“There’s only one place in the world that you can see that view, and that’s on Mobile Bay. It’s special. This venue is 424 feet up in the air — the highest restaurant on the entire Gulf Coast.”
Bob Baumhower introduced Alabama to buffalo wings in 1981. “We were first, ” he says with obvious pride, before admitting that many people considered him crazy. Despite the naysayers, his privately held Aloha Hospitality now operates 11 restaurants. Annual sales exceed $31 million. A companywide consolidation (except new fine dining eatery, Dauphins) under the Baumhower’s Victory Grille brand emphasizes a shared sports entertainment atmosphere. While that element adds value, says Baumhower, it’s secondary. Above all else, his brand is about great food and great service.
So how does a boy raised in Toledo, Ohio, grow up to sell chicken wings in sports-themed restaurants crisscrossing Alabama?
After vacationing in Florida, his family moved to North Palm Beach, where he started high school. While watching Miami execute the NFL’s only perfect, Super Bowl-winning season sparked Baumhower’s interest in football and converted him into a die-hard Dolphins fan, he certainly didn’t anticipate playing there in five years.
His father’s advancing career moved the family to Tuscaloosa for his senior year. “I had just started playing ball. I was not a guy that grew up loving football. I just kind of fell into it, ” explains Baumhower, who wasn’t recruited out of high school. “After the signing date, somehow Coach (Paul “Bear”) Bryant saw me on film, saw me play against a guy that they were pretty high on. He gave me a scholarship, which is how I went to Alabama.”
When Baumhower quit football before his second season, Bryant summoned his ex-lineman and his father. “He made me look at myself in ways that I hadn’t done before. He made me believe that if I thought about who I could be and made a plan to get there, I would have an opportunity to do special things. I believed what he said, ” recalls Baumhower. “I begged for my position on the team. And it changed my life.”
Embracing Bryant’s guidance, Baumhower twice was selected a second-team All-American at the University of Alabama. Picked by Miami in the 2nd round of the 1977 NFL Draft, he played eight seasons without missing a game. Then a knee injury in Super Bowl XIX forced him to sit out the ’85 season.
Baumhower still holds team records for most career sacks by a tackle and most single-season tackles by a defensive lineman. With 750 career tackles, two Super Bowl appearances and five Pro Bowl selections, he’s remembered as perhaps the best Dolphins’ nose tackle ever.
Richard Todd followed Joe Namath as quarterback for both the Crimson Tide and the New York Jets. As business partners, they invited Baumhower into the hospitality business. “Richard and I had become best buds at Alabama. We shared an agent, Jimmy Walsh, with Joe Namath, ” says Baumhower. “Through those relationships, I was lucky enough to be included when Joe opened his second Bachelors III in Fort Lauderdale in the late ’70s.”
Dolphins’ linebacker Steve Towle unintentionally accelerated things by introducing Baumhower to Wings & Things in Fort Lauderdale. “It was the strangest thing that I’d ever seen, somebody making a living selling chicken wings, which nobody ate back then much, ” recalls Baumhower, who quickly grasped the concept’s potential.
After relocating from Buffalo, owner Eddie Hauck had become a Dolphins fan. He and Baumhower became friends, recruited Phillip Weaver in Tuscaloosa, and (using Hauck’s recipe) opened Wings & Things on the UA campus. It was 1981. Few people beyond the Northeast had heard of buffalo wings. “Nobody wanted to try them. We had to give them away, ” Baumhower continues. “We quit advertising, and my brother David started taking trays of wings to fraternities, sorority parties and dorms — to get the product out there. It took a couple of years, and then it took off. It was all word of mouth.”
Baumhower opened Wings and Whiskers in Northport after retiring from football in ’88. “I had a catfish farm in Greene County, and we planned to vertically integrate by doing chicken and catfish, ” he says, before laughing and admitting, “the name didn’t stick very long, though, because a lot of folks were calling, asking if we were a pet store.” He was the sole proprietor, assisted then as now by wife, Leslie, his “top advisor and boss.”
With seasonal variants, Aloha Hospitality employs between 800 and 1, 000 people in Alabama. Payroll exceeds $11.5 million. Another Victory Grille and a “Cuban speakeasy” named El Floridita (both under contract in Mobile) should boost those numbers.
ABOVE Dauphins’ night view of the Mobile skyline. Photo by Tad Denson
Baumhower’s coastal restaurants have often included outliers, from Calypso Joe’s Caribbean Grille at the Orange Beach Marina, sold in 2005, to his elegant new eatery atop the RSA Trustmark Building in downtown Mobile. He named it Dauphins, a double entendre paying homage to Mobile’s French heritage and his NFL career.
Executive Chef and Sommelier Steve Zucker calls the food, “Gulf Coastal Cuisine with touches of New Orleans Creole Cajun and Caribbean.”.
Baumhower adds that Creole cuisine originated in the Caribbean en route to Mobile and New Orleans. “Restaurants in Haiti, Cuba and Jamaica: there are a lot of Creole influences there. So we bring all of that together at Dauphins.”
Structural issues are delaying El Floridita-related renovations to Trustmark’s basement. When completed, it will pay tribute to its Cuban namesake, says Baumhower, who three times accompanied the Alabama Department of Agriculture to Cuba — presenting dishes that showcased chicken and other Alabama products. “We went to El Floridita in Havana; Mobile is Havana’s sister port, and we want to have some fun with that.”
After stressing his parents’ role, Baumhower credits Coach Bryant with providing his foundation for success, in life and business.
“We’re very particular with the specs on our food: how it’s prepared, how it’s presented, flavor, texture, temperature. All of those things, to me, are Xs and Os, like how you run your plays.”
ABOVE The filet mignon is Dauphins’ top selling steak. The gorgonzola, pear and baby spinach salad with Conecuh bacon dressing and fire roasted pecans is another popular menu item. Photos by Tad Denson
Bryant’s “you’ve got to have a plan” mantra suffuses Baumhower’s focus on infrastructure: including an operations manual and training manuals for every position, plus position-specific mission statements that define expectations. “Say it’s a wing cook: His or her mission is to create hot, crispy, well-seasoned and sauced wings in a timely manner. If you don’t deliver on that, you’re not getting the job done — it’s like me playing as a defensive lineman. I could thrash around, run fast and look good, but if I didn’t get to the ball carrier and stop him I wasn’t getting the job done, ” he continues.
“The number one thing you’ve got to have in the hospitality business is a good vision for what you want your brand to be and who your customer is. But once you get that piece down and the model works, it’s always about your people. You’ve got to want to make people happy in our business.”
That attitude spawns regular statewide store-to-store trips (in an Alabama-made Tiffin motor home). “I want to go fishing more, ” laughs Baumhower, who keeps a boat in Fort Lauderdale for Caribbean excursions. “But if you’re committed to that, it’s hard to take your hands off the wheel.”
Eldest son Spencer, in his second year at the company, should help boost dad’s fishing time.
Adrian Hoff is a freelance contributor to Business Alabama. He lives in Mobile.
Text and Photo by ADRIAN HOFF