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Photo of Ari Gejdenson by Darrow Montgomery

Ari Gejdenson never felt at home in the classroom. The soccer player turned D.C. restaurateur only slogged through two years of high school. “I’m not your average learner, but I was very good at sports,” he says. So at age 16 he boarded a plane to Santa Cruz, Bolivia to play for Club Florida—a second division professional team.

Life was good. The teenager earned an annual salary of $38,000 plus perks for doing what he loved. His early career also included a stop in Chile before returning to the U.S. to play for the now defunct Connecticut Wolves and, later, the Baltimore Blast. 

Gejdenson had a scare when he broke his tibia playing in Charm City. The injury took him off the field for about six months. Luckily, his stepfather was coaching the Washington Freedom—a local women’s professional team—and let him train with the team until he was scouted to play in Italy. His time in Italy led not only to the second half of his professional career—but also a career in restaurants. 

While playing for a team in San Gimignano, Gejdenson used his savings to open Ari’s Diner in Florence in 2003. “I opened the diner trying to plan financially,” he says. “There were lots of big stars on my team in San Gimignano—they were broke and I was making way less—so I had to do something.” 

Gejdenson’s diner provided a place for expats to chow down on breakfast food late at night. “I remember clearly the day I realized this is what I want to do,” he says. “I had this crazy homesick American girl come in. She was so miserable, it was difficult to be around her.” Gejdenson fed her blueberry pancakes and a chocolate shake, and she sprung back to life like one of those bathtub grow toys. 

“I watched her become a completely normal, pleasant person, and I was like, ‘I get paid for this?’ This is something I can really do. I used to entertain people by playing a game. Now I entertain by feeding people.” 

Gejdenson also became part owner of Acqua Al 2, down the street from Ari’s Diner. That’s where Gejdenson’s partnerStefano Innocenti encouraged him to “learn how to cook every last thing.” He manned the kitchen there for three years. 

If the name Acqua Al 2 sounds familiar, it’s because that was the first restaurant Gejdenson opened when he returned to his native Northeast D.C. The cozy Capitol Hill spot specializing in pasta opened in 2010. From there, Gejdenson opened Harold Black, Ghibellina, Denson Liquor Bar, and Sotto. Most recently, Gejdenson took over a whole corner of Ivy City with an American rendition of Ari’s Diner, plus Dock FC and La Puerta Verde. Soccer bar Dock FC is special not only because it’s a temple to Gejdenson’s sport, but also because it’s inspired by the original Summers Restaurant in Arlington where he grew up watching games. 

Gejdenson was fortunate to find second career success—something pro athletes, who stare down retirement as early as their late 20s, can’t always attain. Much has been written about the topic, but perhaps the most damning was Sports Illustrated’s 2009 piece reporting that 78 percent of NFL players were struggling financially or bankrupt two years into retirement. And within five years of retirement, 60 percent of former NBA players were broke. The report blamed joblessness and divorce. 

A 2015 Forbes article, “5 Reasons Why 80% Of Retired NFL Players Go Broke,” offers further explanation, such as lack of financial planning, the fact that many players support their entire families, and, most notably, the lack of preparation for a second career. Sure, a few retiring pros fall into broadcast jobs or coaching gigs, but that leaves the majority grasping for meaningful work in entirely new realms.

Retired NHL player Jeff Halpern says players become accustomed to the ebbs and flows of playing seasons. “When that stops, you lose your direction,” he says. The former Caps player says his goal over the course of 14 seasons in the league was to do well enough financially to support an “exciting” second career. He’s found that both as a co-owner of Astro Doughnuts & Fried Chicken and as the assistant coach of the Syracuse Crunch—an AHL hockey team affiliated with the Tampa Bay Lightning. 

Halpern started the doughnut shop with downtown and Falls Church locations with his childhood friend Elliot Spaisman. The pair, who used to stop at Montgomery Doughnuts after hockey practice near the Lakeforest Mall in Maryland, reunited when Halpern was winding down his career. “It was really good for me to focus and use my brain for something other than getting ready for a season or playing,” he says. “Some guys are different. Some can’t wait to kick back.” 

