Now we're cooking
Athletes have always been involved in the culinary arts. But now, as the food world has exploded and celebrity chefs are as much in demand at the Super Bowl as the players, there are more sports figures on the food scene than ever.
Two primary reasons for this shift are cited by those involved — social media and TV shows about cooking. They are the same potent accelerants that have made foodies as rabid about their favorite restaurant or chef as sports fans are fervent about their favorite team or player.
“Social media came in, and if there was a new restaurant, everyone knew about it right away,” said Al “Bubba” Baker, who played for five NFL teams, and opened Bubba’s-Q barbecue restaurant in suburban Cleveland in the early 1990s. “The other thing that really set it off was cooking shows. Food Network and the rest gave everyone the chance to be a star.”
Baker’s patented boneless ribs are the star of his food empire. An appearance on “Shark Tank” in 2013 gave Baker a national profile, taking his business from $154,000 in sales to more than $16 million a year ago. His boneless ribs are now available in more than 3,000 stores across America, and have been sold nationally through the Carl’s Jr./Hardee’s quick-service restaurant chain.
“So much of social media is about sports, and if it isn’t about sports, it’s about food,” said former Bellator lightweight champion Will Brooks, now fighting in the Professional Fighters League, after a stint with the UFC. Brooks, an aspiring restaurateur, has a YouTube cooking channel. Raised by a single parent who often worked three jobs, he developed culinary skills by necessity.
“Culinary is almost like sports now,” said Octagon Senior Vice President Christine Franklin, who handles culinary marketing for Octagon clients, including Mastercard. “You’ve got these huge social media followings for both, and the fans of both watching their favorite stars on TV. The lifestyle component is huge — you’ve got chefs getting in the business to become celebrities, not to work in a restaurant. People are interested in what their favorite chefs do over the weekend totally independent of what and where they ate.”
Like Baker, Food Network host Eddie Jackson practiced his trade in college, selling fellow football players homemade meatloaf, mashed potatoes and fried chicken, “all the stuff the guys were missing from their moms for $5 a plate.” Just as an appearance on “Shark Tank” led to Baker’s multimillion-dollar success with boneless ribs, Jackson also got help from a TV show. He was the winning contestant on the “Food Network Star” reality show in 2015. Since then, he’s hosted various Food Network shows, in addition to owning Rosehill, a three-acre food truck park and beer garden, in Cypress, Texas, near Houston.
“What draws a lot of athletes to this business is that it’s very competitive,” said Jackson, an undrafted cornerback from the University of Arkansas who played for the Carolina Panthers, Miami Dolphins and New England Patriots. “At first, I didn’t realize it was that difficult, but the trends are always changing. Now I’m seeing a lot of sushi/Mexican restaurants. You have to stay educated on your craft and keep up to date. That’s something athletes are used to.”
Longtime celebrity chef marketer Lonny Sweet, who heads The Connect Group in New York City, offered a few more reasons. “It’s like rap stars and NBA players. A lot of chefs want to be in the athlete space and vice versa,” Sweet said. “So many pro athletes are on the road all the time, in season, so they get to know what’s good and which chefs are hot.”
Wine that's a labor of love
The Arias wine brand is personal to both David Ortiz and winemaker Peter Ianniello as a tribute to their mothers.
The brand is named after Ortiz’s mother, Angela Rosa Arias, who died in a car accident in the Dominican Republic in 2002. He remembered her after each home run, pointing his index fingers to the sky as he crossed home plate. On the wine label’s website, Ianniello recalls that he was in his vineyard when his mother called to say she had pancreatic cancer. In that moment, he raised his eyes and arms to the sky in prayer. He attributes his passion for his vineyard for helping him to cope with his grief. The wine’s label recreates that gesture in memory of both women.
Arias’ wine lineup consists of a merlot, chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon, sauvignon blanc, and a bottle Ortiz calls “Christalan” named after a statue in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. The Christalan stands for resiliency and overcoming adversity to turn into a positive.
There’s long been athletes lending their name to wine labels, along with those who are actually involved in the process, like Greg Norman Estates, Drew Bledsoe’s Doubleback Winery or Tom Seaver’s Seaver Vineyards. More recently, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade have partnered with winemakers.
“Every high-end athlete is in tune with high-end culinary and wine now,” said Diane Karle, CEO of Wine by Design, which produces wine under license for MLB, NBA and NFL teams. “Another developing area for athletes is in the collector markets. You’re seeing guys like Phil Mickelson, LeBron James and Derek Jeter spending significantly there.”
After a Big Papi’s Grille restaurant and a line of salty snacks and salsa during his playing days, former Red Sox David Ortiz also has turned his attention to wine, with the Arias label, in which he’s an investor (see related story).
“We’re still looking at another restaurant, but David’s passionate about wine now,” said Alex Radetsky, marketing agent for Ortiz. “But we know an athlete’s name can only sell a bottle of wine once. It has to be more than that.”
It’s all about barbecue
While there’s been an explosion of barbecue restaurants in America over the past 20 years, barbecue has long been a staple for retired athletes, like Boog Powell and Billy Simms. Baker grew up in the business, learning by working summers at his uncle’s place: Jenkins Quality Barbecue, with multiple locations around Jacksonville, Fla. The lightbulb went on when, as a Detroit Lions rookie in 1978, a veteran offered Baker $10 for a pork chop sandwich he’d brought on a team flight.
“To me, what makes barbecue so beautiful is that it’s uniquely American,” Baker said. “There’s a Southern twist to it, so you don’t see a lot of Harvard grads in the barbecue business. You get guys like Boog Powell, from Arkansas.”
There’s also a theory that the deprivation that’s part of athletic training makes some turn to food as a career.
“Athletes have to watch what they eat their whole career,” Jackson said. “When they no longer have to do that, some just naturally gravitate toward food as a career.’’
Echoed Brooks, “For fighters especially, when we’re cutting weight, there’s periods of like eight to 12 weeks when we just can’t eat anything we want. I’m living through Instagram food posts then, and after a fight, I’m trying to eat all that good food I saw online.’’
There will always be plenty of top-tier athletes who will simply license their name to restaurants. Those who actually want to be an operator must be prepared to toil.
“Too many athletes get into restaurants as a vanity piece,” Radetsky said. “It has to have a great location and be authentic, because the novelty only lasts so long. Even restaurants with Michael Jordan’s name on them have failed.”
“The restaurant business is like being a policeman,” Baker said. “In both cases, you’re really looking for trouble. But it’s not the people with the best recipe or the most money to start with that succeed, it’s the ones with passion. They don’t care if one of their smokers breaks down first thing or if they run out of brisket during a holiday. They use their passion to find a way; that’s what’s been driving us.”