While barbecue has gained in popularity over the last decade, few brands have leveraged that popularity for national expansion. Texas-based Dickey’s Barbecue Pit is by far the largest barbecue chain, but aside from Ohio-based City Barbeque, few other concepts have grown beyond a local or regional footprint.
Mills thinks barbecue is perfectly suited for today’s restaurant environment.
“Fortunately for us, we’re coming into a time where convenience and takeout and certainly delivery are shaping our business more and more each day,” he says. “I think barbecue as a whole, but certainly we as a company, have positioned ourselves in a way that is ready to take full advantage of that.”
Mills was a record-setting tight end at the University of Tulsa before being drafted by the New England Patriots in 2006. He played for the Patriots, Minnesota Vikings, and Philadelphia Eagles, among other teams, before exiting the league in 2012 to get his MBA at Northwestern University.
He spent a few years working in investment management at Goldman Sachs’ Dallas office before connecting with RibCrib founder Bret Chandler. Mills joined the company in 2017, serving as vice president of strategy before being promoted to CEO and president last May. Now he’s tasked with growing both RibCrib and the company’s better-burger sister concept, Society Burger, which has two locations.
Mills is far from the first professional athlete to stake his future in the restaurant industry. From Shaquille O’Neal (Papa John’s) and Drew Brees (Jimmy John’s, Walk-Ons) to LeBron James (Blaze Pizza) and Dwayne Wade (800 Degrees Wood Fired Kitchen), both former and current players have invested in restaurants either as franchisees, spokespeople, or executives.
Mills suspects the restaurant industry is appealing to athletes as a second career because it doesn’t require years of schooling and training in order to enter the space. Plus, he confesses, there’s one other industry characteristic that complements an athletic career nicely—one that should be a benefit for RibCrib as it pursues national expansion.
“The competitive nature of our business motivates me and makes this fun,” he says.