Spurrier's Gridiron Grille delays opening as Gators great's restaurant struggles to find employees

John Henderson
The Gainesville Sun

As the old sports adage goes, it's not about the X's and O's, it's about the Jimmys and Joes.

For former University of Florida football coach and player Steve Spurrier and his new Gridiron Grille in Gainesville's Celebration Pointe, that old saw couldn't be more apt: the Head Ball Coach, who built successful teams through the 1990s on the field that now carries his name, is finding it hard to recruit enough employees to open his restaurant to the public.

The restaurant's opening has been delayed by several months as it, like others across the country, struggles to find enough staff. 

Spurrier's Gridiron Grille at Celebration Pointe in Gainesville Fla. June 2, 2021.

The restaurant is having a particularly hard time hiring enough people because of its sheer size. The building is 18,600 square feet, and 375 employees are needed to open at full capacity, said managing partner Freddie Wehbe.

“We are trying to be very selective and build a solid team,” he said. “Coach wants a five-star team on board. And it’s been very, very difficult. But we won't open until we have a full staff and we are working hard on it.”

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The restaurant, with a capacity for 525 customers that will make it the ninth-largest in the state, was supposed to open in May. The opening has been delayed most likely until late July, Wehbe said.

Spurrier's Gridiron Grille includes three bars serving both indoor and outdoor patrons, including the rooftop "Visors Tailgate Bar."

Photos of the Head Ball Coach Steve Spurrier will line the walls in one of the dining rooms at Spurrier's Gridiron Grille at Celebration Pointe in Gainesville Fla. June 2, 2021.

It also has three private dining rooms. The largest, which seats up to 50, adjoins a collection of UF sports memorabilia to include Steve Spurrier's own Heisman Trophy and collection of iconic visors.

Wehbe said so far they've only been able to hire between a third to a half of the staff that is needed.

“We need at least 120 more to open just the first floor of the restaurant,” Wehbe said “We are working on it.”

More applications have come in since the state recently announced that it will end the $300-a-week federal unemployment boost on June 26.

Also hurting the hiring numbers is the fact that this is the slower summer semester, so there are fewer students in the hiring pool, Wehbe said.

“We’re starting to see a little bit of movement this week,” he said. “We’re hoping with changes in unemployment rules that more people will apply and we can open the whole restaurant. We were supposed to be open right now.”

Wehbe said they are hiring those with and without restaurant experience. He said they offer better pay than most local restaurants for all positions.

To train those who have been hired, employees have been serving people at private events in the building, he said.

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The business has strong support from the University of Florida and other local businesses that have pledged to hold events there, Wehbe said.

He said their market research shows that a restaurant this size will make it in that location in Gainesville.

“Part of our strategic plan is to make sure we don’t fail,” he said. “Coach doesn’t want us to fail. University athletics doesn’t want us to fail, The UF Foundation doesn't want us to fail."

He said the grille is so much more than a restaurant.

"It’s going to be a hub for the Gator Nation," he said.

Local companies were contacted about what features they would like incorporated into the restaurant for their corporate events, and those events should boost business, Wehbe said.

The restaurant also features a video room where corporate meetings, birthday parties and private dinners can be held.

The business is also considered a museum, Wehbe said and will be advertised as such on billboards on Interstate 75.

It is chock full of Spurrier’s trophies, pictures, documents and memorabilia. Among them are his 1966 Heisman Trophy, the football he kicked for the winning field goal in 1966 when UF defeated Auburn at homecoming, his first UF coaching contract, and a display of Spurrier's famous visors.

Head Ball Coach Steve Spurrier's 1966 uniform on display at Spurrier's Gridiron Grille at Celebration Pointe in Gainesville Fla. June 2, 2021.

The restaurant also includes a glass-enclosed broadcast room for podcast and radio shows, and Spurrier is expected to occasionally man the booth.

“Coach (Dan) Mullen will be podcasting from here,” Wehbe said. “All the sports talk you listen to in Gainesville will be broadcasting from here.”

National network sports personalities have agreed to broadcast shows from the room, he said.

Farm-to-table fare

The menu, according to the company's website, is American casual, and will incorporate some of Spurrier’s favorite foods, including avocado-topped burgers, grilled chicken, seafood, pasta, salads and desserts inspired by his wife’s recipes.

Many of the ingredients will come from local farms, Wehbe said.

Meals will be cooked shortly after the produce and meats and seafood are brought in from local farms, Wehbe said.

The restaurant also should be a draw for tourists, and people from all over the state have already taken tours.

“I’ve given about 480 tours,” Wehbe said. "I tell coach this all the time. Sometimes he joins us. I’ve had people come from Dallas, Naples, Key West, Melbourne, Columbia (South Carolina) and Georgia.”