By Alexa Epitropoulos | firstname.lastname@example.org
After 32 years in business, Theismann’s Restaurant and Bar in Old Town has new ownership. Restaurant founders Vern Grandgeorge and former Washington Redskins quarterback and restaurant namesake Joe Theismann recently sold an equity share to Alexandria Restaurant Partners, the group that owns The Majestic, Vola’s and Palette 22 and manages Lena’s and Virtue Feed & Grain. The sale is set to close within the next few weeks.
Though the ownership change is imminent, the restaurant’s 85 staff members, including General Manager Jordan Willis, will remain, as will the restaurant’s famous name. Grandgeorge will continue as an equity partner.
The possibility of a sale was first introduced in May of last year when former Mayor Bill Euille scheduled a meeting between Grandgeorge and the restaurant group’s owners, Scott Shaw, David Clapp and Dave Nicholas. Although Grandgeorge and Theismann weren’t considering selling part of the business at the moment, the possibility had always been at the back of their minds.
“I had gotten offers of some sort, but I was worried about how staff would be handled. These people have worked for me for a lot of years – some of them 25, 35 years,” Grandgeorge said. “They’ve had incredible longevity and they became like family. I’ve been part of restaurant sales where new management came in and changed everything to their liking and failed. Then those people, those families lose their jobs.”
Grandgeorge said the partners addressed those hangups in an initial meeting.
“I started listing them one by one, starting with our employees, and [Shaw] just said ‘It’s your employees that are impressing me. The service is good. The food is good. I want each and every one of them to remain.’ We talked about benefits because I offer benefits. He just checked every box,” Grandgeorge said.
Theismann, when approached about the deal, was cautious about what it would mean for the restaurant’s reputation.
“Vern has run this operation for a number of years and run it fabulously,” Theismann said. “I have my name on it and he has done a fabulous job creating what we think is an institution here in Alexandria. … He’s been an unbelievable partner for 42 years. I wouldn’t want to trust what we have built over that period of time to just anyone.”
Theismann said he was won over by the restaurant group’s local ties and focus.
“It’s not like we’re creating a partnership with someone who is alien to this area. We are basically going to pick up a local partner. We are still an Alexandria restaurant. This is our home – it’s been our home for a lot of years,” Theismann said.
Theismann said it was time to pass the torch onto another partner – one that can take the restaurant into the future.
“Vern and I, we’re not getting any younger and we want to be able to carry on the tradition. You want people to be able to continue to enjoy the experience,” Theismann said.
“… Scott and Dave and David have a lot of enthusiasm, a lot of energy and it kind of wears off on you. We got excited about it and we started talking about it possibly being the next generation of Theismann’s,” Grandgeorge said.
The first Theismann’s Restaurant in the region opened in 1975, a year after Joe joined the Redskins’ roster from the Miami Dolphins. The restaurant’s Old Town location opened in 1986, the year after he retired due to an injury.
In 1975, Grandgeorge and his wife, Susan, had recently invested $5,000 in a
restaurant concept that was searching for a celebrity athlete’s brand recognition. The
restaurant’s other investors had originally wanted to name it Bill Toomey’s, a track and field athlete who won the decathlon in 1968, but that idea fell through. The ownership also considered Jim “King” Corcoran, a quarterback who played for a number of different leagues from 1966 to 1975.
Attention eventually turned to Theismann, who was far from the team’s most popular player at the time, having positioned himself against then-Redskins quarterback Sonny Jurgensen and second stringer Billy Kilmer. He famously posited to reporters that he wanted to start before both of them.
“I’ll never forget sitting down with Vern. … He said, ‘Look, you came into town, you want the [quarterback] job, but people don’t like you because what you said. Why would we put your name on a restaurant?’” Theismann recalled. “I said ‘You have to look at it this way – things can only get better from here.’”
Grandgeorge decided to take the chance. The two opened the first Theismann’s restaurant in May 1975 with 23 other investors. Though the growth was gradual, the restaurant stayed afloat and Theismann never lost hope that the trend would continue – he bought out investors one by one until he and Grandgeorge were the only shareholders left.
“I didn’t consider it a leap of faith at all. Vern has a very unique talent to be able to lead people, to communicate with people. He has all the traits that you want in a person with a leadership role. He has vision. That vision has continued to evolve. We evolved.
With each restaurant, it was different,” Theismann said.
At its peak, Theismann’s had six locations across the region. The restaurant chain celebrated several milestones along the way, many of them tied to Theismann’s football career. Business spiked during the season the Redskins won the Super Bowl in 1982.
“What’s neat about it is I can still see how it was when we started here 32 years ago.
I can still walk in and see the pile of dirt where we were going to put the bar in the back room,” Theismann said. “I can remember all the time we spent remodeling the place and the vision we had. … At the time, we were one of only two retail establishments here. There were no hotels. There were no condominiums or a U.S. Patent Office or a federal courthouse.”
Though the neighborhood has changed since then, Shaw said it’s the restaurant’s rich history and reputation that drew them into investing.
“The thing for us is it’s a successful restaurant with a phenomenal reputation and a great team who have been here for a long time and were still committed,” Shaw said. “It has this great culture that kind of ties it all together.”
Shaw and Clapp said the restaurant group isn’t sure what changes it will make as time goes on.
“We mean this from the heart. We have no preconceived ideas about what changes might happen this year, next year or four years from now,” Shaw said. “We share the same philosophy as Vern. You have to have that philosophy in the restaurant business. You’re always self-critical, paying attention to the trends, figuring out how it needs to evolve. We have no preconceptions.”
“We do have some rules – number one is do no harm,” Clapp said. “We don’t want to come in here and try to change everything. We want to come in and learn and watch. The people who are running and operating it have been doing so very successfully and for a very long time.”
As for Theismann, he still plans to visit the restaurant for meals, and his hopes for the restaurant endure.
“When you take over someone’s name, I think it’s different than just taking over a restaurant operation because, yes, the operation in here is important, but I also work very hard to maintain the reputation to be able to do good things in the city, good things in the Washington area,” Theismann said. “ … I’m very excited to enter into this partnership and this relationship. The future of Alexandria is bright. We want to be a continuing institution here for a number of years.”