Friday, May 25, 2018
Features and More

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

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 [email protected] or (813) 225-3110. Follow @susan_thurston.

Comments
With makeover, ZooTampa at Lowry Park takes a page from the theme parks

With makeover, ZooTampa at Lowry Park takes a page from the theme parks

TAMPA — Behind the construction walls near the carousel at ZooTampa at Lowry Park, hammers, saws and power drills made a racket in the blazing Friday heat. A raft full of 100-pound water jugs took test trips on the new Roaring Springs ride set ...
Updated: 4 hours ago
Rare red wolf pups born at ZooTampa

Rare red wolf pups born at ZooTampa

The pups are an important addition to the populations of this rare Florida species, and the first red wolf births at the zoo since 1993.
Updated: 6 hours ago
Veterans get in free at Busch Gardens, SeaWorld and more with Memorial Day deals

Veterans get in free at Busch Gardens, SeaWorld and more with Memorial Day deals

Memorial Day is a time to say "thank you" to our veterans. The following is a list of free offers for them to enjoy. Some even last all summer.• Busch Gardens and SeaWorld are offering U.S. veterans and up to three guests get free admission to the th...
Published: 05/25/18
Denis Phillips, hurricane season guru, talks his signature beer, suspenders and Rule #7

Denis Phillips, hurricane season guru, talks his signature beer, suspenders and Rule #7

SAFETY HARBOR — Denis Phillips cracks a pop-top and pulls a can that looks a lot like him to his lips."It’s got that citrusy feel to it," he says. "Which is a Florida thing. That’s not bad." Indeed, there’s a grapefruit finish to Rule #7 Hurricane Sa...
Published: 05/25/18
Hooper: More than a restaurant, Lee Roy Selmon’s was a meeting place

Hooper: More than a restaurant, Lee Roy Selmon’s was a meeting place

It’s where former Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Doug Williams had lunch with current Bucs quarterback Jameis Winston.It’s where University of South Florida fans often gathered to watch the program’s biggest road games.It’s where folks showed up in...
Published: 05/24/18
Eight women accuse Morgan Freeman of sexual misconduct in CNN report

Eight women accuse Morgan Freeman of sexual misconduct in CNN report

Eight women have accused actor Morgan Freeman of sexual harassment or inappropriate behavior on-set, at his production company, and during press junkets, according to a report.CNN reports that 16 people have spoken out against Freeman’s alleged misco...
Published: 05/24/18
Ballet Nacional de Cuba stuns with a spectacular ‘Giselle’

Ballet Nacional de Cuba stuns with a spectacular ‘Giselle’

TAMPA — The Ballet Nacional de Cuba performed Giselle, its signature ballet, on Wednesday at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts. Fifty-four dancers charmed a packed house, culminating in about two hours an effort that took more tha...
Published: 05/24/18
Bar review: Things are hopping at new Swan Brewing in Lakeland

Bar review: Things are hopping at new Swan Brewing in Lakeland

Lakeland’s a little out of the way, but I’m always eager to check out the bar scene there when passing through or attending an event. Every place I’ve visited just seems so pleasant.I regret missing the boat on the city’s first brewery, Lakeland Brew...
Published: 05/24/18
tbt* local craft beer of the week: Dark Harbor Mocha Stout, Sea Drift Ales & Lagers

tbt* local craft beer of the week: Dark Harbor Mocha Stout, Sea Drift Ales & Lagers

The saga of Barley Mow Brewing Company and its eventual offshoot/successor Sea Drift Ales & Lagers is a complicated one. The most interesting part is how the latter came to be as a result of brewery-distributor tensions, in which Barley Mow pulled an...
Published: 05/24/18
Dr. Beach ranks Caladesi Island No. 7 on list of country’s best beaches

Dr. Beach ranks Caladesi Island No. 7 on list of country’s best beaches

Caladesi Island’s "crystalline quartz" sand and "sparkling clear" water left an impression on Dr. Beach, who ranked it in his annual list of the country’s top 10 beaches.Dr. Beach, or Dr. Stephen P. Leatherman, is a professor and director for the Lab...
Published: 05/24/18