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Restaurants seek athletes as franchisees

Restaurants seek athletes as franchisees

Brandon Gorin is hoping the weekend surrounding Super Bowl XLVI, which takes place Feb. 5 in Indianapolis, will drive his highest sales weekend ever at his two Marco’s Pizza franchises in Fishers, Ind.

Gorin, who won two Super Bowls with the New England Patriots during his eight-year career in the National Football League, is one of many professional athletes to invest in a restaurant franchise after their playing days were over, and Marco’s Pizza is one of several foodservice brands that recruit from this pool of potential partners. Next week, Gorin and Marco’s will present at a player networking event that the NFL has set up for 600 current and former players.

“Sports go hand in hand with food sometimes, and franchising helps me be my own boss but still get aligned with a team that has my same vision,” Gorin said. “Opening my own restaurant, like a Brandon Gorin’s Bar and Grill, would have been much more difficult. When I was looking for my transition [after playing in the NFL], franchising made a lot of sense to me because I knew I’d be supported.”

Other examples of athletes turning to franchising include Gorin’s former teammate from Purdue University and the San Diego Chargers, Drew Brees, who owns several Jimmy John’s locations in New Orleans. Tennis star Venus Williams is a Jamba Juice franchisee, while Canadian juice chain Liquid Nutrition counts Steve Nash of the Phoenix Suns and Vincent LeCavalier of the Tampa Bay Lightning as franchisees.

At its annual convention next month, the International Franchise Association will hold several information sessions for interested athletes, with presentations from operators like retired National Basketball Association star Jamal Mashburn, a franchisee of several Dunkin’ Donuts and Papa John’s Pizza restaurants.

Marco’s Pizza began its partnerships with former pros in the past few years, after meeting Gorin at a networking event organized by the NFL.

“We were very fortunate to meet Brandon early in the process for us,” said Bryon Stephens, vice president of new business development for Toledo, Ohio-based Marco’s Franchising LLC. “He exhibits all the traits we’d want in a franchisee: He’s very disciplined, with an exceptional work ethic.”

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Training former athletes without restaurant experience to run a Marco’s unit involves more business ownership coaching than pizza-making coaching, Stephens said. The brand places many of its experienced operations people — who could run their own franchises but often lack the startup capital an NFL alumnus could supply — in the new franchisee’s stores, letting the former athletes learn how to run the business more holistically.

“They need to know how to develop a team and build a network, because most of them talk to us about owning between five and 20 locations in a territory,” Stephens said. “They possess the capital and the work ethic, and they also come into this business with their personal brand identity. They’re opening stores in areas where they played or in their hometowns and where they can capitalize on their personal brands.”

Marco’s is still relatively early in its athlete recruitment efforts. Kirk Luchman, who played basketball at Florida State and in the pros in Europe, is a franchisee in Tallahassee, and Marco’s only other athlete franchisee to date, but it’s a “very good fit,” Stephens said.

“The key element for us it to talk to these players while they’re still playing,” he said. “None of them knows when his or her career is going to end, because it could get cut short by an injury. We’re beginning to go up-line, so that they understand that putting their capital to work now will keep them from seeing a huge drop-off from their active playing days to their active rest of their lives.”

Denny’s also began signing pro athletes as franchisees several years ago, which resulted from trying to match well-capitalized partners lacking restaurant experience with the family-dining chain’s operators who were looking to run their own units but could not necessarily collateralize the financing, said Steve Dunn, the brand’s senior vice president of global franchising.

“It just so happened that our program ended up catering to former pro athletes,” Dunn said. “While the program isn’t targeting them specifically, it’s our new- and emerging-market strategy and provides incentives to anybody with capital to invest in new territories.”

Denny’s currently has one former athlete in its franchisee base, former Jacksonville Jaguars safety Chris Hudson, who operates several units in the Memphis market. Previous franchisees, like basketball players Hakeem Olajuwon and A.C. Green, have run Denny’s locations in the past, “and got a good price and sold their businesses,” Dunn added.

He agreed with Stephens of Marco’s Pizza and other executives that the commitment and passion athletes showed to play professionally translate well to the business world, making them desirable franchisees.

“The competition in the restaurant industry is different, but it’s competition nonetheless,” Dunn said.

Contact Mark Brandau at [email protected].
Follow him on Twitter: @Mark_from_NRN

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