The lessons quarterback Bruce Gradkowski learned on the football field at the University of Toledo have translated into his current NFL career and his next venture — opening a restaurant in Toledo.
Gradkowski’s, slated to open in early December, will be part of UT’s Gateway Project, a grouping of shops and apartments near the intersection of Secor Road and Dorr Street.
“A lot of the same things I learned through football are the same things you have to apply in business,” Gradkowski told Toledo Free Press Star during a recent visit to Toledo. It was a bye week for the Cincinnati Bengals, for whom Gradkowski is backup quarterback. “You have to be disciplined, you have to work hard, you have to work as a team. You’ve got to be detailed.”
“I’ve learned just how much goes into it. Nothing comes easy, but to be successful we have to put a lot of time and hard work in and we understand that. That’s the way UT raised me in college, making me realize that.”
Gradkowski’s partners in the venture are Singh Grewal, owner of Arnie’s on Levis, and Mike Graber, most recently managing partner at Biaggi’s in Levis Commons.
Graber will be in charge of daily operations as well as future site development, but Gradkowski said he is closely involved in decisions.
“My partners and I, the three of us, we collaborate on everything,” Gradkowski said. “The thing I like is we don’t have egos. We put the egos aside and whatever idea works best, we’re going to talk about it, see what we think and go at it.”
Gradkowski met Graber while planning his 2011 wedding rehearsal dinner at Biaggi’s. He met Grewal, who played football at UT in the ’90s, at The Ale House, a bar Grewal owned near campus that was popular with students.
“We’re really excited to have him,” Grewal said of Graber. “His expertise with high-end food and the way he runs his restaurants — having him join our team is a very, very exciting thing for us.”
Gradkowski’s will focus on fresh, made-from-scratch dishes featuring an array of “tempting appetizers, hand-cut steaks, pastas, specialty pizzas, salads, burgers and decadent desserts,” Graber said.
“We’re going over and above in every category of food,” he said.
The wine list will feature wines from small vineyards worldwide.
“We have been tasting the wines for the menu for six months now and every one is deserving of a reserve list, but we will pour all of them by the glass,” Graber said.
The atmosphere will be warm, featuring natural woods and neutral colors, with signed photos of University of Toledo legends and local sports figures adorning a dedicated wall in the eatery, Graber said. There will be televisions to watch games and two private rooms for functions.
“Everthing we are doing is based on creating a memorable experience,” Graber said. “From your food to your service and environment to the garnish on your cocktail, we have put a lot of care into every decision made.”
Great food, great atmosphere
Gradkowski said his main focus is offering great food and a great atmosphere, which will draw people from campus and surrounding areas.
“I want college kids to come in and feel like they’re important, they’re grown-up, they’re mature, like, wow, they are eating at a nice place. I want people to feel special, because they belong, because this is their place just as much as it is my place,” Gradkowski said.
“We think of the people on campus, and we think of Ottawa Hills, Sylvania. It’s a chance to bring them on campus to show people who haven’t been here for a while how beautiful it is.”
Gradkowski and his wife, Miranda, met at UT and recently bought a house in Maumee, where they live during the offseason.
“UT’s been so great to me throughout my career here and I’ve loved the campus and that’s why my wife and I can call this place home,” Gradkowski said. “I’m super excited to have a restaurant going up because now it ties me to the university even more.”
Matt Schroeder, vice president of real estate and business development at The UT Foundation, said he’s thrilled to work with Gradkowski and his partners.
“It’s going to be fantastic to have Bruce open just in time for the bowl season and also the NFL playoffs and NBA basketball,” Schroeder said. “His timing couldn’t be better.”
Neither Gradkowski nor Schroeder remember who approached who, but both feel the venture is a perfect match.
“Once we had an opportunity to sit down with Bruce and hear his passion for the university and see his willingness and desire to not only give back to the university, but also this part of Toledo, we were hooked early on,” Schroeder said. “He’s not only looking at it through the eyes of a business investor or entrepreneur, but also through the eyes of a UT graduate. That passion along with his willingness to take some risks really impressed us and made us want to work with him.”
The Gateway Project also includes a Barnes & Noble, Starbucks, Jimmy John’s, Yogurt U, Great Clips, Rice Blvd., Wireless Zone and Lofts at Gateway.
“We at the university are very pleased with the feedback we’ve heard about Gateway, not only verbal feedback, but feedback at the register and the amount of foot traffic that’s out there on a daily basis. That’s been very rewarding,”
Schroeder said. “It will transform not only that part of campus, but that part of Toledo.”
Once Gradkowski’s opens, Gateway will be at 82 percent occupancy, Schroeder said. There are three spaces still available for lease, with one tenant to be announced as soon as this month.
It was originally announced Gradkowski’s would open in August, but Gradkowski said he would rather do things right than rush to open.
“My goal and my plan is to be here for 30 years,” Gradkowski said. “This isn’t just some couple-year thing where we’re trying to come in quick. We want to help the university out and make this campus grow, so we want to make sure we’re building it right and having everything done right now, so it can last for as long as we want to be here.”
“It’s going to be a University of Toledo landmark,” Grewal said. “I can tell when a legend is born. I knew the same thing about Bruce. I know him as a person and as a friend and he’s just one of the greatest guys UT has ever had. Having gone to all the places he’s gone and then to come back to Toledo and give it back to UT, that’s a huge thing for the University of Toledo and for the city of Toledo. I 100 percent believe it’s gonna kick some butt there and it’s going to be big for this university.”
Gradkowski, who grew up in Pittsburgh, said UT was the only school to offer him a Division I football scholarship and he knew it was a good fit as soon as he visited campus. He graduated with a major in business marketing and management and was drafted by the NFL in 2006.
“The moment I stepped foot on campus, I thought, ‘This was exactly what I wanted’,” Gradkowski said. “Now that I’m older I realize football can end any day now and I’m glad I have my degree.”
Gradkowski said hard work will be what sets him apart and gives Gradkowski’s staying power.
“I’ve always felt if you do it right, you’ll succeed. There’s no shortcuts to success,” Gradkowski said. “It’s great how God works that he put this opportunity of a restaurant in front of us. He’s really blessed us.
“It will be like ‘Cheers,’ where everybody knows your name,” Gradkowski said, breaking into song and then laughing. “I hope people love the food and the atmosphere and just come away with a great experience.”
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Tags: Bruce Gradkowski, NFL, Rocket football, University of Toledo