Call him the reluctant restaurateur.
“The last thing on my mind when I was coaching football was going into the restaurant business,” says Don Shula, the winningest coach in National Football League history and the only NFL coach to have a perfect season, a record that has stood for more than 40 years. “I resisted for a long period of time and finally thought, ‘Let’s give it a try.’”
The Graham family — famed for founding Miami Lakes and siring former publisher of The Washington Post Phil Graham and former Florida governor and former U.S. Senator Bob Graham — courted Shula for two years before he agreed to put his name on a restaurant. The Grahams finally succeeded in 1989. The Graham family’s Miami Lakes restaurant, formerly known as Legends, got a makeover and a new name: Shula’s Steak House. The Grahams kept the restaurant and used the Shula name.
Today, Don Shula (who turned 85 Sunday) celebrates 25 years in the business, which has grown to include six different restaurant concepts, ranging from formal dining to casual burger eateries. There are 36 restaurants of various incarnations bearing the Shula name, and dozens more are planned. Shula’s company, Shula’s Steak Houses, LLLP, even owns two of the burger restaurants.
The Shulas and Grahams had been friends since the 1970s, when Don and his family moved to the Loch Lomond section of Miami Lakes. Shula made good use of the local amenities. He played golf on the Bill Watts-designed golf course and housed the Dolphin team in the local hotel on the eve of home games. Under a licensing agreement with the Grahams, the property later bore his name as Shula’s Hotel & Golf Club. The team also had their pregame meals and meetings at the golf course restaurant, then called Legends. After the Grahams remodeled the restaurant into a high-end steak house and put Shula’s name on it, sales increased fourfold in the first year, Shula says with evident pride.
Graham Company President Stuart Wyllie is equally proud of that accomplishment and the enduring relationship between the two families. Today, the company works directly with Don Shula’s eldest son, Dave, 55. He serves as president of Shula’s Steak Houses, LLLP, which owns the licensing rights to the coach’s name and two Shula Burger restaurants.
“We’ve enjoyed both a personal and professional relationship with the family for more than 25 years,” says Wyllie, explaining that the Grahams and Shulas were neighbors in Miami Lakes for many years. “Obviously, the coach is special for his accomplishments, which are unmatched. … We have especially enjoyed working with his son, David, who is extremely bright. He’s just a first-class guy.”
Dave explains how the Shula name became synonymous with steak as well as football.
“Shula, football, steak. It all went together,” he says. His mother, Dorothy, the coach’s first wife, who died from breast cancer in 1991, helped seal the deal. “Eventually, you’re going to hang up your whistle,” she said, urging him to consider the Grahams’ offer. “The Grahams also pitched that the steakhouse would be themed after the accomplishments of the ’72 Dolphin team that went undefeated,” Dave says. “That legacy would be carried on throughout the restaurant. He finally agreed to do that in 1989, and 25 years later, we’re looking for the next 25 years.”
The coach confesses a lack of knowledge about the business, stating: “I just didn’t have a feeling that I had any aptitude for the restaurant business, other than eating a lot of food.” But that wasn’t the major sticking point to embracing the new endeavor.
“Probably the biggest hitch, the part that slowed you down, is you realized that you can only lose your reputation once,” Dave says to his father during a group interview in the private dining area of the original Shula’s Steak House, where the team once huddled for pregame meals and strategy sessions. “He wasn’t going to be running it and had put a lot of faith in the Grahams and their ability to be able to run this facility in a way that would represent his name and the reputation that went along with it in a positive way.”
Dave, also a former NFL player and coach, started with the company in 1997, explaining that “I didn’t get into the business to do anything but enhance the reputation that he built as a football coach.”
“So, don’t screw it up,” Don interjected.
“So, no pressure there,” Dave added. “That sets the [bar] really high, when you have all the records that he has in his coaching career.” Aside from the 1972 perfect season, that includes 347 overall wins, most regular season wins (328), most consecutive seasons coached (33), most Super Bowl appearances as head coach (six), six-time NFL Coach of the Year, Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year, NFL 1970s All-Decade Team, Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee.
Those around the coach were ever mindful of his stellar reputation.
“He probably doesn’t know this, but the way that the decisions were made as to design and menu and style of service, what type of a steakhouse would we be — always came down to: What atmosphere would Coach Shula be comfortable in?” Dave says. “And that says a lot about him. He’s always wanted to do things in a first-class way, but not pretentiously, not over the top.”
The 154-seat dining area at the original steakhouse presents a low-key elegance enhanced by black-and-white action photographs of the ’72 Dolphins, white tablecloths and dark wood furnishings. The only other nod to celebrity are the 60 brass nameplates on the back of certain dining chairs that represent the 53 players and seven coaches who were part of the ’72 Dolphins. “Some people request to be seated at their favorite player’s table,” Dave says.
