Steelers' Gradkowski finds restaurant success

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Bruce Gradkowski doesn't mind if people don't remember the name of his restaurant on the University of Toledo campus, so long as they leave blown away by the food and service.

The name might be difficult to forget, though.

"Gradkowski's" is scrawled in white script over the entrance, and the former Toledo star tries to stop in at least once a day whenever he's in town. And at 6 feet, 2 inches and 220 pounds, diners aren't likely to miss him when he's there.

Now 30 years old, Mr. Gradkowski is entering his eighth season as an NFL quarterback, having signed a three-year deal with the Steelers in the off-season.

This past week, before he zipped off to his hometown of Pittsburgh to prepare for training camp, he sat down at a quiet corner booth to talk about his budding career as a restaurateur.

Gradkowski's, which opened in January, is one of the core tenants at Toledo's Gateway Project, a new commercial and residential development. The restaurant has a clear connection to the university, with black-and-white photos of the campus and University of Toledo sports lining the walls. But it's more upscale than one might expect, with a creative menu and a small but classy horseshoe-shaped bar.

"You really have to come in here to eat and really get the experience," Mr. Gradkowski said over a soft soundtrack that includes the likes of Frank Sinatra.

He partnered with Mike Graber and Singh Grewal, two men with experience in the Toledo restaurant scene, to open the restaurant. The three will soon open their second location in Perrysburg, Ohio. Named "Social," the new restaurant will have an ever-changing menu and gastropub theme, separating itself from Gradkowski's, which is geared more toward fine dining.

"We're looking to go with a nice, cool atmosphere and good food," Mr. Gradkowski said of Social, which is expected to open this summer. "People want to come in for a nice lunch or a nice dinner and not just your typical bar type food."

Though professional athletes can make the kind of money many only dream of, the sad reality is they often struggle after their playing days. A few years ago, Sports Illustrated reported that 78 percent of former NFL players had gone bankrupt or were under financial stress after two years away from football.

For many, football is all they've known and all they've done since leaving college.

Mr. Gradkowski, a Dormont native who graduated from UT in 2005 with a degree in business marketing and management, didn't want to find himself stuck in that transition, with no more football to play and no business experience to fall back on.

"I love football and I'm going to play football as long as I can, but I'm also realistic about it," he said. "I'm only 30 years old. If I'm fortunate enough to play [until] I'm 40 like a Brett Favre, I still have my whole life ahead of me."

While he's had an entrepreneurial streak, getting into the highly competitive and failure-prone restaurant field wasn't something Mr. Gradkowski had been set on.

It was the location that beckoned him. The Gateway Project is a $12 million mixed use development aimed at tidying up that side of campus and creating a hub of activity for students that can also draw in the greater Toledo community.

Mr. Gradkowski said Mr. Grewal approached him about the opportunity. Meetings were quickly scheduled and soon plans were in motion.

"I don't think if it were anywhere else, I would have jumped right into it. But for how much love I have for this school, and for the community and what they've done for me through my career, I wanted to give back," he said. "I wanted to be on campus and bring a good spot for the community and the university to love."

While he certainly wants to be successful, he sees part of what he's doing as a way to repay the community and university. Toledo, he said, is where he grew into an adult, where he earned his degree, where he set records at the Glass Bowl, and where he made numerous friends

It's also where he met his wife, Miranda. The couple, who make their offseason home in the Toledo area, welcomed a daughter, Lily, to their family three months ago.

Mr. Gradkowski is completely at home in his restaurant, always asking diners about their meals and freely signing autographs.

Matt Schroeder, vice president for real estate and business development at the University of Toledo Foundation, and one of the chief people involved in the development of the Gateway Project, said people are often struck by -- and maybe a little surprised at -- how approachable Mr. Gradkowski is.

"He's such a humble individual, and I think it lends to the overall dining experience," Mr. Schroeder said. "I can't tell you how many people have said, 'We went in for lunch or we went in for dinner and Bruce was there and we spent five minutes with him and he signed some photos for us.' He's truly an owner-operator, and that's what we were looking for in our partnership with them."

Gradkowski's plans to host UT football parties through the college football season, and also is looking to add lower-priced menu options aimed at college students.

Mr. Gradkowski and his partners hope to build off Gradkowski's success at Social. Mr. Graber said Social will have a sort of garage-meets-sophistication feel -- they've taken the floor down to the concrete slab, which they covered with a shiny lacquer. A Versace-style print is painted on the wall. Wood salvaged from an old Toledo factory was used to build large communal tables.

"What we're shooting for is old vs. new," Mr. Graber said. The restaurant will employ about 60 people, bringing total employment for the two restaurants to about 120. Social will focus on micro-brewed beers and locally sourced comfort foods with a high-end flair.

The partners are talking about opening a Gradkowski's location in Pittsburgh as well, though Mr. Gradkowski said last week that's very preliminary and nothing is currently in the works.

Still, expansion is a goal. "I think eventually we will," he said.

His primary focus for the next five-plus months, however, is football.

Mr. Gradkowski signed with the Steelers to be the team's backup quarterback this year. Once the season is over, Mr. Gradkowski will be back in Toledo, the site of his UT glory days. He's said he's just not content throwing down some money, lending his name and letting the restaurant run itself.

"Anything I do, I want to be a part of and make sure it's done right," he said. "I never wanted to just put my name on the outside of the building and walk away from it."

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Block News Alliance consists of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and The Blade of Toledo, Ohio. Tyrel Linkhorn is a reporter for The Blade. First Published July 21, 2013 4:00 AM


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