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The national franchise boom has been a key force in the feverish growth of sports-world restaurant investment. The entire country has been on a franchise binge, in fact, spending an estimated $90 billion a year on franchises keyed to services—such essentials of survival in this age of affluence as pet grooming, computer teaching, slimming and coiffing and the instant sizzle of tenderized steak. Hundreds of athletes are into pop food—buying franchises and selling franchises.
That well-known literary figure, Kramer, is both a Red Ram restaurateur-franchiser (he owns a small share in the parent company) and a franchisee, with big stakes in Ames, Iowa and Oshkosh, Wis. saloons. Kramer, busily taping the third volume of his Green Bay Packer trilogy while jetting between Tulsa, Los Angeles and Oshkosh real-estate deals, is a sentimental investor. "I get into things I like," he confides, "like a diving operation in Louisiana, the archery business in Wisconsin—-and food. Of course it is a high-risk business. My uncle was in the bar business in Montana back in the silver-dollar days. Each night the bartender would throw the day's take at the ceiling. Whatever stuck up there belonged to the owner. There are problems in being an absentee owner. But franchising protects you."
Buying a franchise—for as little as $12,500 down—is a fast way to become one's own boss. For the nouveau riche athlete with cash on his hands it offers an established stake in the future. For blacks especially, franchises have seemed like a piece of instant capitalism. But for a black franchiser, the going also can be rough. In 1965 Keys decided fried chicken was hot, and in 1967 his All-Pro Chicken started with two fryers. But bank backing was elusive. Keys quit football, got a $250,000 Ford Foundation grant and another boost from the Small Business Administration and, finally, after frustrating rejections, First National City Bank granted him the final, crucial loan to finance expansion. Now Keys has 16 units going, 15 more in the works, with both black and white athlete-investors: Guard John Williams of the Colts, Pirate Outfielder Willie Stargell, Roy Jefferson of the Colts, Wes Unseld of the Bullets, Kansas City Chiefs Buck Buchanan, Otis Taylor and former teammate Ernie Ladd, tennis star Arthur Ashe.
The franchise industry, like everything else in the current economy, is being subjected to a major shakedown. While Joe DiMaggio is going into franchised spaghetti and the Eddie Arcaro Clubhouse chain is saddling up and taking off after the fast burger trade and Willie Naulls, onetime Boston Celtic, has started construction of Soulville, U.S.A.—to hawk ribs, beef and deep-fried fish in his own Los Angeles shopping center—other ventures are collapsing. Willie Mays has closed his Birmingham burger shop "for repairs" and Washington Redskin Quarterback Sonny Jurgensen is brooding over the untimely demise of his Taco Huddle in Landover, Md. Jerry Lucas has filed bankruptcy and surrendered his precious chopped-meat-and-thick-shake chain. And not even the enigmatic charm of Joe Namath could stave off the sharp stock market plummet of Broadway Joe's restaurant stock. In fact, a late bulletin from Wall Street last week said that Namath was quitting as chairman and selling all his stock to an associate in the chain.
Some blame the economy.
I blame the corned beef.
Spirits were high, for example, but the rye was stale and the beef was a bland bore the day I visited Broadway Joe's on the 79th Street Causeway in Miami. As a congenital food critic (born fussy) and now a professional restaurant reviewer, I set out to assess the cuisine and ambience of America's athlete-owned inns and eateries. Fortified with a flask of Gelusil and a few six-packs of Alka-Seltzer, I traveled thousands of miles on this gastronomic pilgrimage.
At cavalier (I hope not fatal) risk to palate, spirit and corporeal tranquillity. I have sniffed and sipped and tasted and rated a sampling of these restaurants on a sliding scale. The Michelin guide, that French handbook of rating, awards stars, right? It is not for us. There are Michelin people who would pale and fall over in delicate faints at some of the places I've been, although, heaven knows, not all of them are of such character. But stars simply will not do. Perhaps the Order of the Golden Shoulder Pad? The Bronzed Bat? No. We shall rate the restaurants by that old familiar standard, the trophy. In fact, let's erase all thoughts of Michelin's rating system; we're talking about two different worlds. Instead, these trophies are permissively awarded in an old American way, taking in such factors, in addition to the food, as atmosphere, entertainment and price.
Here is the scale: four trophies signify excellence, the top of the rating. An absence of trophies sounds the alarm of intestinal and esthetic despair.
DON DRYSDALE'S DUGOUT, 14032 OXNARD, VAN NUYS, CALIF.