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Shaquille O’Neal once signed the richest contract in sports history and then won four NBA titles. These days Shaq has a new business he’s trying to break into: Chicken Sandwiches.
O’Neal, who was inducted into the NBA Hall of Fame in 2016, is a co-owner of a restaurant business called Big chicken, which opened its first location in Las Vegas three years ago. Last year a second opened in Glendale, California.
Now O’Neal is focused on sports arenas, the kind of venue he knows best.
Big Chicken recently opened a location in Seattle’s Climate Pledge Arena, home to the National Hockey League’s newest team, the Kraken. And on Thursday, O’Neal made a quick stop through New York to catch a glimpse of UBS arena, the new $ 1.5 billion home for the NHL’s New York Islanders.
Big Chicken will sell its fried chicken sandwiches during NHL games and other events in the complex in the UBS Arena. Located behind the track for the Belmont Stakes, the arena is set to host its first regular season game on November 20, when the Islanders play against the Calgary Flames.
“Section 206,” said O’Neal, smiling into one of the many local television cameras that were in attendance to capture the promotional event. He was referring to the section where Big Chicken is in the arena.
“This is my ritual,” he told CNBC shortly after the television cameras disappeared. “Fried chicken with cheese, cucumber and hot sauce.”
O’Neal founded Big Chicken with friend Matt Silverman and Agent Perry Rogers. It’s not his first foray into the food industry. O’Neal owns various Papa John locations and even appears in a commercial for the pizza chain. In 2019 he joined the company’s board of directors.
But this is a very different job for O’Neal, because he’s starting the brand from scratch.
The UBS Arena will be the home of the New York Islanders.
Source: New York Islanders / UBS Arena
In the UBS Arena on Thursday O’Neal was accompanied by Islanders co-owner Jon Ledecky. In honor of Veterans Day, they took photos with members of the military and then stood in an unfurnished suite to watch a chef prepare dishes that will appear on Big Chicken’s menu. O’Neal joked about not knowing all of the hockey rules but said he watched NHL games.
One of the sandwiches on the big chicken menu is called Uncle Jerome, named after O’Neal’s uncle. Another is Charles Barkley, a reference to the former NBA star and O’Neal’s “Inside the NBA” broadcast partner. Barkley’s eponymous sandwich comes with mac and cheese on top of the chicken, along with crispy onions and “Shaq sauce”.
Big Chicken also includes the MDE, which stands for the most dominant of all time and is designed to center around O’Neal’s career, mostly for the Los Angeles Lakers. He was eight times the first team in the entire NBA and three times the most valuable player in the final.
In 1996, shortly after arriving in LA from Orlando, the Lakers recognized O’Neal’s dominance. The team signed him to a seven year old, $ 120 million hand out. It was the richest in sports at the time and set the stage for the Lakers’ resurgence.
O’Neal led the Lakers to three straight championships from 2000 to 2002 and won his fourth title at the Miami Heat in 2004. He ended his career with 15 all-star game appearances and an MVP trophy. Last month, O’Neal became one of the 75 best players of all timeas the NBA celebrates its 75th season.
Shaquille O’Neal # 34 and Kobe Bryant # 8 of the Los Angeles Lakers during the 2004 NBA Playoffs
David Sherman | National Basketball Federation | Getty Images
Restaurants were one of the greatest O’Neal plays of his post-NBA life. He told CNBC that opening quick service restaurants (QSRs) has been a passion since his time at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. O’Neal said of the book that got him up and running, “The Dummies’ Guide to Starting Your Own Business.”
“We do some things differently,” said Halpern in an interview. “We used a high quality chicken that is antibiotic, cage and hormone free. We want to get better value for money.”
Shaquille O’Neal, NBA star and chief fun officer of Carnival Cruise Line, gives guests a taste of his highly anticipated dishes at sea as part of Big Chicken in the Mardi Gras summer landing zone during Carnival’s NYC cruise Cruise Line will be offered a summer event to celebrate the 2020 arrival of Mardi Gras at Pier 59 on June 18, 2019 in New York City.
Mike Coppola | Getty Images
For expanded distribution, Halpern said, Big Chicken would use what are known as ghost kitchens, which allow it to put items on a menu alongside items from other restaurants so consumers can mix and match in a single order.
The strategy “takes us to some neighborhoods and cities in the US that may not have been early adopter cities,” Halpern said for Big Chicken. He said a location in Rockport, New York will be opening soon.
