Former Miami Dolphins 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 Islamorada at the at the newly renovated resort complex now called Postcard Inn at Holiday Isle, mile marker 84.
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.
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."
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 where it was located 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 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."
While the Islamorada version is full service with a full bar and offers breakfast, most Shula Burgers will be just lunch and dinner places with counter service and only beer and wine.