Active role is recipe for success

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. --- Amos Zereoue grew up in a family where cooking was important, where meals were more than mac-n-cheese in the microwave. So when Jean Claude Zereoue found his son subsisting on ramen noodles at college, he quickly rectified the situation, providing Amos with some basic culinary skills.

It stuck with him: Not long after his seven-year career as an NFL running back ended, Zereoue opened his own restaurant, an African-French fusion place in Midtown Manhattan.

And, unlike so many other athlete-owned restaurants that quickly flame out, Zereoue has been a success because the owner put more than just his name into it.

"I didn't want to be that guy who put the money in someone else's hands and watch it go to waste," Zereoue said. "The restaurant thing, it's a very difficult business I didn't realize how difficult it was until I actually got into it."

If you live in a city with a professional sports franchise, chances are there's an athlete-owned restaurant nearby. The difference between the successes and failures, at least in the long term, is what's inside the restaurant, not who's name is outside it.

Michael Jordan has steak places in New York and Chicago, so does former Miami Dolphins quarterback Dan Marino, in Florida and Las Vegas. Hockey Hall of Famer Wayne Gretzky has a restaurant in Toronto; former Chicago Bears player and coach Mike Ditka has places in the Windy City and Pittsburgh; and there are steakhouses named after John Elway in Denver.

These places run the culinary gamut, from the predictable sports bars -- these are athletes, after all -- serving buffalo wings and beer to five-star steakhouses with elaborate wine lists.

Some have been rousing successes, like Michael Jordan's Steak House in Manhattan, the two Elway's locations in Denver, or former Miami Dolphins coach Don Shula's chain of steak places. There also have been numerous big-name athletes who have closed up shop, including George Brett, Dwyane Wade and Brett Hull.

No matter how cool it might be to see photos of Larry Bird while you're eating or how exciting it might be for that slight chance Johnny Bench may walk through the door, people aren't going to come back if the food is horrible or the service bad.

"You have to have other reasons to go to the restaurant other than the athlete possibly being there or the memorabilia because that can be fun once," said Darren Tristano of Technomic Inc., a Chicago-based restaurant consulting and research firm. "The food and the execution and the concept are going to play heavily into it."

Clearly, celebrity plays a part, too. A restaurant gives the famous a chance to branch out to a world beyond the playing fields.

"Athletes, especially the high-profile ones, who open up restaurants, it kind of extends their brand," said Kate Krader, restaurant editor for Food & Wine Magazine . "It's a place where fans can come and they can get some of the acclaim they're used to from playing."

Some athletes are intricately involved in their restaurants, picking the decor, developing the menu, choosing the chef.

Count Zereoue in that group. The approach made him a success in a crowded restaurant market and its owner as proud of the rave reviews as anything he did on a football field.

"If it works, great, then you feel like you put what you needed to make it successful. If not, you also know you're a big reason why it didn't work," he said.

"I'm proud of what comes out of the kitchen."


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