Big Chicken started accepting franchise applications earlier this year, Halpern said. The cost ranges from $ 450,000 to $ 1.4 million. There’s a $ 40,000 franchise fee and the company pays 5% of sales and 2% combined for national and local marketing.
O’Neal understands the franchise model from his experience with Papa John’s.
“He told me, ‘You better never hurt a franchisee because I’m a franchisee and you would hurt me,'” Halpern said. “He means that 100 percent.”
Another place that consumers can try big chicken sandwiches is on a carnival Cruise. Carnival chairman Micky Arison owns the Miami Heat, which won its first NBA title in 2006 with O’Neal at its center.
Scott Mlyn | CNBC
Restaurant franchising has been an attractive investment for many ex-NBA players. Magic Johnson previously owned over 100 Starbucks Locations and has several TGI Fridays restaurants and more than 20 burger kings in his portfolio.
Former NBA player Junior Bridgeman bought numerous Chili and Wendy franchises before selling them for $ 400 million in 2016 want to invest $ 100,000 in QSRs.
“It’s like investing in stocks,” Ratliff told CNBC. “Let it grow, and if you decide to sell it, you sell it or keep it going and take the rest of the growth. But I think it’s a great opportunity. “
Halpern said that QSRs “give you an opportunity to create wealth for a broad mass of people”.
While Big Chicken is O’Neal’s biggest leap into the restaurant business, he’s had others. He owned Shaquille’s, a restaurant in LA Live, an entertainment district around the Staples Center where the Lakers play. After Covid-19 hit and the traffic dried up, O’Neal closed the shutters Shaquilles. He said paying the $ 90,000 monthly rent wasn’t worth it.
“And I didn’t get a PPP loan,” added O’Neal, referring to the Small Business Administration’s paycheck protection program. “So I closed it and we’ll try to reopen one day.”
In February, officials in Atlanta did Suspected arson caused the fire to become a historic Krispy Kreme Franchise that O’Neal bought in 2016. O’Neal told CNBC that he recently approved a new design for the donut shop and plans to reopen in 2022.
“As an athlete, you have to learn to adapt on the fly,” said O’Neal. “You ever see a guy practice a move and then when he takes that move away, [players] don’t know what to do. You have to be able to adapt. “
But O’Neal’s work with Papa Johns could be his best-known role in the industry. He was appointed to the board of directors of Papa John in 2019 to repair the company’s image after former CEO John Schnatter surrendered the previous year racially disparaging comments which he made public.
One of O’Neal’s former teams, the Phoenix Suns, is now facing a similar controversy.
Earlier this month, a ESPN article Alleged Suns owner Robert Sarver abused employees and made racist and misogynistic comments during his 17-year tenure with the franchise company. Sarver has dismissed the charges and the NBA has opened an investigation into the matter.
“I’m not a draft horse – I’ve had interactions with the man 10 times and I haven’t seen any of them,” said O’Neal. “But if there are allegations of this magnitude from employees, there has to be an investigation.”
The issue rocked the NBA seven years after former LA Clippers owner Donald Sterling sold his team when audio recordings of Sterling surfaced with racist comments.
“If the allegations are true, Adam Silver will have to make another tough decision,” said O’Neal of the Sarver situation. Silver has been an NBA commissioner since 2014.
Shaquille O’Neal will DJ Diesel at the SHAQ Bowl for Super Bowl LV on February 7, 2021 in Tampa, Florida.
Gerardo Mora | Getty Images
As a businessman, one of O’Neal’s most important qualities is making people laugh. During his interviews in the UBS arena, he made a cameraman laugh and caused laughter in the surrounding audience by making fun of the chef who prepared the sample rolls.
O’Neal credits his mother, Lucille, with the motivation behind his approach.
“I just keep making people happy,” he said. “That’s my mission. I’m just trying to grant her wishes and do whatever she says. I have to make people feel good.”
The chicken restaurant market is overcrowded, with Chick-fil-A and Popeyes fighting for the best fried chicken sandwich and MC Donalds and other fast food chains that advertise their own offerings.
When asked if he intended to compete with brands like Popeyes, O’Neal said “absolutely”. Then he added, “And we never run out of chicken – never,” a blow to Popeyes that expired in 2019 amid a social media crush.
Before O’Neal left the event to catch a flight, he was asked to pick the best restaurant in his portfolio.
“I never think about it,” he said. “What I’m proud of is getting my mother what she wanted.”
Correction: This article has been updated to reflect victory in the Miami Heat Finals.