- Shaquille O’Neill opened a Big Chicken restaurant at Climate Pledge Arena in Seattle, and has another in the new UBS Arena, home of the New York Islanders.
- O’Neill also owns various Papa John’s locations and appears in commercials for the pizza company.
- For Big Chicken, one of O’Neill’s objectives is to develop inside playgrounds.
Shaquille O’Neal once signed the richest contract in sports history and then went on to win four NBA titles. These days Shaq has a new business he’s trying to conquer: chicken sandwiches.
O’Neill, who was inducted into the NBA Hall of Fame in 2016, is the co-owner of a restaurant venture called big chicken, which launched its first location in Las Vegas three years ago. Last year, a second one opened Glendale, California,
Now, O’Neill is focusing on playgrounds, the type of venue he knows best.
Big Chicken recently opened a location at the Climate Pledge Arena in Seattle, which is home to the Kraken, the newest team from the National Hockey League. And on Thursday, O’Neill made a brief stop through New York to catch a glimpse of UBS Arena, the new $1.5 billion home of the NHL’s New York Islanders.
Big Chicken will sell its fried chicken sandwiches inside the UBS Arena during NHL games and other events at the complex. The Arena is located behind the track for the Belmont Stakes and is scheduled to host its first regular-season game on November 20, when the Islanders play the Calgary Flames.
“Section 206,” said O’Neill, smiling at one of the many local TV cameras present to capture the promotional event. He was referring to the section where Big Chicken is located in the arena.
“It’s my ritual,” he told CNBC, moments after the TV cameras left. “Fried Chicken with Cheese, Pickles and Hot Sauce.”
O’Neill started Big Chicken with his friend Matt Silverman, and Agent Perry Rogers, This isn’t his first foray into the food industry. O’Neill owns various Papa John’s locations, and even appears in an advertisement for the pizza chain. In 2019, he joined the board of the company.
But the task is very different for O’Neill, as he is starting the brand anew.
At the UBS Arena on Thursday, O’Neill was joined by Islanders co-owner John Ledecky. In honor of Veterans Day, he took photos with military personnel, and then stood in an unfurnished suite watching a chef create items that would appear on Big Chicken’s menu. O’Neill joked about not knowing all the rules of hockey, but said that he watches NHL games.
One of the Sandwiches at Big Chicken menu Uncle Jerome, named after O’Neill’s uncle. Another is called Charles Barkley, a nod to former NBA star and O’Neill’s broadcast partner on “Inside the NBA”. Barkley’s namesake sandwich comes with mac and cheese over chicken, along with crunchy onions and a “shak sauce.”
Big Chicken also includes MDE, his most influential to date, and is primarily meant to describe O’Neill’s career at the center for the Los Angeles Lakers. He became the NBA first team player eight times and Most Valuable Player three times.
In 1996, shortly after his arrival from Orlando to LA, the Lakers recognized O’Neill’s dominance. The team signed him for seven years, $120 million deal. At the time, it was the richest in the game and set the stage for the Lakers’ revival.
O’Neal led the Lakers to three consecutive championships from 2000–2002 and won their fourth title with the Miami Heat in 2004. He ended his career with 15 All-Star Game appearances and one MVP trophy. Last month, O’Neill was named one of 75 greatest players of all time, as the NBA celebrates its 75th season.
He has been a “strategic advisor” for the sports gambling unit of Wynn Resorts. WynnBET, Due to NBA rules, he had to give up his minority stake in the Sacramento Kings for that deal.
One of the biggest plays in O’Neill’s post-NBA life has been the restaurant. He told CNBC that opening a quick service restaurant (QSR) has been a passion since his days at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. O’Neill said of the book that let him go, “The Dummies Guide to Starting Your Own Business.”
In May, O’Neill and his Big Chicken team Hired Josh Halpern, former Anheuser-Busch InBev executive, as CEO.
“We do some things differently,” Halpern said in an interview. “We used a high-end chicken that is antibiotic-free, cage-free, and hormone-free. We’re all about getting high value for money.”
For the expanded distribution, Halpern said Big Chicken will use the so-called Ghost Kitchen, which will allow it to put items on a menu with other restaurant’s meals so that consumers can mix and match in the same order.
Partnered with Big Chicken ghost kitchen brands And large chains will display items on digital menus placed in front of the store. There’s already one inside Walmart in Rochester, New York.
The strategy “brings us into some neighborhoods and cities in America that may not be an early adopter” for Big Chicken, Halpern said. He said a Rockport, New York location would open soon.
