Shaquille O’Neal Q&A

Shaquille O'Neal Big Chicken
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For 19 years, Shaquille O’Neal had a hugely successful career playing professional basketball in the NBA. After his retirement, he moved on to make a name for himself as a media personality and commentator. What many fans may not be aware of is his business acumen. 

Among his many very profitable ventures, he has a significant portfolio of restaurant and foodservice holdings. From Five Guys to Krispy Kreme to Auntie Anne’s, a seat on the Board of Directors of Papa John’s, and now in his latest venture Big Chicken, Shaq has duplicated his on-court success off the court. Big Chicken fuses O’Neal’s home-cooked childhood favorites with today’s trending flavors. From crispy chicken sandwiches and tenders to Cheez-It® crusted mac n’ cheese and hand-crafted ice cream shakes, each menu item tells a story all while offering guests an inside look into the life and personality of Shaquille O’Neal.

In addition to being a successful restaurant franchisee, a significant portion of the more than $20 million that Shaq makes each year from endorsement deals revolve around food. Fruity Pebbles, Muscle Milk, Vitamin Water, and AriZona Cream Soda are just a few of the food companies that utilize him to represent their brands. 

One interesting fact about Shaq’s food investments and endorsements is that he only chooses businesses with products that he actually uses. He’s turned down a number of high-profile opportunities, including from Wheaties and Starbucks because he simply doesn’t eat those particular products and wants his business dealings to be authentic.

Since 2006, the former basketball star has also built a significant real estate portfolio. It includes The Met Miami, a residential high rise that has more than 1,000 units and nightclubs in Las Vegas. The New Jersey-born icon has also invested in Newark including CityPlex12, a theater that O’Neal bought and renovated and is now very profitable. 

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His TV ads for The General auto insurance company have brought him into yet another arena. O’Neal’s ties to the company go back decades. When he was in college at Louisiana State University, Shaq insured his Ford Bronco through The General. He was happy with the service back then and appreciated how a company representative helped him figure out which coverage was best for his needs. Not knowing anything about buying auto insurance, it was a lesson that he took with him. The Shaq brand also now represents Carnival Cruise Ship where he has taken the reins as the CFO (Chief Fun Officer) and spokesperson. 

As the restaurant and hospitality industry prepares for its next chapter or “New Normal” as many call it, Total Food Service wanted to get Shaq’s views on the future of the restaurant and hospitality industry.

Big Chicken sandwiches fries
Big Chicken fuses O’Neal’s home-cooked childhood favorites with today’s trending flavors. From crispy chicken sandwiches and tenders to Cheez-It® crusted mac n’ cheese and hand-crafted ice cream shakes, each menu item tells a story all while offering guests an inside look into the life and personality of Shaquille O’Neal.

As a kid growing up, which food was important to you?

I’ve always been a big fan of pizza and chicken which is why I love that I’m a part of both Papa John’s and Big Chicken. Chicken was a staple in our house when I was a kid. We didn’t have a lot but my mom would get whole chickens and one night we’d have the thighs, the next the breasts and so on. She’d make some side dishes and we’d sit around the table together and eat. Big Chicken was built around some of these recipes and experiences.

As an athlete, when did it dawn on you that nutrition could play a factor in how long your career could run? 

In my playing days, my diet was way higher in calories because of how much I was burning. Now I am way more disciplined in my diet but I do like a fried chicken sandwich from time to time. Moderation is key.

As you traveled as an athlete, did you find yourself critiquing how the restaurants you ate in performed?

Not really. I was more interested in understanding what made the restaurant successful – their food, the way they treated their staff, the smiles on people’s faces.

Did you invest in restaurant/food operations while you were playing? 

I started with Auntie Anne’s back in 2006. I got much more involved in the industry once I retired.

What’s the biggest money mistake you’ve made?

