NFL veteran Mike Lodish tackles food industry with peanut brittle company
This story appears in the August 3, 2015, issue of Sports Illustrated. Subscribe to the magazine here.
In a room about half the size of a football field housed inside a sprawling manufacturing facility in an industrial park in Warren, Mich., Mike Lodish cuts a curious figure while walking the production line. With his white lab coat and a hairnet tucked over his bald head, the 6'3", 275-pound Lodish towers over the workers who are cooking, cooling and packing delicate chunks of his signature product.
Leaning over a copper kettle of bubbling, honey-colored syrup, Lodish takes in the caramelized sugar smell—a campfire marshmallow roast gone wonderfully awry. The vat of liquid candy will yield 40 pounds of Lodish's Champion Brittle, a family-recipe confection that Lodish hopes to elevate from a regional business to a national brand. An NFL defensive lineman for 11 years who retired after the 2000 season, Lodish has graduated from the crunch of colliding with an opponent's shoulder pads to the crunch of biting into a chunk of peanut brittle.
At Pat's Gourmet LLC, named after Lodish's mother, Lodish calls himself the COOE: Chief Operating Officer of Everything. He oversees the books with his accountant, places orders and serves as director of sales. "Launching a small business is much tougher" than playing football, the 47-year-old Lodish says. "I've gotten my M.B.A. essentially by doing this."
Lodish is best known as the answer to a trivia question: Who was the first man to play in six Super Bowls? (This year Patriots quarterback Tom Brady became the second.) Lodish won two of those games with the Broncos, in the 1997 and '98 seasons, after four straight losses with the Bills in the early '90s. If his name doesn't ring a bell, that's not surprising: Lodish, an All-Pac-10 defensive tackle at UCLA, was selected in the 10th round of the 1990 draft and started just 31 times in 166 NFL games.
"I was a drone in the beehive," he says. After retiring and completing his college degree in history—with a minor in business administration—Lodish went home to Birmingham, Mich., and tried a few different careers, including as an NFL contract adviser and as a sales rep for a communications company. He got the inspiration for producing peanut brittle in '11, when he saw a commercial for Legal Zoom, a company that helps small businesses with legal paperwork; the ad featured Janet Long, a fellow UCLA alum who brought her mother's candy toffee recipe to market.
Succeeding in the food business requires offering a unique concoction, and Lodish was convinced he had that in his mother's brittle, which came from a family recipe going back several generations. (Pat, 74, estimates she's been making it for nearly half a century.) The brittle was also a tribute to Pat, a former executive director of a senior housing center in Birmingham, whom Lodish credits with instilling his work ethic. "I was a champion in football," he says. "My mom is my champion in life."
Pat's nickname, tellingly, is General Patton. "I like to be accountable for my actions," she says, "and I try to instill that in my children." That sometimes meant curbing her son's entrepreneurial instincts. Mike's first love was hockey, and his father, Mike, an oncological surgeon, would give him rolls of medical tape to use for his ankles and shin guards. At age 10 or 11, Lodish built a side business selling tape to teammates who'd forgotten theirs; he was busted after a well-meaning hockey mom approached Pat and thanked her. "I made him give back their money, every penny of it," Pat says.
"That was probably the start of my entrepreneurial endeavors," Lodish says with a grin. These days, his endeavors win Pat's approval: The brittle, available in three flavors, is stocked regionally in about 30 metro Detroit specialty food stores, including Whole Foods.
"It's thrilling to go into the supermarket and see it on the shelf," says Pat.
Getting it there wasn't easy. Lodish launched the company in September 2011, investing $16,000 of his own money; it took 14 months to get the product to market. He started by doing research, trying 100 other recipes before deciding that none could improve on his mother's. Pat's product is lighter than typical brittle, with air bubbles that give it a satisfying crunch. That, Lodish says, is a function of the precise length of time and the temperature at which it is cooked, both of which are top secret. On the factory floor, guests (including reporters) are required to turn away at crucial points in the brittle's production.
But Lodish also realized his product was highly marketable as a locally made, relatively health-conscious treat. The recipe is vegan—no butter or dairy included—and gluten-free. And Lodish's football fame gave the product a built-in local appeal.
Financial success hasn't arrived yet. While he hasn't had to invest more of his own money, Lodish says whatever modest gains he does make go immediately back into the company. Still, the volume has almost doubled since the brittle's debut in December 2012, with the company selling 700 to 1,000 pounds most weeks and as many as 2,500 pounds per week during peak demand in the fall. (Packages retail for $7 per half pound.) For now, he's the sole full-time employee; he relies on contract workers from JLM Manufacturing, which owns the facility where his brittle is made. Lodish, who has an 11-year-old son, doesn't pay himself a salary; he earned roughly $5 million in his NFL career and currently has a side job as an account manager at Nexlink Communications.
In the meantime he's learned a lot of lessons—especially about salesmanship. "He's very witty, very quick on his feet," says Spiro Liras, who runs the Warren manufacturing facility. "He's out there beating on people's doors and getting it on the shelves. He just doesn't give up, and that's what it takes."
Persistence is a trait that Lodish—a self-described "bulldog"—has never lacked. "It's just churning and burning and grinding the phone and making appointments," he says. But selling is also his favorite part: "If the first person says no, they don't want the brittle, I say, 'O.K., no problem, I'll be back.' And then I come back and say, 'Hey, I'm selling six cases a week out of this other store—you want to give this a shot?' They need to be shown that the volume is there."
That tenacity isn't so different from what it took to succeed on the gridiron. As a junior Lodish won the Bruin Brawn title as UCLA's weightlifter of the year, setting team records in the squat and in the combined bench, squat and clean. Still, he slipped to 265th in the draft because he was considered too small to play noseguard in the NFL.
Lodish got his first chance to prove himself as a rookie at Bills training camp, when a second-year offensive lineman was administering cheap shots during one-on-one drills. A defensive assistant coach noticed and announced to his players, "If any of you line up on this guy and you allow this to happen to you, you will not make my football team," Lodish recalls. Sure enough, he faced the guy the next day.
Lodish beat him on the first rep and in return got a shove in the back after the whistle. "I looked at him and told him, 'Don't do that again,'" Lodish says. Then he beat him on the second rep. "He tried to punk me again, and so I turned around, grabbed his mask, jerked it down, pulled it up and drilled him across his jaw and knocked him right down to his knees," Lodish says. "All of a sudden my coach said to himself, 'I got a rookie that wants to make my football team.' And from there on I had an opportunity to perform."
For five seasons in Buffalo, Lodish was a defensive tackle on a roster that included Hall of Famers Jim Kelly, Bruce Smith and Thurman Thomas. He moved on to Denver for the 1995 season, playing all but three games there over the next six seasons, including the victories in Super Bowls XXXII and XXXIII.
But just as valuable as those wins to Lodish are the championship defeats he suffered with the Bills, which let him know that nothing would come easy. "You need the disappointment in order to teach you and to test your resolve," Lodish says. "Losing four Super Bowls taught me to say, 'You know what? Don't ever give up, keep going, there's always another day tomorrow.'"