Halpern said Big Chicken began accepting applications for franchises earlier this year. Its price ranges from $ 450,000 to $ 1.4 million. There is a franchise fee of $40,000, and the company takes 5% of sales and 2% combined for national and local marketing.
O’Neill understands the franchise model from his experience with Papa John’s.
“He told me, ‘You better never hurt a franchise because I’m a franchisee, and you’re going to hurt me,'” Halpern said. “That means 100 percent.”
There is another place on Carnival Cruises where consumers can taste Big Chicken Sandwiches. Mickey Arison, president of Carnival, is the owner of the Miami Heat, which won its first NBA title in 2007 with O’Neal.
Restaurant franchising has been a lucrative investment for many ex-NBA players. Magic Johnson previously owned more than 100 Starbucks locations and some of its TGI Friday restaurants and more. 20 Burger Kings in his portfolio.
Former NBA player Junior Bridgman bought several Chili’s and Wendy’s franchises before selling them for $400 million in 2016. And last February, former Philadelphia 76ers center Theo Ratliff partnered with Corlex Capital to seek out athletes who want to invest $100,000 in QSR.
“It’s like investing in stocks,” Ratliff told CNBC. “Let it grow, and when you decide to sell, you sell it or keep it and take what’s left of the growth. But I think it’s a great opportunity.”
Halpern said that QSR “allows you to have the ability to create wealth for a wider breath of people.”
While Big Chicken is O’Neill’s biggest leap forward in the restaurant business, he has others. He was the owner of the Shaquilles, a restaurant at LA Live, an entertainment district around the Staples Center where the Lakers play. After Covid-19 hits and traffic dries up, O’Neill shuts down Shakeel’s, He said paying a monthly $90,000 lease was not worth it.
“And I wasn’t getting a PPP loan,” O’Neill said, referring to the Small Business Administration’s paycheck protection program. “So, I closed it, and we’d like to reopen one day.”
In February, officials in Atlanta suspected arson O’Neill set fire to a historic Krispy Kreme franchise he bought in 2016. O’Neill told CNBC that it recently approved a new design for the donut shop and plans to reopen in 2022.
“Being an athlete, you have to learn how to adjust on the fly,” O’Neill said. “You’ve ever seen a man practicing a trick, and then when they take that trick away, [players] Don’t know what to do. You should be able to adjust.”
But O’Neill’s work with Papa John’s may represent his most high-profile role in the industry. He was brought to the board of Papa John’s in 2019 to help repair the company’s image following the resignation of former CEO John Schnatter the prior year. racially abusive comments which he made publicly.
One of O’Neill’s former teams, the Phoenix Suns, is now facing a similar controversy.
Earlier this month, a ESPN Articles Robert Sarver, the alleged Sons owner, abused employees and made racist and misogynistic remarks during his 17-year tenure with the franchise. Sarwar has denied the allegations, and the NBA has opened an investigation into the matter.
“I’m not a bandwagon jumper — I’ve had a conversation with that guy 10 times, and I didn’t see any of that,” O’Neill said. “But when allegations of this magnitude are made by employees, there must be an investigation.”
The issue is rocking the NBA seven years after former LA Clippers owner Donald Sterling sold his team, when audio recordings of Sterling’s racist comments surfaced.
“If the allegations are true, Adam Silver will need to make a more difficult decision,” O’Neill said of the Sarwar situation. Silver has been the NBA commissioner since 2014.
As a businessman, one of O’Neill’s key qualities is his ability to make people laugh. He laughed at a cameraman during his interview at the UBS Arena, and caused laughter in the surrounding audience by mocking the chef who made the sample sandwich.
O’Neill credits his mother, Lucille, as the inspiration behind his vision.
“I’m just continuing to please people,” he said. “That’s my mission. I’m just trying to fulfill her wishes and doing everything she says. I have to make people feel good.”
The chicken restaurant market is crowded, with the likes of Chick-fil-A and Popeyes battling it out for the best fried chicken sandwiches and McDonald’s and other fast food joints to promote their own offerings.
When asked if he plans to compete with brands like Popeyes, O’Neill said, “Absolutely.” “And we don’t run out of chicken — ever,” he then said, a jab at Popeyes, which ended in 2019 amid a flurry of social media.
Before O’Neill left the program to catch a flight, he was asked to choose the best restaurant in his portfolio.
“I never think about it,” he said. “The thing I’m most proud of is my mother getting what she wanted.”
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