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Former Gator, NFL star Crawford Ker sells WingHouse to grow it

Former Florida Gator Crawford Ker started WingHouse in 1994.

Former Florida Gator Crawford Ker started WingHouse in 1994.

After 20 years in the business of chicken wings, beer and sexy waitresses, Ker's WingHouse has a new owner. But Big Daddy remains in charge.

Third Lake Capital has acquired all 24 locations of the Largo-based restaurant chain from Crawford Ker, pro football player turned restaurateur. Ker is staying on as CEO because, really, without Ker, the WingHouse wouldn't be the WingHouse.

By selling it, Ker hopes to expand it, both in Florida and other states where no one knows "we serve 'em naked'' refers to skinless drumettes, at least on first reference.

"Twenty-four restaurants is good, but it's not quite in the NFL yet," he said. "We have a ways to go."

Ker, 52, opened the first WingHouse in Largo in 1994. At the time it was a Knockers, a knockoff of Hooters, a chain founded in Clearwater a decade earlier, but he didn't like the name. He said it wasn't appealing. Hard to disagree.

The former Dunedin High School and University of Florida football standout who went on to play for the Dallas Cowboys and Denver Broncos took the concept and, well, ran with it, opening 31 locations in Florida and Texas at its height. Last year, the company did $60 million in sales, or about $2.5 million per restaurant.

The chain, like others in the casual dining segment, hunkered down during the recession as diners left for cheaper, fast-casual concepts that don't involve a tip. The WingHouse pulled out of Texas, where, in hindsight, Ker said he should have franchised locations instead of opening corporate ones.

With new owners — and an influx of money — the chain can once again look toward expanding. A year from now, Ker hopes to have four more locations in Florida, from Daytona Beach to Fort Myers. Beyond that, it could open franchises outside Florida and fill in the Tampa Bay market. In June, the newest WingHouse opened in Sarasota.

"We have a very strong brand," Ker said. "Through the recession it was difficult, but the atmosphere is better now. Credit is being freed up."

Third Lake Capital was founded a year ago to manage the fortune of Ashley Furniture founder Ronald Wanek, who once ranked among America's richest billionaires. Last year, he and his wife, Joyce, bought a waterfront home on St. Petersburg's Snell Isle for $8.4 million.

Ker said he met the Third Lake executives a while ago and thought the timing was right to sell the chain and grow it. He had no one waiting to take over the business — his kids are 7, 10 and 13 — and he wanted to ease up a bit while maintaining a strong presence. Terms of the deal were not disclosed.

The restaurants are clearly Ker territory. Walls are covered with football memorabilia and photos of his playing days. In between pictures of bikini'd waitresses, there's his No. 68 Cowboys jersey and a Ker Boulevard sign.

Even the menu pays tribute to the team captain, from the Dallas burger to Dallas honey barbecue sauce. Thirsty for a cold one? Order a Big Daddy, the nickname Ker earned as a 283-pound offensive lineman at UF.

With the sale behind him, Ker plans to keep traveling among locations and stepping in whenever needed. He's not above washing dishes and frying up wings. At 6 feet 4, who's going to stop him?

Ker would like to think the chain could grow to hundreds of locations — Hooters has 420 restaurants worldwide — but knows from experience that takes people and money. More isn't always better, even for a former athlete used to keeping score.

"It's not about growing for the sake of growing," he said. "It's about being proud of the stores you have."

Contact Susan Thurston at sthurston@tampabay.com or (813) 225-3110. Follow @susan_thurston.

Former Gator, NFL star Crawford Ker sells WingHouse to grow it 07/21/14 [Last modified: Monday, July 21, 2014 6:41pm]
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