By Ellen McGirt
Of all the NFL stories I’ve had the chance to report, Amos Zereoue’s has been far less wrenching than many. But it was not without its bumps.
The popular former Pittsburgh Steeler had a tough road to the majors; he immigrated from the I
By Ellen McGirt
vory Coast to Long Island with his father at age ten; his impeccable French mocked by kids early and often. “I talked like the Eddie Murphy character in ‘Coming to America’” he told me with a sweet smile, during our interview at his restaurant. He said it without a trace of an accent. “I worked hard to fit in… to talk like this.”
But after running with a tough crowd, he spent four years at a halfway house for troubled teens. It turned him around, and he went on to become a beloved player and student at West Virginia University. He played for the Steelers from 1999-2003, before heading to the Raiders, and ultimately the Patriots.
But for all his success, he is attempting an ever tougher second act as a restauranteur. His new game is called Zereoue’s an intimate Manhattan bistro which offers African/French fusion cuisine, served up by a friendly and knowledgeable staff. The food is terrific, and Amos is an ever present and gracious host. (And even more fun, he often jumps into the kitchen and whips up the goodies himself.) He’s given a great deal of thought to creating a dining experience with African themed music, art and décor that lets you know that you’ve entered his pre-NFL world. It is a poignant statement - he has gone to great pains to introduce us to the proud history that he sought to hide as a teen.
He is the sole investor, and has achieved break-even after eighteen months. No small feat. “In many ways, this has been more challenging than anything I did on the field,” he laughed, referring to the pressures of filling the seats with paying customers while making sure the train runs on time. Over a delicious meal he cooked himself, he talked about floods, broken air conditioners, and learning on his feet. “We’re finally at the point where we can think about the future.”
But now that he’s worked out the kinks, it’s time to take his business to the next level - he’s clearly leaving money on the table by not promoting correctly. And he will absolutely need investors if he wants to scale the business. But to prepare for that, he needs to get creative, assemble a team of coaches, and retrain himself to lead.
1) Create a "band of brothers" in his new profession.
One of the most unusual things about Amos as a restaurant owner is that he didn’t start out in the food business. He has no on-the-job training, and most importantly, no ready source of friendly expertise with which to tap for ideas. Think the NFL is a close knit clan? Try being a bar or restaurant owner in New York! In this city, restaurant people tend to know each other well, and often help each other out with everything from promotion to staffing to business strategy. Job one for Amos is to reach out to other restaurant people, who can share best practices, while boosting his morale. Right now, he’s too isolated to see important trends and opportunities.
2) Pump up the volume through media and outreach
I’d like to see Amos hold a series of media events – being sure to invite bloggers, not just traditional food media – to taste the food and try new cooking techniques. Link it to the calendar – maybe celebrate a traditional African holiday, or a summer barbeque with West African flare. Don’t stick to just foodies– invite sports media (even business writers) to watch a football game, invite some other veterans, and have a good time.
I’d also like to see him reach out more aggressively to television shows that do cooking segments – his mix of personal history and cooking ability is compelling. Again, linking it to a calendar is key – I’d love to see him on the Today Show whipping up an Ivory Coast Christmas Dinner. Until that happens, I suggest short videos on his own website – 60-90 seconds, showing us a cooking technique or spice combination along with a quick story about how he learned it, which would showcase both the restaurant and his personality. He’s already famous, his fans would love to see how he’s doing now.
Plan something special every month. One idea: There are over a dozen hotels within 15 blocks of the restaurant. Invite the concierges over for a special tasting event, then offer their guests special treatment or discount.
3) Embrace his NFL past.
Amos has gone out of his way to make his place NOT look like a sports emporium. I applaud that, but he’s gone too far. His fame can help create business and buzz, not distract from it.
Amos should reach out to the player development staff of every team. They keep a recommended list of restaurants and clubs that the offer to teams visiting cities – partly to keep visiting players in safe neighborhoods, but also to help them make the most of their downtime. He should be on those lists, and embrace the players and the buzz they bring with them when they visit.
The NFL Players Association, their union, have important resources that can help veterans. He needs to check in and find out what they can do for him.
4) Get digital. Fast!
Even a traditional business like a restaurant can have an online presence, and Amos's site needs a facelift.
I suggest a total website overhaul that better reflects his unique personal brand – recipes and videos, and links to the specialty food vendors across the country who offer the unique ingredients he uses in his cuisine. And lots of photos. The restaurant needs a MySpace and Facebook strategy immediately.
5) Prepare to scale.
Amos has some serious challenges ahead. He wants to create a retail product to sell, he wants to create a bigger presence for himself as a brand. He needs a cookbook! Product endorsements! But he’s going to need to staff up, and for that, he’s going to need investors. What he needs is a business education – fast.
He needs a mentor, pronto. But he might consider going back to school. His own union, working with the NFL, have created the NFL Business Management and Entrepreneurial Program which players can apply to one of four schools: Harvard, Stanford, Wharton and Kellogg. The programs take only a few weeks, are designed to educate players about starting and managing their own businesses and have several success stories. Friends of mine at the NFL PA tell me that it is probably one of the better programs the Union and the League have jointly managed on behalf of the players, but by no means the only one.