It has been a year since the passing of Paul Emmett, president of Duffy’s Sports Grill, a year in which the family-run business has moved forward, often in grief but always in reverence for Emmett’s business savvy.
It was Emmett’s careful structuring of the company that allowed the Lake Worth-based business to continue to thrive and expand last year, even after his death from bile duct cancer at age 62.
A Cape Coral restaurant location, for instance, in the works at the time of his Feb. 10 death, was considered a risky move by Emmett. He thought the eatery’s quiet suburban location might not draw enough customers. But as testament to Emmett’s successful formula of good food and service, that location has turned out to be the company’s top performer.
“It was obviously a bad year, but I take solace that the company has never been stronger … and a large part of it is due to the framework my dad created,” said Paul’s son, Jason, who now leads the company as president. “I feel grateful he made such a strong foundation for the company, so that those of us that are still here are able to keep it going with his vision.”
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The Emmett family not only has kept the company going. The family has come up with new ways to cement Paul Emmett’s legacy, both as a business and as an entity dedicated to the communities in which it does business.
For example, the family has established the Duffy’s Foundation, with the catchphrase Providing Community Enhancement. Not only is the foundation dedicated to charity, the first word of each letter is the initial for Paul Corbin Emmett’s name.
Paul’s widow, Geri Emmett, chairs the foundation, which is being started with a $250,000 donation from Duffy’s.
Duffy’s Foundation has three main charities: the Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, which treated Emmett’s cancer and which plans to conduct research into the fairly rare cancer that took his life; Special Olympics, the sports organization for children and adults with intellectual disabilities, which Emmett’s late father, Jay, once led; and the area chapter of the Girl Scouts, which Geri Emmett credits for teaching her leadership and self-reliance skills.
Duffy’s will continue to contribute to local communities, and store managers will forward requests to headquarters by children’s sports teams or other groups seeking contributions. But the foundation is designed to centralize the company’s giving and help its donations have greater impact.
On the business side, Duffy’s is under construction with a new concept: A culinary arts studio, where executive chef Eric Parker can try new recipes in a dedicated kitchen without the distraction of trying to do so at an existing Duffy’s restaurant. The kitchen is expected to open by April. Training videos for new chefs also will be shot in the space, which is located in an industrial park near Duffy’s headquarters on Barnett Road.
The kitchen also will host the most loyal of Duffy’s customers, the Hall of Fame MVPs, who spend a minimum of $3,000 per year. They will be invited to private tastings of new menu items. Customer feedback is important because new items constantly are added to the menu. These days, the menu features a kale and quinoa burger for vegan diners; gluten free items also are available. And of course, new variations on burgers and sandwiches are regularly added to the menu, too.
Duffy’s has 3,100 employees and 30 stores, and the company seeks to open a handful of new stores each year in the state.
But however large the restaurant company gets, Jason Emmett emphasized that its roots remain as a family-owned business. There are no franchise stores.
There’s plenty of competition for the burger and wings diner, or the place where a big game is being broadcast on large-screen TVs, Emmett said. “But what separates us from all the large chains out there, we are still family-owned. That matters to our customers,” he said.
And it matters to Emmett because he considers his customers part of the family.
Indeed, the power of Duffy’s loyal customers will be tapped to boost the Duffy’s Foundation, Geri Emmett said.
The company has 500,000 MVP customers and 400,000 of their emails, she said. (The MVP cards offer discounts for frequent dining.)
During the month of February, the month that Paul Emmett passed away, anyone who donates $5 to the Duffy’s Foundation will receive $10 on their MVP card.
Geri Emmett says she has no idea how much the campaign will raise, but she’s grateful for any donations. Emmett is determined to help Dana Farber’s Thomas Clancy, the physician who treated Paul, pursue research into the overlooked areas of biliac and pancreatic cancer.
Clancy was the only surgeon willing to operate on Paul in 2013, Geri Emmett said, giving him an extra 18 months of life, a time for which Emmett said she is forever grateful.
She said she wants to help other patients extend their lives so that their families may also get that extra time.
Duffy’s growth, its new ideas, even the strong sales at that erstwhile iffy Cape Coral store, “have made it a little easier to cope with the loss,” Jason Emmett said.
Jason said he knows his father would be proud of the company’s accomplishments during the past year. “But it makes me sad he can’t see the success,” he said.