Miami Dolphins legendary coach Don Shula has conquered the steak business. Now he is tackling burgers, albeit gourmet versions of the American classic with toppings that include fresh goat cheese, sliced avocados and crushed garlic croutons. “I’m a meat-eater,” Shula said. “I like steak, but I also like hamburgers.” The first Shula Burger opened last month in the Florida Keys, near the World Famous Tiki Bar at the newly renovated resort complex now called Postcard Inn at Holiday Isle. It is restaurant No. 33 and concept No. 6 of a restaurant empire whose franchises have expanded far beyond Shula’s friendly home turf. They are in 16 states, as far west as Arizona. Shula has attended every grand opening, and eaten at every restaurant bearing his name. “You can tell I haven’t missed many meals,” he said laughing in reference to his ample gut. Many of his restaurants are in NFL cities of Dolphin rivals. “But, we don’t have one in Buffalo,” Shula said with a grin. The Bills once lost 20 straight games to his Dolphins in the 1970s. Shula thrives on competition. But 22 years ago he entered the grinding restaurant business as reluctantly as 300-pound linemen arrive for two-a-day practices in summer heat and humidity. David Younts, who was president of the hospitality division of the Graham Cos. that owned the Miami Lakes Inn and Golf Resort, prodded Shula into finally agreeing to lend his legendary name to the resort’s struggling Legends Steak House. It became Shula’s Steak House and was themed around the Dolphins 1972 undefeated season. They featured a 48-ounce porterhouse. In the first year, revenue went from less than $1 million to $3 million plus. “The food was good. People enjoyed it,” Shula said. “I thought, ‘This is not so bad.’ ” For most sport-celebrity eating establishments, sizzle is followed by fizzle. Shula’s steak house not only flourished, its sustained success led to more upscale steakhouses. To date, 37,426 of Shula’s 48-ounce porterhouses have been eaten, including 187 by Taff Parker of South Carolina. “The Shula name is almost like a cult, synonymous with success; nobody has had a perfect season except Miami,” said TV chef Walter Staib, a Philadelphia-based restaurant consultant who helped develop the Shula brand during its first 15 years. “Standards were set very high at the beginning, and they never changed course. That’s why the Shula brand became so powerful.” Premium Black Angus steaks were purchased from one source, specially aged and specially packaged, with no middle man. “So a 32-ounce steak was a 32-ounce steak 365 days a year,” Staib said. “It was not like other restaurants, where steaks shrink at the end of the month.” Shula, who likes his steaks medium well, demanded perfection in those early years. Staib said: “He was one tough boss. One thing went wrong, and you got your butt kicked. He used his coaching ways. Don’t screw up on my team.” With the success of the upscale steak houses, the restaurant company began other concepts for franchises. Shula’s 347 Grill, named after his record 347 NFL coaching victories, is a mid-priced restaurant. They also have Shula’s 2 Steak & Sports (casual sports bar), Shula’s Bar & Grill (for airports, including a recently opened one at Miami International Airport) and Shula’s On the Beach (waterfront dining that includes seafood). The first foreign Shula’s restaurant, an On the Beach version, is being discussed for Cancun, Mexico. There was a Shula’s On the Beach in Key West, but it closed after five years in 2006 because new ownership of the hotel wanted to lease out the space and not operate a franchise, Shula Burger president Bill Herman said. The concept of Shula Burgers — fast gourmet burgers at a casual place that serves alcohol — was the brainchild of Shula’s wife Mary Anne, who also is the Shula Steak Houses CEO. The burgers are 5.3 ounces and made from 5 percent brisket, 5 percent short rib and 90 percent Black Angus beef chuck. “Make sure you try ‘The Don.’ It’s hamburger with a hot dog on top,” Shula said. The Islamorada Shula Burger is just around the corner on U.S. 1 from the Ocean View Pub & Inn, another casual place that sells burgers and is associated with a two-time Super Bowl Champion: former Pittsburgh Steelers defensive lineman Gary Dunn. But unlike Dunn, who is hands on, Shula these days primarily plays the role of company ambassador. The day-to-day operations are run by others, including son Dave, the company president. After being fired as head coach from the Cincinnati Bengals in 1996, Dartmouth-educated Dave Shula found his coaching options limited. He tried the restaurant business, working at almost every position, including dishwasher. “I learned a restaurant is a lot like a football team,” he said. “To be effective, the talented people and everybody else on the team have to work together. You have to depend on each other.” At the grand opening last week in Islamorada, Don Shula held court like the icon that he is, signing pictures, footballs and anything fans and new Shula Burger employees brought him. Each Shula Burger will have a wall dedicated to one of the old coach’s favorite plays. At the Islamorada joint, it was play No. 70 HB SO, which stands for halfback short option. Former Dolphins quarterback great Bob Griese, who came to the grand opening to support his old coach, pointed to his No. 12 on the play painted on the wall. “It was designed for the back coming out of the backfield to catch a pass to get a first down or perhaps bigger play,” Shula said. “I had a lot of confidence that it would work against whatever coverage.” The goal in the next five to 10 years is to have “hundreds of Shula Burgers” across the United States, Herman said. While the Islamorada version is full service with a full bar and offers breakfast, most Shula Burgers are just lunch and dinner places with counter service and only beer and wine. The wine will be in special coolers that dispense servings of wine by the ounce, paid for with a card. Shula Burgers are in the works for three other South Florida locations: in a new Publix shopping complex on Killian Parkway near Miami-Dade College that will open in June, on the 17th Street Causeway, formerly Edwin Watts Golf, in Fort Lauderdale that will open in September and one at the Delray Marketplace that will open in November. The company also is finalizing a deal with a franchisee to open 10 additional Shula Burgers in Miami-Dade and Broward counties. “I believe if you do a good job on the food, atmosphere and service, you will end up being a winner,” Don Shula said. And maybe one day there will be a Shula Burger in Buffalo.
BY CAMMY CLARK ISLAMORADA