Gary Brackett’s Journey from Super Bowl Champion to Restaurateur
Early retirement isn’t for everyone. And for professional football players, retirement can come even earlier. After nine seasons in the NFL, former Indianapolis Colts linebacker and Super Bowl Champion Gary Brackett found himself a little restless after stepping away from the game.
But it wasn’t until his 3-year-old son, Gary Jr., asked him, “What are you going to do when you grow up?” that he decided to make a change. Brackett earned his MBA from George Washington University and became an entrepreneur.
“For me, leaving the game of football, I was trying to figure out how do I monetize my brand,” Brackett says. “People know me and they like me, but where can I have a place for them to go?”
A sports bar seemed like the perfect fit for a former football player turned entrepreneur. “I wanted to be in a sports bar. I just love the excitement a sports bar brings,” he says.
Initially, Brackett decided to partner with a popular concept and become a franchisee. This specific brand wanted him to invest more than $2.8 million in a new stand-alone location. He didn’t feel confident in the deal and eventually backed out.
“They came to the market and didn’t like any of my locations. At the time, I was just perplexed because they were some pretty solid locations. I had the No. 1 broker in the state of Indiana,” he says. “A freestanding building, would have been great for them, you know, as far as a model, but not so great for me not knowing what would happen.”
Before Brackett thought about becoming a franchisee, he had already invested in another restaurant, The Stacked Pickle, in 2012, as a silent partner. Brackett found his investment in the restaurant quite lucrative. At the time, the Indianapolis-based neighborhood sports bar had two locations in the city.
After the deal with the other company fell through, Brackett decided to expand his involvement with The Stacked Pickle. In 2014, Brackett bought out The Stacked Pickle from founder Chris Long.
Becoming an entrepreneur, especially one in the restaurant industry, can be difficult, but Brackett credits his time in the NFL as one of the best ways to prepare for his new career. The transition from football player to restaurant owner was natural for Brackett. He says people tend to focus on the physical aspect of the game, but the mental side of football is equally taxing.
“A lot of times when people view a football player they just seem him as ‘ah he’s physical, he’s strong,’ but they don’t understand [the mental part of the game],” Brackett says. “Coach [Jim] Caldwell, my coach [at the Indianapolis Colts] would always say ‘the game is played from the neck up.’’’
“I looked at myself when I was the Indianapolis Colts’ defensive captain, I looked at it like I was CDO, chief defensive operator,” he adds. “As that, I communicated effectively with the team the game plan to go out every game, every week. I view my role as the CEO as the same. It’s just communication, what challenges are we facing, what’s the plan to attack them, and let’s give you the tools to attack them, and then I follow up to make sure it gets done.”
When interacting with managers, servers, and kitchen staff, Brackett wants to be able to clearly communicate his goals and help his staff solve problems. Even as chief executive officer, Brackett wants to remain accessible to his staff. The most successful teams work together, Brackett says.
“I’ve always loved relationships where they were partnerships and let’s work together to solve this issue,” he says. “Versus, I’ve been on teams before where people are like it’s us versus them. Those teams aren’t usually successful, but the teams where we come together to achieve a common goal that work. A lot of transferrable skills I learned in football I transferred over to being a CEO of a restaurant group.”
These skills have allowed Brackett to grow and expand The Stacked Pickle to nine locations over the past four years. For Brackett, the next step in expansion is franchising. His goal is to open six to eight stores each year for the next two years. Currently, he is working with franchisees in Houston; Orlando, Florida; and Dayton, Ohio.
Since becoming CEO, Brackett has focused on sustainable growth and working to streamline operations to be able to support the expansion of the business. He knew before he could start franchising he needed these systems in place to successfully support new locations.
“We want to make sure that we can fulfill our end of the bargain with support,” he says. “We view our franchisee success very highly. I want to make sure that I’m living up to my end of the bargain where I can give them the support they need to be successful. Because ideally if they are successful at one store, maybe they’ll open up a second or third.”
At the moment, Brackett likes the pace of expansion. He doesn’t want to expand too rapidly and open more locations than the company can support. “I just don’t want to come out of the box and say ‘hey let’s sell 50’ and then you know not have a plan in place to take care of them,” he says. “I really want to be smart about our growth and also attract good talent. I’m supporting those people. I think it’s really hand-in-hand us understanding where we are as a company, but also keeping franchisees in mind in terms of our growth strategy and making sure we have the right pieces in place to ensure that they’re going to be successful.”
When meeting with potential franchisees, Brackett wants people who can bring something to the table and add value to his team. The people he wants to work with need to have a competitive edge and bring something new and exciting to the company.
“My goal, and what I pride myself as a football player, was getting the most out of each one of my players,” he says. “I think the same thing from a franchisee perspective. Identifying the right franchisees and then giving them support and the tools so they could do their most to reach optimal success, and really working alongside them to really make sure that they can reach their full potential.”