A lot. Again, when I was younger. ‘Hey Shaq, give me a million, and in about three years, it will be 10 million.’ Deals like that I would take every time. Give me 10 million. Investments in this company. Boom, boom, boom. In four years, it will be worth 300 million. You can get me like that. From age 19 to 26, anybody could come to my office, tell me that deal and I would take it right away. No research, no due diligence. If I get your million now, boom, boom, boom, in a couple of years, it will be a couple million. I’ll do that deal. Because I was trying – but you know, once I stopped focusing on that, I started paying attention and looking at things, I became a little bit more successful.

What was the key to a successful transition moving from playing to broadcasting and business?

First, I have a great team of people around me who are always looking for opportunities that are authentic to who I am. But my answer may surprise you, as it’s been no challenge at all. Let me tell you why. I’m a great listener. Always have been a great listener. You know, before getting into the investment world, I learned about business. I understand business. You don’t want to be one of those athletes who have, you know, 60% of all NBA players when they retire and have nothing going on. 

So, I listened to my mom and my dad and my mentors and educated myself. I had a lot of trials and tribulations. The greatest quote that was ever told to me was, “before you succeed, you must first learn to fail”. In my first eight to ten years, I failed in every investment because as a poor kid you dream of being rich. And one day I became rich. And what do you do when you grow rich? You want to become richer! So, anybody could bring me anything and I wouldn’t do due diligence. I was like “Let’s do it”. And that wasn’t the right process. 

I’m big into tech. So, I’m at a conference and I heard Jeff Bezos of Amazon speak. And he said, “I invest in things that are going to change people’s lives.” I’m going to try that. I’m going to do it. So, I align myself with companies that I believe in. My father’s a drill sergeant. We’re big on honesty. Can’t take your money if I don’t believe in your company. I can’t take your money and then express to the people how good this product is if I don’t believe in your product. 

So, really there’s been no challenge for me because my formula is a very successful formula. You don’t know everything. Ask questions, and invest in things that are going to change people’s lives. Listen to your mama. Stay out of trouble. Be nice. It’s not been a challenge at all because there are people that have come before me that have failed. I studied that. I mastered that. Try not to make the same mistakes twice. I’m not an expert. I’m not perfect. But I just go by the simple things. Be nice. Be respectful. That’s the thing that’s going to change people’s lives and sit back and wait for the outcome.

Shaquille O'NealYou are the pitchman for a lot of different products, but the key theme is that you actually like every single thing that you endorse.

I have to like the product. I have to understand it. I really have to believe in it. I have to believe in the product and the company. I want to invest and become a partner. My mother said something that was profound to me when I retired. She said, “Baby I love you. You did everything I asked you to do. You went back to school; you won a championship. You’re a class act. So, now for the rest of the years on this earth what are you going to do to lift up other people? People have always been lifting you, and praising you, what are you going to do to lift somebody else’s spirits?” So, I heard her say that. Bezos said that and I think this right now will definitely help people have a sustainable income. I always get messed up with her work.

I want to be the guy that when you see my face, you see my face in a commercial, you see me walking around, hopefully, I can bring a smile to your face. That’s what I want to be. I don’t want to talk about politics. I don’t want to talk to investors. I don’t want to appear like I’m an expert. You know, another quote that I read is one from Dwight D. Eisenhower, “the greatest leaders are the ones that hire people smarter than themselves.”

Former NBA player Junior Bridgeman used to walk the aisles at the National Restaurant Association Show looking for new ideas. How involved are you in the operation and vision of Big Chicken?

I’m involved as much as I can be, which was shown in our reality show Big Chicken Shaq back in 2018. For the operation, I believe in bringing on a great team. We have a strong CEO in Josh Halpern, and the Matts (Silverman and Piekarski) are two of the best operators I know. I try almost all of the innovations before it launches and of course help with all the marketing.

You are known for investing in companies that you have started with as a consumer. How did Big Chicken come together?

