Playing the Restaurant Game

An athlete's name on the menu may draw curious fans, but it doesn't guarantee a win.

February 23, 2005|By Joe Burris | Joe Burris,SUN STAFF

It seems to be a pattern almost as old as the games themselves: An athlete becomes a sports star and his name goes up on a restaurant.

For in a business nearly as competitive as the sports business, restaurant investors need an advantage. Who better than sports stars to draw legions of patrons?

The list of those who have been willing to lend their name to such ventures crosses the sports spectrum - including the late boxers Jack Dempsey and Sugar Ray Robinson, golfer Greg Norman, the late sports announcer Harry Caray, basketball players Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Dennis Rodman, hockey player Wayne Gretzky, football coaches Mike Ditka and Barry Switzer and football players Brett Favre, Jim McMahon, Mike Alstott, Joe Theismann, the late Walter Payton and Johnny Unitas and, most recently, Ray Lewis, who opened a barbecue restaurant in Baltimore on Sunday.

Yet the celebrities' names are no guarantee for success.

Sports stars' restaurants are historically no more successful than other establishments, industry experts say. Such venues, they say, are bound by the same directives for success: good food, good service, good location and reasonable prices.

"The restaurant business comes down to basics," says Michael Smith, analyst for the New York-based firm Oppenheimer and Co.

"Name recognition will give you some curiosity traffic," he adds, "but if you don't execute, you're not going to get that curiosity traffic back."

All too often with sports restaurants, the name is the draw.

Neither the food nor the service yields a memorable dining experience, and patrons who come figuring they're guaranteed to see their favorite stars are quickly disappointed. Many sports stars have little to do with the day-to-day operations of their investments. Some only lend their names to the venture.

So while many sports restaurants succeed, others fail:

McMahon, quarterback of the Chicago Bears 1986 Super Bowl champions, has had two failed restaurant ventures in the Chicago area, including one that opened in May 2002 and closed last summer.

Ditka's restaurant closed in Naples, Fla., but the Chicago Bears Super Bowl champion coach still has a venue in Chicago.

A League of Our Own opened in Phoenix in July 2000 as a women's sports-oriented restaurant whose name was derived from the motion picture about a women's baseball league. It closed three years later.

Investors paid Jordan for rights to use his name on a Chicago restaurant that opened in 1990. After the venue closed in 1999, a legal dispute ensued over further use of Jordan's name. Jordan won the dispute and is now part owner of another restaurant in Chicago and one in New York.

Yet if done right, the business can be as rewarding for the athletes as sports itself, providing success-driven people a chance to remain in a competitive field and giving them an opportunity to remain connected with fans long after they retire from the game.

"Most restaurant success has to do with who's running it; most celebrities are not running the restaurants themselves," says Vernon Grandgeorge, owner of Joe Theismann's restaurant in Alexandria, Va.

He founded the restaurant with other investors in 1975 and gave the then-Redskins quarterback 10 percent stock ownership for use of his name.

Grandgeorge said that within the first five years he was able to pay off all his investors, then he opened another restaurant in Elkridge in 1989 and Theismann gained a greater stake in the ownership by buying up a sizable share from the investors.

After his career ended, Theismann sold most of his shares to Grandgeorge, who closed the Elkridge location last year.

"Back when he was playing, [Theismann] would come in, crowds would gather around him, and he'd go around from table to table," says Grandgeorge. "That was when he was heavily invested.

"Now, he'll come in, sign some autographs and have a meal sometimes, but he makes it less obvious. I think his name still makes a difference; though he's not an active player, he's still a TV personality."

Investors know that sports and celebrity have been linked for years, bolstered by the proliferation of 24-hour sports channels and talk radio. Sports figures who reach star status often enjoy not only a loyal following but a "trust-me" reputation among consumers.

"With ESPN and the sports talk shows, sports are imbedded in our society, and people are very loyal to their team and their coaches," says Brian Flynn, general manager of the 5-year-old Shula's 2 steakhouse in the Wyndham Hotel on West Fayette Street. It is part of a 25-restaurant franchise founded by former Baltimore Colts and Miami Dolphins coach Don Shula. Adjacent to Shula's 2 in the Wyndham is Shula's Steakhouse.

As is the case in its Baltimore venues, all of Shula's restaurants are located inside hotels. Flynn says that gives the franchises support in a competitive field - particularly in the Baltimore area.

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