The comeback kid: ex-Dolphin John Offerdahl is back in the food business. But this time, he says, things are going to be done his way

The comeback kid: ex-Dolphin John Offerdahl is back in the food business. But this time, he says, things are going to be done his way – Hospitality

Barbara Perkins

* At 6 foot 5 and 230 pounds, it’s hard to imagine John Offerdahl being intimidated. But that’s exactly how the former Dolphins linebacker says he felt in 1995. And it wasn’t on the football field.


Back then, Offerdahl was into the ninth year of his Dolphins career–and the fifth year of developing his eponymous bagel chain. He was approached by a group of investors hell-bent on acquiring his ten bagel stores. Offerdahl resisted at first, but eventually gave in.

“The big people were saying, ‘We’re going to be in your business, John. Either get with us or we’re going to run you over,'” says Offerdahl. “I was a football player. I’d never taken any business classes.” So, in exchange for cash and stock, he handed his baby over to Boston Market, which took controlling interest and parlayed his concept into what later became known as Einstein Brothers Bagels.

Offerdahl says it was hard to give up the chain–but harder to watch the new management “make decisions I didn’t agree with.” Six months later he was out of the business completely. Meanwhile, back on the gridiron, Offerdahl was getting hammered. In the end it was his shoulders that brought him down, cutting short a football career that had long been plagued by injuries. “In 1995” says Offerdahl “I retired from bagels and retired from football.”

A father of three, Offerdahl had always known that football would eventually come to an end–despite the prospects of a shining career that began with his being named NFL rookie of the year in 1986. That’s why, back in 1990, he had been looking for “a place to channel my energy,” he says. That year, the idea for his first bagel store came to him.

Offerdahl’s brother-in-law, a Chicago restaurant equipment supplier, had come up with a better, faster way to bake bagels, using a state-of-the-art steam injection oven. Offerdahl was intrigued. He figured that, with all those transplanted New Yorkers in South Florida, a bagel shop here might stand a chance. With no restaurant experience, Offerdahl says he “had no right to be in the bagel business. We had no game plan, no how-to manual.” But Dolphin No. 56 and his wife Lynn believed in the opportunity, and started Offerdahl’s Bagel Gourmet in Weston. And when the announcers during Monday night football jokingly referred to Offerdahl as the bagelmeister, the free publicity didn’t exactly hurt sales. The concept was a hit. “We were one of the leading players in the country for what we were doing,” he says. “We were getting real big.”

After selling his chain, Offerdahl spent the next few years playing golf and enjoying his family. But time on the sidelines eventually got old, he says, and since he now knew the restaurant business, it seemed the best place to go. With no interest in returning to bagels (Einstein filed for bankruptcy in 2000), Offerdahl and his wife soon zeroed in on what has become the hottest category in fast-food–fast-casual. This category takes the casual dining restaurant concept (think TGIF), where the average check runs around $13, and blends it with the fast-food concept, where the check runs around $5.50. The result: 4about $7.50 for better quality fast food in a more elegant setting.

“We’re seeing a surge in the fast-casual category,” says Amy Garber, senior editor at Nation’s Restaurant News. “The menu at these places is really upscale and relies on fresh ingredients.” Industry experts peg fast-casual sales at about $5 billion for 2003, just 2 percent of all restaurant sales. But sales in the category are growing at 15 percent to 20 percent annually, compared to single-digit growth for the rest of the industry.

For Offerdahl, the result was Offerdahl’s Cafe Grill, serving a mix of chicken and steak “chop bowls,” zesty salads, thick chowders and hearty sandwiches on baguettes, everything freshly baked or grilled, all available inside of 10 minutes–along with a selection of wine and beer. The house recipes, culled from family and friends, are decidedly Asian, with Italian and Cuban twists–a palate that has scored with the young professionals Offerdahl targets in the urban locations at the eight restaurants he has opened since 2000. “There’s a lot of interest in this category,” says Garber. “As long as he has good operations people, he should do fine.”

Locations so far include Weston, downtown Miami, downtown Fort Lauderdale, Lighthouse Point, Palmetto Bay, North Boca, Coral Ridge and Hollywood. With total revenues of about $8 million in 2003, Offerdahl plans to open as many as four more locations this year; a new one in Pinecrest is next. And while he’s got his hands full steering the company from its corporate headquarters in Sunrise, that doesn’t keep him from running store to store, ensuring that things are on track. On a recent stop in Coral Ridge, the entrepreneur graciously signed autographs for delighted customers while keeping a smile on his face and an eye on the grill.

At 39, Offerdahl is back on top of his game. Beyond his plans for local expansion, he’s also hankering for a national roll out. But things will be different this go round; Offerdahl says this time he won’t be intimidated into giving the name and concept away. “What an opportunity; to have something like this in my hands again. I’m very pumped up about that.”

COPYRIGHT 2004 Americas Publishing Group

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group