As I said earlier, for me chicken is personal. It makes me think of my family. My business team was looking at potential endorsements for some of the bigger chicken chains and none of it really seemed authentic to me. So, I called Perry Rogers and Matt Silverman and said let’s go do this together. Six months later we were trying chicken recipes and the rest is history. I’ve been a consumer of this brand since long before it was created. 

What is the opportunity that you see in a marketplace that seems to be highly competitive with brands including Chick-fil-A? 

Big Chicken offers a variety of different tastes and flavors the other franchises do not have. We worked with some of the best chefs in the world to create some of the most delicious and unique chicken sandwiches as well as other amazing options. We even have a cookie that is the circumference of an NBA basketball. 

Do you look at Josh Halpern as the coach/GM or is he the point guard making this concept a winner?

I think Josh is an old school player/coach. He is doing it all, whether that be in the boardroom leading meetings or with our franchisees in the field. 

Big Chicken Glendale CA
The warm and welcoming interior at Big Chicken in Glendale, CA

What’s your read on what it is going to take to succeed? 

All of the above. We need to make Big Chicken a place that’s fun for guests and where suppliers and franchisees want to partner with us. To accomplish that it will require: the right real estate with an eye toward new opportunities including ghost kitchens, quality fare that includes signature items like our Lucille’s Mac ’n’ Cheese, talented management and visionary franchisees. 

Are there hot points for you in the menu that drive you nuts? 

Matt Silverman and I had a disagreement with our banana pudding ice cream sandwiches. I love both banana pudding and ice cream sandwiches, but could not see the combo working for the restaurant. It ended up being delicious and one of our top sellers. Sometimes you have to trust the experts. 

Big Chicken units are in a variety of venues from traditional shopping/retail locations to arenas in New York and Seattle and even cruise ships. How have you been able to tailor the concept to meet a variety of needs? 

We want to be accessible to everyone. Hearing that people are trying our food at the game or onboard the ship is amazing. I learned, being a franchisee and a manager, the one thing I never did was micromanage my people. And I know and understand customer service. If the customer is not happy, they don’t like the food, we’re not doing something right. I always try to focus on customer service, what the people like and what the people want. And if you do that, and you still put out a great product, everything should go like you want to go.

What was the approach to building out the front of house and kitchen design specs for the units?

The Matts are the key to designing the kitchen and the restaurants. We started this Day 1 together and I trust my team.

How did the relationship with Papa John’s come about? 

Their management, led by Steve Ritchie and Jeffrey Smith, wanted to diversify their leadership and they wanted me to become the first African-American on the board. And I thought it was great because you know, everyone loves pizza and pizza loves everyone. Papa John’s was created in 1984. I fell in love with Papa John’s in 1989 in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. So, you know, it is a great opportunity. You know, we want to create a culture there now where people are loved, welcomed and accepted. We don’t want to have any problems. And listen, pizza is fun. Everyone knows Shaquille O’Neal, they know that I’m in the fun business. And we want to get this thing back on track.

There are continual changes in the economy that impact on your restaurant portfolio. How do you read the marketplace?

My method in dealing with businesses is I never worry about the problem. I worry about the solution. So, again I have a lot of people that are smarter than me. You know when it’s time to make a move, we make a move. When it’s time to sit and just try to wait things out, we do. But again, I’m trying to make an investment in things that make people happy. When I was in the gym business, people liked working out. When I was in the fast-food business, before Five Guys, everybody likes burgers, everybody likes new things. Now with Big Chicken, we just want to continue to make people happy. But, again I’m not the expert and I do this — like everything I touch is gold. It’s not the case. I’ve failed many times.

What’s the next step for an operator that would like info on a potential franchise opportunity? 

Go to our website. The team will get you into our pipeline.

Crystal Ball? How many units? Is your vision to create a company that you can take public? 

We don’t really think that way. Our goal is to create a championship brand that’s accessible to everyone. We don’t want our franchisees competing with each other. We want
everyone to win.

To learn more about Big Chicken and Shaquille O’Neal, visit their website