TAMPA — Celebrity sports restaurants come and go, but the Lee Roy Selmon's chain will live on because the popular, down home Florida sports figure is so interwoven into the brand.
"We were stunned by Lee Roy's passing, but it's become a very viable restaurant concept we have every intention of maintaining," said Chris Sullivan, one of the co-founders of Outback Steakhouse who is a managing partner of Selmon's. "Lee Roy's family always has been very much a part of the culture at these restaurants."
So much so that all seven restaurants on Florida's west coast will open late at 4 p.m. Friday so employees can attend memorial services for the former Tampa Bay Buccaneers icon who died of a stroke last week at age 56.
Selmon was heavily involved in the company in weekly strategy meetings and as spokesman and goodwill ambassador. But, like most sport celebrity restaurant deals, he had a minority ownership stake in the venture and was paid partly on store performance. True to his gracious character, Selmon usually was the first to credit the management team that runs the place.
Sullivan declined to talk much about the future of the business in deference to Selmon's heirs. He plans to meet with them once things settle down about how the business longer term can help "preserve and celebrate" Selmon's legacy with his name on the nameplate.
Experts suggest Selmon's imprint on the restaurants — sports memorabilia, a sense of Selmon family hospitality and a Southern comfort food menu packing versions of his mother's recipes — adds authenticity that will help the carefully crafted brand survive.
"Its strength as a brand is how the food and his personality were such a good fit," said Justin Wartell, director of brand strategy at Interbrand Design Forum. "It was easy to envision Lee Roy and his family sitting down to eat the same food at home."
In the tricky business of celebrity restaurants, many chains often don't even outlast their namesakes' sports career.
Others, such as Don Shula's Steakhouse, blossom into a larger business. The family of former Gov. Bob Graham and his brother, Bill, launched the first Shula's with the Miami Dolphins coach to fill their shopping center in Miami Lakes and find places to sell their ranches' Black Angus beef. Today, Shula's son Dave is chief executive of the family steakhouse business it grew into. Most of the 32 stores are franchised locations owned by the Sheraton, Westin, Hilton and Marriott flag hotels that house them.
"Restaurant longevity is about the quality of the food and the experience, not a celebrity name that drew people in the first time," said Dennis Lombardi, president of WD Partners, a Columbus, Ohio, restaurant consultant. "No celebrity brand can overcome mediocre food."
Often, even those that last longer close when less appealing aspects of the celebrities personality emerge such as Joe Namath's Bachelor's III in 1970, Wilt Chamberlin's Sportsbar in 2007 and Pete Rose's Champions Cafe in 2009.
The death of an iconic name does not doom a well executed brand.
Tim Horton's, Canada's biggest coffee shop chain with 3,000 locations, is named for a hockey star who died in 1974. Harry Caray's Italian Steakhouses, named for the Chicago Cubs broadcast announcer, experienced a sales increase after Caray died in 1998 because it revived fond memories among Cub fans.
Selmon, a Hall of Fame Buccaneer with his name on a local expressway and later the athletic director who got the University of South Florida into football, was named in 1994 to the Outback board when the steakhouse chain was only 6 years old and Selmon worked at Barnett Bank.
"When Lee Roy told me someone had approached him about starting his own restaurant, I told him we wanted to do it," recalled Sullivan.
Launched in 2000 in the first wave of big restaurant chains drawn to the revival of barbecue and comfort food, Lee Roy Selmon's was developed as a regional chain that doubled as a family-friendly sports bar. When Outback was taken private as OSI Restaurant Partners LLC nine years later, however, its new private equity fund owners were only interested in the chains that could be taken national.
Sullivan, who remains chairman and a minority owner of OSI, teamed with fellow Outback co-founder Bob Basham to buy back Selmon's for $4.5 million and run it on their own. They recently opened the first new Selmon's in five years in Palm Harbor after trimming prices 15 percent and expenses to adapt to post-recession profitability.
"It's a good, authentic brand that may last a long time as a regional brand because Lee Roy Selmon was more than a sports celebrity, he was part of the larger lifeblood of the community," said Ken Banks, president of KAB Marketing in Seminole. "Ask 100 people in the Tampa Bay area about him and 80 would probably mention something other than a Hall of Fame football player."
Mark Albright can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8252.