Like Halpern, some athletes are dipping their toes into restaurants before their careers are over, including ’Skins wide receiver Pierre Garçon, who founded Spinfire Pizza, and Nationals first baseman Ryan Zimmerman, who just announced he’s investing in The Salt Line opening near the ballpark this spring. Though years out from retirement, Zimmerman knows it’s tough for athletes to go from having something to do every day for eight or nine months out of the year to having nothing to do. 

“The hardest thing athletes have to do is find something they’re passionate about,” Zimmerman says. He’s always been into food and drink so he calls joining The Salt Line team “just a first step, a way to see if I really like it.” 

Zimmerman, Garçon, Halpern, and Gejdenson are just four current or former athletes with local ties that have found their way into the restaurant industry. They’re joined by the The Dabney’s co-owner and general manager Alex Zink, who won a couple of national championships playing lacrosse at Syracuse University; Former ’Skins quarterback Joe Theismann, whose season-ending leg injury can’t be watched while eating; and former NFL cornerback Eddie Jackson, who finished his career practicing with the Washington team after playing for three other NFL teams.

Some of them are elbow deep in ragu or work the floor as general manager, while others enjoy more cursory involvement by simply lending their name to a restaurant. But they share a common philosophy. While the hospitality industry is high risk and hard work, there are similarities between sports and restaurants that uniquely position former athletes to excel. 

“Restaurants are for a particular breed of people,” Gejdenson says. “For a life of certainty, which is what I think a lot of people look for after a career in professional sports, I imagine it isn’t the best transition.” Yet, “the people who would do best at this job would come from pro sports where they led a team and trusted their teammates.” 

Gejdenson, who still plays soccer in three amateur leagues, allows his sports sensibilities to inform how he runs his restaurant group. For example, he treats Ari’s Diner as a training camp for his other restaurants. “Part of the purpose of this one is to give a first step into the service industry so we can then promote them from within,” he explains. He wants his cooks to learn to fry an egg before tackling the art of al dente pasta. 

Like Gejdenson, Zink is attracted to the team and goal-oriented facets of the business. “I love the tangible aspect,” says Zink, who attended culinary school after graduating. “It’s similar to the field. There’s a daily goal to get better, execute, and come in with a game plan.” He could never see himself crunching numbers at a computer. “The immediate gratification is amazing. If I can play in front of 40,000 people on ESPN, I can serve 150 people a night.”

Then there’s Jackson, who goes by “Fit Chef Eddie” because of his commitment to post-career wellness. He has a Caribbean food truck where he’s based in Houston and has appeared on several Food Network shows. He won Next Food Network Star and is the host of BBQ Blitz and Kids BBQ Championship. He went into food because he believes it goes hand-in-hand with sports.

“I’m willing to bet 99 to 100 percent of athletes—their key to success is food and taking care of their bodies,” he says. “Most were raised by their mothers and fathers around food. I would recommend doing something with food whether it’s the restaurant industry or a food truck. It’s a reliable industry for former pro athletes.” 

While Theismann says sports teach the kind of discipline and respect required to succeed in restaurants, “reliable” isn’t a word he would use to describe the industry. Captain Bubbly first dipped his toe in the business with Theismann’s Restaurant and Bar in Alexandria. When it opened in 1975, he was still a third string quarterback. 

Impressively, that restaurant is still kicking, but a handful of others folded. “A lot of guys furthered their education through MBAs,” Theismann says. “If I had gotten an MBA, it would have been cheaper than the number of restaurants I sold and suffered through.” 

It didn’t help that Theismann had a fun but money-draining deal in place back when he was still playing. “If there were no sacks in a game, I would bring the offensive line down for dinner,” he says. That’s about eight 300-pound guys ordering carte blanche. “It got very scary because they don’t just order one steak.” He ultimately changed his policy to cover only the first meal. “After that, you’re paying because I need to be in business.” 

Theismann is constantly approached by athletes interested in opening a restaurant. “I say no, you don’t understand the amount of time it takes on a daily basis. Even if you just have your name on it, it’s so critical who you surround yourself with.” 

At this point, Theismann’s partner Vernon H. Grandgeorge drives operations, but Theismann says he’s in the restaurant every couple of weeks. “If you put your name on it, people expect to see you,” he says. “But there are only so many autographs you can sign. Then you have to rely on the quality and the price of the food.”