“I think that’s what’s been exciting to me as I continue to learn and grow into this industry that I have the ability to continue to train and now develop and partner with some amazing people as franchisees,” he adds.
Before entering a new market, Brackett and his team research an area using new technology to fully understand the market. When the brand enters a new DMA, Brackett’s goal is to own a 3- to 5-mile radius.
This new technology, like geo-targeting and SEO, helps the company to understand potential sales, marketing strategy, and competition before a new location opens.
“I think there’s a lot of technology in place that can really make your systems able to scale,” he says. “Through digital tools were able to go inside of a market and market as if we have 10 stores in our market. I think that’s really powerful in terms of leveraging the digital side to make sure you have a presence known no matter where you go.”
The Stacked Pickle difference
The Stacked Pickle does things a little differently than other sports bars. Yes, a big football game draws a large crowd, but Brackett doesn’t just focus on the Sunday afternoon rush. He wants customers to come in for a football game and come back for lunch on Monday.
The quality of food also matters to Brackett. High-quality, fresh products are standard at The Stacked Pickle.
“Our proteins, our chickens, our beef, and our pork tenderloin is fresh never frozen,” he says. “I think when you talk about the sports bar industry a lot of times you’re thinking ‘ahh OK, I guess I’ll just eat this when I go watch this game,’ where I really think we have delicious food.”
The menu at The Stacked Pickle is comprised of classic sports bar offerings, like burgers, pizza, and wings, but the flavors and ingredients elevate the dishes to something you wouldn’t normally find in a sports bar.
“[Our food] it’s fresh and it’s on trend. We pride ourselves on having some updated menu items and then the overall diversity of the menu,” Brackett says. “I think that really helps when families are undecided on where they want to go. If someone wants pizza, someone wants wings, and someone wants a burger at the Stacked Pickle you can have all three. At a lot of our competitors I don’t think that’s the case.”
The diverse offering at The Stacked Pickle includes sports-bar staples and lighter options. By offering salads, rice bowls, and other healthier options, customers tend to come into the restaurant for lunch. “We have a whole side of our menu that’s a healthier side, so there’s some options in there, whether it be a wrap or salad or a rice bowl that someone can enjoy and still go back to work. I think that kind of drives traffic for lunch,” Brackett says.
Brackett also decided to include catering as another way to customers can experience The Stacked Pickle. Lighter options are all a part of the regular menu items, but are also popular options when someone places a catering order, Brackett says.
These healthier menu items have also helped drive traffic to the catering part of the business.
“I think a lot of times you think about a sports bar, you don’t think about what they cater to,” Brackett says. “We really made a mission to cater and that’s a beautiful thing for lunch when you have a couple hundred dollars leaving the door. That’s very unique from a sports bar that we can cater so well.”
The Stacked Pickle started delivery about three years ago, experimenting with different third-party companies to find the right fit for their products. Brackett says the design of the kitchen and POS system technology help smooth the process.
The delivery technology is integrated directly into their systems, so that the back of the house can take care of a delivery order just as they would put together an order from the dining room.
“We just have to bag it up and have it ready for when the delivery driver comes in,” Brackett says. “We engineered our kitchen so that it can expand or contract. I feel like we did a really good job utilizing the [kitchen] space that we have and really setting up our line that is super-efficient where we could easily do a $4,000 or $5,000 an hour. It’s not overcrowded. You have the right spacing. You have the right kitchen that we could do to-go and catering, in addition, to taking care of our dining room.”
Menu innovation is continual The Stacked Pickle kitchen. A core menu is place, Brackett says, but the menu undergoes changes twice a year right before the football season and March Madness.
Beginning in 2019, a feature of the month will be included on the menu as a way to test different products before they’re put on the menu permanently. Customers will be able to give direct feedback on the featured item and which will help the company decide if it wants to add it to the menu.
“We typically look at the trends, what’s moving, how do we cross utilize product that we already have instead of bringing in another SKU, and how can we repurpose something,” he explains. “It’s funny I learned early on its not Gary’s restaurant, it’s the Stacked Pickle and it works for our consumers. It doesn’t really matter what I like right it [when it comes to new menu items] matters with sales. I’m very careful and conscious about putting my ego aside and doing what’s best for our business.”
Affordability also plays a big factor in the menu design. Brackett has been able to bring down prices without compromising the quality of ingredients. He says going out to dinner with the family shouldn’t break the band.
“Myself, I have three young kids, and when I go out to dinner and spend over $100, I cringe,” he says. “It shouldn’t be that expensive, but at the Stacked Pickle, our kids’ menu, specials, and everything else you can get in with a family of five for under $50 and that’s really impressive. I think a lot of people really value that and I think that’s why they keep coming back.”
“I’ve learned now that my brand may open up the door to get them in there, but it’s my service and the food quality that definitely keeps them coming back,” he adds.