees—11 locations in Louisiana and Texas—with more coming soon in Alabama, Florida, Mississippi and Tennessee.
On the menu: Duck and andouille gumbo, crawfish etouffee, rib-eye po'boys, burgers and fries
Dustin Lyman, Mrs. Fields and TCBY
Though technically not a former franchisee, Dustin Lyman has skin in the game as a chief officer.
This September, Famous Brands, franchisor of the Mrs. Fields and TCBY snack chains, named the former Chicago Bears tight end (and Wake Forest University and University of Chicago business school alumnus) as CEO, citing his belief that “great success is achieved through teamwork.”
Rule #3: A restaurant by any other name
It may be a stretch to consider the glory days of athletes’ eponymous restaurants a thing of the past. But as many of the entries on this list illustrate, athlete restaurants aren’t just about trading on the name of their superstar backers.
Kevin Durant, Legacy Grill (formerly KD’s)
Legacy Grill wasn’t the original name of Kevin Durant’s Oklahoma City restaurant. The eatery formerly known as KD’s Southern Cuisine shut down in July, three weeks after the small forward announced that he was leaving the the OKC Thunder to pursue a NBA title with the Golden State Warriors.
In September, the eatery's operator, Hal Smith Restaurants, reopened the concept under the new name with a new theme celebrating a wider range of Oklahomans who have contributed to athletics, business, entertainment and government.
It’s unclear from reports whether Durant, who once held a 25% stake in the restaurant venture, has an ongoing role. With so many athletes playing musical chairs with teams these days, it may be a cautionary tale—and a strong case for keeping the superstar's name off the sign.
On the menu: Thunder Sticks (fried or grilled chicken sticks), pot roast, country fried steak, seafood
Joey Harrington, Pearl Tavern
Though the new restaurant opening in Portland Dec. 1 will have televisions and sports memorabilia, co-owner and former pro and college QB Joey Harrington is making a bigger deal of its “vintage” cocktail program and chef-driven menu of steaks, salads and seafood. In fact, the TVs will be on mute except during big games.
Also notably inconspicuous, the absence of Harrington’s name. “If you just want to make a couple of bucks, you find a place in the base of a hotel, you call it Harrington’s and you ship in some Omaha Steaks,” Harrington told The Oregonian. “What I love about this project is that it’s food- and community-based.”
Rule #4: All-stars stage a comeback
As with sports, the restaurant landscape is littered with also-rans. But there are always those hall-of-famers who rise to the top.
Billy Sims Barbecue made Restaurant Business’Future 50 list of the fastest-growing small restaurant chains in 2015. At the time, the Oklahoma-style barbecue chain enjoyed systemwide sales estimated at $31 million and AUVs of approximately $765,000.
Harry Caray’s Italian Steakhouse in Chicago is No. 63 on Restaurant Business’ ranking of the Top 100 Independents, raking in more than $15 million a year. And Shula’s, Ditka's and Michael Jordan’s Steak House all have either been among the Top 100 indies in past years or been within striking distance.
Those latter two, in particular, appear to be making another run at the title with recent additions to their restaurant empires.
Michael Jordan's Steak House
Cornerstone Restaurant Group, the company that operates Michael Jordan’s five existing restaurant concepts, announced in August that it would bring the NBA hall-of-famer’s namesake steakhouse to the Chicago suburbs next summer.
The new restaurant will be the fourth steakhouse in Jordan’s roster; his latest one opened in Chicago five years ago. Although the restaurant will have a slightly different moniker—it will be called Michael Jordan’s Restaurant, not Michael Jordan’s Steak House like the others—it will serve natural, grass-fed beef and feature wines on tap, craft beers and cocktails, and an “interactive kitchen,” according to news reports.
Mike Ditka, Ditka's and Grill 89
“Da coach” who led the Chicago Bears to a NFL Championship in 1985 has since nurtured a restaurant empire that includes five Ditka’s destination restaurants in three states.
In August, his restaurant group unveiled plans for a new Ditka’s steak and seafood restaurant in Illinois. A few months earlier, in May, Ditka opened his first concept that does not bear (see what we did there?) his name or the spiky-haired caricature associated with his other operations. Grill 89 is a casual sports bar in the Chicago ’burbs that only subtly references the jersey number Ditka wore as a player.
On the menu at Grill 89: Coach's Pot Roast Nachos, Steakhouse Burger, steaks, barbecue
Some of the more senior members of the team smile at the junior staff who are excited to uncover an interesting trend in “eatertainment” or the latest single-ingredient concept. We try not to be condescending when we suggest they do some research by looking at past issues of Restaurant Business or old Technomic top chain reports before calling it the next big thing.