Sunday, September 23, 2007

The Roger Clemens syndrome

The producers of “Nova,” the popular science program, should forget about aboriginal tribes that worship Ernest Borgnine or ant species that build crude nuclear reactors. If they really want to focus on a scientific marvel, they should spotlight whatever mysterious force tends to turn the blood of foodservice veterans into grade A ketchup.

The vampire or virus has clearly been at work in recent months, leading to the memorable newsroom query of a young Nation’s Restaurant News staffer, “Ever heard of somebody named Jerry Richardson? He just bought into Bojangles’.”

Every heard of Jerry Richardson? When I was her age, that would’ve been like asking, “Anybody got a gauge on whether McDonald’s sells burgers or pizza?” He was a god of the business, a self-made gazillionaire who’d originally bought into the restaurant industry with money he’d earned by winning what many pundits still regard as the greatest football game of all time. He snatched a pass from Johnny Unitas during the 1959 championship series—this was eight years before the first Super Bowl—to beat the New York Giants.

He’d go on to build a colossal foodservice empire, with Hardee’s franchises at a cornerstone, but other interests ranging from Canteen Corp. to Quincy’s Steakhouse, Denny’s, El Pollo Loco and Hilton International. In his heyday, Richardson was as prominent a figure in the business as Yum! Brands’ David Novak or Darden Restaurants’ Clarence Otis is today.

But, of course, a lot has happened between that day and the present. Richardson, it seemed, never lost the football bug. The game was a big part of the culture of Spartan Foods, the Hardee’s franchise he built with longtime business partner (and fellow football fanatic) Charlie Bradshaw. Alumni of Spartan Foods still recall the rough-and-tumble inter-squad matches they’d be expected play at the company’s annual meetings.

For years, Richardson tried to use his wealth and connections to land an NFL franchise for the Carolinas. He finally succeeded in 1993 with the establishment of the Carolina Panthers, of which he remains the principal owner. To run the team, he stepped out of the business, but retained a Bojangles’ franchisee that he’d quietly purchased in the 1970s and delegated to his son, Jon, to run in the years since.

And now Richardson is suiting up to get back in the game. He’s named a longtime protégé as CEO of Bojangles, and Richardson has left little doubt that he intends to wield an active hand in the company’s operation.

It’s doubtful he needs the money, given the income bracket of most pro-sports team owners. Public records indicate that he’s about 71 years old. And he’s known success all of his life. Clearly he doesn’t have to do this.

Yet he sounds eager to put in the long hours and considerable effort that’s required to reinvigorate and expand a franchise chain. Clearly, he’s pumping Heinz or Hunt’s through his veins.

Then again, he’d have no problem finding transfusion candidates. Just days before Richardson’s name re-emerged, we ran a story about Dick Holbrook’s re-entry into chain management. A longtime second-in-command of Popeyes parent AFC Enterprises, Holbrook was stepping out of an investment role to become president of J. Christopher’s, one of the new breed of breakfast-and-lunch concepts that should just about finish off the old coffee-shop-style family restaurant.

Holbrook’s partner in the endeavor is Sam Haddock, who’s slung his share of burgers, drinks and fried chicken, too. He hails from the Rally’s, Donatos and Moe’s Southwest Grill chains.

But they’re hardly alone in returning to the trenches after careers that would be adjudged successful by even the harshest critics. Steve Lynn came off the bench to lead a still-pending acquisition of Back Yard Burgers. Paul Fleming, the “P.F.” in P.F Chang’s, recently bought into the 10-unit Z’Tejas casual-dining chain.

Skip Sack, a veteran whose career stretches back to the heydays of Howard Johnson, controls a considerable packet of Applebee’s stock. He garnered a nice nest egg by selling his Applebee’s franchises—repeatedly the most profitable in the system—back to the parent company. Yet he’s developing a group of Irish pubs.

Abe Gustin, the one-time Applebee’s franchisee who ended up buying the brand from W.R. Grace and making it the biggest brand in casual dining, exited the chain with some franchise territory for his family.

Ned Grace, the founder of Capital Grille and Bugaboo Creek, is a backer of New England’s high-volume Not Your Average Joe’s chain.

Tom Russo, another Howard Johnson alumnus and onetime chairman of the British housewares giant Hanson Trust, still participates in industry events. Does anyone doubt he’ll show up atop a chain at some point.

Ditto for Michael Kaufman, the former head honcho of Steak and Ale and Bennigan’s parent Metromedia Restaurant Group.

What is it with these folks? They get in the industry, and then they can’t let go of it. Clearly there’s something that creeps into their system, turning them into lifers, regardless of whether they need the business or not. What is this strange infection—some might say avocation—that catches hold?

Best look at what “Nova” has scheduled for its new season.


  1. " ...the Hardee’s franchise he built with longtime business partner (and fellow football fanatic) Charlie Bradshaw."

    In fact, Charlie threw 'em and Jerry caught 'em at Wolford (sp?)College as Small college All-Americans.

  2. Richardson later recruited a coach from Wofford, Mike Starnes, to work for him at Quincy's. One of Starnes' jobs, he told me, was studying Bojangles' because Richardson was interested in buying a franchise. He indeed did. Starnes now works for Denny's.