6 things restaurant operators could learn from Shaq

Basketball Hall of Famer Shaquille O’Neal, an entrepreneur with interests in several chains, shared some wisdom (and several surprises) with the crowd at Restaurant Leadership Conference Wednesday.
Shaquille O'Neal
Shaquille O'Neal fistbumps Winsight's head of conferences, Chris Keating./Photo by W. Scott Mitchell

Basketball Hall of Famer Shaquille O’Neal, who played on four NBA championship teams, may be best known for his dominance (and backboard breaking) on the court. But he has had a thriving business career outside of basketball, much of it connected to the restaurant industry.

In 2019, controversy-plagued Papa John’s signed Shaq to an $8 million marketing deal that also included the NBA great investing in nine of the chain’s units in Atlanta. He’s also a franchisee of Auntie Anne’s Pretzels, Krispy Kreme and Five Guys.

Most recently, though, Shaq has been busy launching Big Chicken, a fast-casual fried chicken concept that has two brick-and-mortar units along with a couple of stadiums and cruise ship outposts. The brand recently started franchising and has an extensive pipeline of new stores in the works.

“We’re focused on growing the brand through great franchise partners and unique non-traditional locations like our cruise ship and arena stores,” Shaq said via email. “The focus will always be on the food and environment that we have created, and we’ll make sure all of our franchisees are set up for success in continuing that.”

Shaq shared some of his business (and life) wisdom with a packed house at the Restaurant Leadership Conference in Phoenix Wednesday. RLC is presented by Winsight, the parent company of Restaurant Business. Here are some of his notable bits of advice:

  1. Don’t underestimate the benefits of joint ventureship. When Shaq first got into restaurants a couple of decades ago, a friend gave him a copy of the book “Starting a Business for Dummies.” “My favorite chapter was on joint ventureship,” Shaq said. “The greatest leaders are the ones smart enough to hire partners smarter than you … I’m all about team. That’s the only reason I’m successful.”
  2. Don’t let yourself get cocky. With his early high school basketball success, Shaq said he became “very arrogant.” His friends turned on him, he said, and taught him not to be so full of himself. “You didn’t get here by yourself,” he said. “You’ve got to humble yourself.”
  3. Stand up for your beliefs. Shaq partnered with Papa John’s as the chain was embroiled in controversy after founder John Schnatter allegedly made racist comments on a conference call. “When it happened, they asked me to be involved,” Shaq said. “I noticed they didn’t have any African-American people on the board. They never had. I told them, in order for me to come on, I would have to be on the board.”
  4. Don’t get involved in a project you don’t believe in. “If I do not believe in your product, I will not take your money,” he said. “Pizza loves everyone and everyone loves pizza. I knew I could help.”
  5. Stick with people who know what they’re doing. Shaq has been heavily involved in the development of Big Chicken, playing a role in crafting the menu and leveraging his relationships to help the concept grow. But he hired Josh Halpern, formerly an Anheuser-Busch InBev executive, to lead the brand. “You have to have people that are smarter than you,” he said. “Guys who’ve been in the industry for a long time. They’re helping me make this thing grow and hopefully it becomes big.” (Shaq noted, though, that he has also worked hard to school himself on business, earning a doctoral degree in organizational learning and leadership nearly a decade ago.)
  6. Social media needs to be authentic. Shaq said his magic formula on his online platforms is 60% “to make you laugh,” 30% inspirational and 10% marketing. “For social media, image is reality,” he noted. “I cannot sell you a person that I’m not.”

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