In the outpouring of recollections about Muhammad Ali’s extraordinary life and career, virtually nothing has been said about his stints as a restaurateur. The omission may be a last act of kindness toward the champ.
Despite his inspiring achievements as an athlete, peacemaker and spokesman for a generation, Ali was an abject failure in the restaurant business. Twice he lent his considerable renown to startups, one a would-be competitor to McDonald’s, called ChampBurger; the other, a rotisserie chicken concept called Muhammad Ali’s Rotisserie Chicken.
Both were attempts by shrewd entrepreneurs to capitalize on prevailing trends as well as Ali’s celebrity. ChampBurger, for instance, was hatched in 1968, when McDonald’s, Burger Chef and other quick-service burger specialists were growing at a breakneck rate. Ali was reportedly paid $900,000 and promised 1% of revenues to affiliate himself with ChampBurger, an upstart out of Miami.
The deal stipulated that ChampBurger could not sell anything that violated Muslim dietary laws: no pork, shellfish or alcohol. Also, the featured beverage was Mr. Champ soda, a version to which Ali had also licensed his name.
The concept never became more than a Miami experiment.
Ali gave the business another try in the mid-1990s, when chains like Boston Market and Kenny Rogers Roasters were turning consumers’ heads with rotisserie chicken. A longtime friend of Ali’s, Talib Rashada, convinced his long-retired buddy in 1995 to collaborate on a venture called Muhammad Ali’s Rotisserie Chicken.
Like Boston Market, the spotlight would fall as much on the concept’s sides as it would on the signature product. The options included collard greens, candied yams and mac and cheese.
A part of the business plan was licensing the concept to operators in Arab countries, where Ali’s Muslim faith would likely be seen as a plus.
But the operation apparently never grew beyond a single restaurant in the Washington, D.C., area.
The Ali name would eventually grace a restaurant success. TripAdvisor gives a 3.5-star rating to a Mediterranean shop in St. John's, Newfoundland, called Mohamed Ali's.