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Don Shula’s new game: gourmet burgers

No coach in football history can compete with Don Shula’s legendary record of 347 career wins. But the retired Dolphins coach and his family have since entered the game of the fast-and-casual gourmet burger industry, where the battle for market share is as fierce as the NFL playoffs.

Just opened in Delray Beach is Shula Burger, the fifth of the Shula family’s gourmet burger eateries. It joins 34 other Shula restaurants scattered across the United States from Times Square to Arizona.

Shula’s drive into the restaurant business started with a favor. A family friend asked the 1972 “Perfect Season’’ legend to lend his name to a Miami Lakes golf resort’s struggling restaurant. After two years of reluctancy, Shula licensed his name to the restaurant in 1989. Business quadrupled as a result. Then, in 1992, the family licensed their name to the hotel, now known as Shula’s Hotel & Golf Club.

Success nudged the family into the dining business. In 1994, the Shulas founded their own restaurant company: Shula’s Steak Houses, LLLP. The company’s big players all are family members. Dave Shula, Don Shula’s eldest son, is the president; Carrie LaNoce, Shula’s stepdaughter and the first independent Shula Burger franchise owner, works in marketing and management; Mary Ann Shula, Don’s wife, is the CEO of the company; Don Shula is the proprietor.

They now own 14 Shula’s Steak Houses, four Shula’s Bar and Grills, one Shula’s On the Beach, two Shula’s Steak 2s and eight Shula’s 347 Grills. The family’s latest restaurant venture, Shula Burger, comes at a time when the market is packed with players and the pressure on beef suppliers is high.

Last summer’s drought devastated Midwestern corn fields. With feed in short supply, farmers cut back on the size of their herds. “The overall herd is the lowest its been in 60 years,” said Ray Farmer, executive chef with Halperns, the Atlanta-based company that cuts and distributes meat to the Shula restaurants.

Lower production pushed up prices for consumers, which squeezed sales. Burgers sold at restaurants peaked at 9.3 billion in 2010, but that figure has been trending downward for the past three years. In April, sales trickled in at 8.6 billion, according to Bonnie Riggs, industry analyst with consumer research firm NPD.

During the uncertain economy, diners opted out of upscale and midscale restaurants and turned to fast-casual to “trade down from full service and trade up from fast food,” Riggs said. In the post-recession phase, many of the fast casual eateries have expanded further because investors and entrepreneurs are trying to capitalize on the continued growth opportunity, she said.

“Consumers are still highly satisfied with fast-casual burgers,” Riggs said. “The quality is much better than fast food, the ingredients are fresh, and even though diners are paying more, it’s still affordable compared to full service.”

But South Floridians have plenty of options. Among them are two locations of Rok:Brgr, three New York-based Shake Shacks, four Elevation Burger joints and Sonic Drive-In locations in both Fort Lauderdale and Miami Gardens. This market flood poses a risk for new players like Shula Burger, Riggs said.

Avoiding that risk requires a flavor profile that’s distinct from the competitors, said Don Fox, chairman of the National Restaurant Association’s fast-casual industry council. The taste of the meat at Shula Burger is one of the restaurant’s main advantaged over the competition, the Shula organization says.

The patties are the product of the Shulas’ corporate chef Peter Farrand. The meat used to craft the patties is of the same premium grade and quality as Shula Steak House meat. Made primarily of premium black Angus chuck, additional elements of premium short rib and brisket lend depth to the flavor of the patty, he said. Farrand went through four meat blends before choosing this one.

“This blend is a great combination of steak and beef flavor, without being too overly fatty,” Farrand said. The proprietary blend belongs to the Shula’s Steak House company.

At around 2 p.m. on a Thursday, Emilio and Terry Mallo were hunkered over a table at the Shula Burger location in Kendall. Sports is clearly the theme here: Games play on screens mounted from the ceilings; football memorabilia decorates the yellow walls; massive paintings of some favorite Shula plays add to the decor. Half-eaten burgers in hand with sweet potato tots and onion rings nearby, the Mallos were celebrating a day off from work.

“It’s great quality meat. The burgers are very flavorful,” Emilio said in between bites of his $5.99 Shula Burger, the most classic item on the menu topped with American cheese, shaved lettuce, tomatoes and pickles.

Behind the couple, Guillermo Arevalo savored the last burger bite.

“It’s not too greasy. I can actually taste the beef, unlike other places where you can only taste the sauce,” Arevalo said.

That beef is delivered fresh to Shula Burger six days a week.

“The Shulas have very exacting specifications that a meat cutter has to follow,” said Ray Farmer, Halperns’ executive chef. “They offer a consistent product to their customers.”

But the patty is just part of the equation at Shula Burger. Customers can choose from a veggie burger, marinated chicken breast, a turkey burger, a slew of sides, salads and designer toppings. The former coach’s taste buds incline toward “The Don” — a towering sandwich that’s named after Shula’s inability to decide between a hotdog and a hamburger.

“I made sure I could get both,” he said.

A burger patty, one hotdog, a slice of American cheese, pickles, onion sauce, ketchup and yellow mustard are squeezed between a fluffy brioche-style bun.

More than a dozen avant-garde options are available to more advanced palates. One is the $7.29 French Onion, topped with a caramelized onion reduction, double gruyere cheese, garlic mayonnaise and crushed garlic croutons.

Customers can also order good wine. “We’ve got higher-end wines that are aggressively priced. A glass of Meiomi Pinot Noir might cost $15 or $16 at the steak houses, yet we sell it at Shula Burger for $9 or $10,” Farrand said.

The business model seems to be working. Since Shula Burger broke out in late 2011, its early success can be seen in the real estate, Dave Shula said. “The first fast-casual Shula Burger opened in Fort Lauderdale in October, the second in Kendall in December, there’s one in a food court in Tampa, then there’s the location in Delray,” Dave said. The company has plans to open three more restaurants in Orlando.

Though the company declined to provide revenue numbers, Dave Shula said they serve about one million pounds of beef each year.

Don Shula chalks that success up to his penchant for competition. “The bottom line in coaching is winning. The bottom line in the restaurant business is winning,” he said. “You want to win every meal.”

At the end of the day, it’s a battle for market share. “It’s about how much financial capital you have and how much marketing you do,” Riggs said.

That’s where the Shula name helps.

“The name was a foot in the door,” Farrand said. “But the reason we’ve been able to expand is the product, service and experience we all have.”