At the upper end of the menu, there’s a steering-wheel-sized slab of steak — the 48-ounce porterhouse — that will set you back $95. (That can be paired with the lowest-priced item on the menu, $9 steak fries.) The restaurant is a bit pricey, Dave allows. But, he says, you get what you pay for — a wine cellar that merits the seal of approval from Wine Spectator and select cuts of Angus beef that are vacuum-packed and never frozen.
“We have what we call the ‘Shula Cut,’” Dave says. “This is a differentiator for us. This is why people keep coming back.” All the beef is cut at Halperns’ Purveyors of Steak & Seafood in Atlanta. They start with a tenderloin. “It looks like a hammerhead shark,” Dave explains. “The most desirable parts of that tenderloin are the centermost parts. Our cut specification is that we take only those center cuts. Then they have to serve or sell the rest of that loin to somebody else.”
That meat gets vacuum-sealed and aged for up to 35 days. “It’s called wet-aging,” he says. “They’re never frozen.” Their hamburgers are a custom blend from the same source, he adds. The restaurants also provide seafood and salads for non-beef eaters. But if you like beef, you can certainly get your fill. Two of the Shula restaurant concepts (Shula’s Steak House and Shula’s On The Beach) offer 48-ounce porterhouse steaks. That’s three pounds of steak. Another favorite is Steak Mary Anne, three three-ounce medallions of steak prepared with a demi-glace sauce and named for the coach’s current wife.
Over the years, the original steakhouse concept became a franchise that grew to 14 restaurants in nine states. To ensure a certain level of business, the goal is to place those restaurants in hotels, but they can be free-standing restaurants as well, Dave says.
The original restaurant concept also had five spinoffs that include Shula’s Bar & Grill (located in four Florida airports), Shula’s On The Beach (in Fort Lauderdale, similar to the original, but in a beach setting), Shula’s 347 Grill (upscale sports dining in eight locations in five states, which offers customers the option to watch TV while dining), Shula’s 2 (a sports restaurant, with two locations in Florida and one in Ohio, where diners also can eat while watching sports on TV), and the most casual, Shula Burger (six restaurants currently in five Florida locations).
The Shula restaurants also serve to publicize the Don Shula Foundation, which has raised more than $4 million for breast cancer research, says Dave, adding that this year the foundation was assimilated by the Moffitt Center, a cancer research facility in Tampa.
The expansion of the Shula restaurant franchise can only help that cause.
“We’re at 36 restaurants now,” Dave says. “We’ll continue to grow those into dozens of restaurants in each concept.”
The game plan includes building a base in Florida and expanding to cities that host NFL teams, as well as metropolitan areas that have business traffic during the week and can sustain leisure customers on the weekend.
Dave foresees a boom in the Shula Burger business. “The cost of entry is a lot lower,” he says. “It’s a model that’s designed to be able to open hundreds of restaurants around the country eventually.” The cost includes an upfront fee, build-out, training, staffing, operating supplies and equipment, signage, pre-opening marketing and overall assistance to help the restaurant succeed, Dave says. A Shula Burger franchise runs as low as $500,000, compared to upwards of $3 million to own one of the full service Shula restaurants, Dave explains.
There’s an item on the Shula Burger menu that is named in Don Shula’s honor.
“It’s called ‘The Don,’” the coach says. “It’s for people that can’t make up their mind. They go in there and say, ‘Do I want a hotdog, or do I want a hamburger? Do I want a hamburger, or do I want a hotdog?’ So they order a Don. And a Don is a hotdog on top of a hamburger.”
Coach Shula served as the inspiration. “I had to make some contribution,” he says with a smile.
Shula’s Steak House is the original restaurant, which is owned by the Graham framily. It is at 7601 Miami Lakes Dr., Miami Lakes. Under a franchise agreement, there are now 14 similar restaurants in nine states.
Five spin-off franchise concepts: Shula’s Bar & Grill (airport locations); Shula’s On The Beach (Fort Lauderdale); Shula’s 347 Grill (upscale sports dining); Shula’s 2 (sport restaurants); Shula Burger (fast-casual restaurants).
Total: 36 restaurants throughout the United States (30 full-service and six burger restaurants).
Cost of entry (to own and operate, from site selection and buildout to staff training and restaurant supplies): $500,000 to $900,000 for a Shula Burger franchise; $1.1 million to more than $3 million for the other five concepts, which are full-service restaurants.
Company executives for Shula’s Steak Houses, LLLP: President, Dave Shula; CEO, Mary Anne Shula; CFO, Nicole Milnthorpe; senior VP of operations, Chef Peter Farrand; VP of Shula Burger, Pam Day.
Employees: 14 corporate employees
Revenues: While he will not provide exact revenues, Dave Shula says the corporation averages a 5 percent annual sales growth, except for the 2008-2010 recession years. Last year (2014) registered an overall uptick in sales by 6 percent, he adds.
BY SIOBHAN MORRISSEY
Special to the Miami Herald