I was down in Central Florida earlier this year working a trade show with my colleague, John. We had finished setting up our booth and decided to go get something to eat. We asked the concierge at the Marriott World Center where a good place to get a burger would be. Of course, he suggested the restaurant at the hotel, but we'd eaten there a couple days earlier and it was not very good - and we told him. Switching tactics, the concierge then told us about a place that wasn't too far away from the hotel - a burger joint by the name of Shula Burger. Hmmm... That sort of sounds like Shula's Steak House. Turns out that it's under the same ownership.
Don Shula is a legendary Super Bowl-winning coach and a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. While still a coach for the Miami Dolphins, Shula entered a partnership with William Graham whose family owned a large plot of land north of Miami that they were developing into Miami Lakes, a planned community with housing, shopping, entertainment and restaurants. In 1989, the Graham Companies opened a resort and golf course and Don Shula lent his name to the property. Inside the Don Shula Hotel was the first of what has turned out to be over a dozen Don Shula's Steak House restaurants in nine states around the nation. (Although there are two in the Chicago-area and one in Indianapolis, I have yet to dine at a Shula's Steak House.)
One of Don Shula's sons, David Shula - also a former NFL head coach - joined his father in 1994 to help develop more Shula Steak Houses and other concepts such as Shula's 347 Grill, Shula's 2, and Shula's Bar and Grill located in four Florida airports. Don and Dave Shula (pictured right - photo courtesy Miami Herald) came up with the concept of a fast casual gourmet burger joint that would be franchised primarily in Florida and the Southeast. The first Shula Burger opened in Islamorada in the Florida Keys in later 2012. That location has since closed, but there are now five Shula Burger locations in Florida.
The Kissimmee location was the second of the Shula Burger franchise locations to open. It's owned by Kevin Gowen, an Orlando/Kissimmee area resident who also owns AmeriFactors Financial Services. Gowen, a lifelong fan of Don Shula's - both as a coach and his highly successful steak houses - opened the Kissimmee location in October of 2013 along with his son, chef Peter Ferrand. Gowen holds the franchise license for the Orlando/Kissimmee area and plans on eventually opening four more Shula Burger locations in the area.
The Kissimmee Shula Burger is located in a strip mall along Irlo Bronson Memorial Highway, not far from the main entrance to Walt Disney World. (see map) Coming from the east, the GPS was trying to take us well past the restaurant, then having us double back to get to the restaurant. But it turned out that there was a left turn lane that took us right into the shopping area in which Shula Burger is located.
Going into Shula Burger, there's a large inside dining area that has kind of a contemporary industrial look to the place. The decorations were sort of spartan - a large cutout of Don Shula in his playing days 60 years ago adorned the wall along with a quote from Shula during his coaching days. But it was tasteful and comfortable.
The menu at Shula Burger is located on the wall behind the ordering area. The menu features a number of specialty burgers including Don Shula's favorite - the Don - which consists of a burger patty and a hot dog topped with condiments, American cheese and an onion sauce. The Southwest burger is topped with roasted sweet corn, black bean salsa, char-grilled red onions, roasted tomatoes, lettuce, pepper jack cheese and a chipotle spread. The French Onion burger comes with caramelized onions, double gruyere cheese, garlic mayo and crushed garlic croutons, while the California burger is topped with sliced avocado, cucumbers, tomatoes and lettuce greens marinated in a balsamic vinaigrette. In addition to burgers, Shula Burger also features chicken breast sandwiches, turkey and veggie burgers, a steak sandwich and a number of salads.
When it was time to order, we were greeted by the location's manager - or coach, as it said on the badge on his shirt. A very nice guy, he kind of gave us the rundown as to the different things on the menu. When I ordered my burger, I wondered if getting a single would be enough or if a double would be too much. He said the burgers at Shula Burger start out at 5 ounces before cooking. He tried to talk me into getting the double, but I ended up ordering a single. I also ordered a Lagunitas IPA to go along with my burger.
After you order at Shula Burger, they'll give you a number on a plastic tent card that you put on your table top and they'll bring the food to you. Being that the weather was so nice outside - almost hot - and that two Northerners were enjoying the warmth while escaping the bone-chilling cold back home, we sat in the covered patio area at Shula Burger. In fact, most of the people in the restaurant that day were seated outside.
A young man brought our burgers out to us. The brioche buns that crowned our burgers were branded with a cursive "Shula" similar to their logo. A pile of sea salt French fries that I ordered as a side to go with my burger shared the small metal plate.
I had gone the "build-your-own" route for my first foray with Shula Burger - a single patty topped with double-cut bacon, pepper jack cheese, sautéed mushrooms, red onion slices and hamburger dill pickles. The burger was flat grilled and I could tell by looking at it that I should have gone for the double. The patty was pretty thin, but was still juicy on the first bite. The bacon was thick, but there were only a couple small pieces. The brioche bun had a crunchy outer shell and a nice spongy inside. Overall, this was a pretty good burger.
John went the Barbecue burger route - it was topped with double cut peppered bacon (much more bacon on his than what I got on mine), cheddar cheese and some barbecue sauce. He also went with the sea salt fries and got a Southern favorite - sweet tea - for his drink. John said that he thought his burger was good, but then he said, "Honestly, a ham and cheese sandwich on plain white bread would taste good as long as we're sitting outside in Florida." I fully understood what he meant by that.
The manager came out to check on things and he asked how the burgers were. We both told him that ours were good, but then I told him that he undersold me on the double versus the single. He said, "I thought you'd probably like to go with the double, but I don't like to push people in their decisions."
There's another upscale fast casual burger chain out of Florida called BurgerFi that is rapidly growing across the U.S. (Click here to see my entry on BurgerFi.) Shula Burger is just a mimic of BurgerFi, down to the branded burger bun. I thought the sea salt fries at Shula Burger were just all right - they weren't anything special. (Certainly not as good as the Cajun fries at BurgerFi.) But the burger was good at Shula Burger - above average good, in this case. It was good to give it a try, but I think I'd still seek out a Five Guys for a fast casual-style of burger before I'd go to a Shula Burger.