SANTA MONICA, Calif. – First he brought high-end coffee shops and movie theaters to blighted areas, now Earvin "Magic" Johnson is adding gourmet hamburgers to his menu of business ventures with the purchase of the Fatburger restaurant chain.
The former Los Angeles Lakers basketball star said Tuesday he and fellow investors plan to open more than 100 new stores nationwide in both urban and suburban areas, a marked change from his past focus on revitalizing inner-city areas.
"We're still about the urban community, but sometimes you have to venture out," said Johnson. "We're going to do what Fatburger has been doing, but we're just going to take it to another level because a lot of people still don't know about Fatburger."
Terms of the acquisition were not released.
Through his Johnson Development Corp., Johnson has worked to bring economic development to troubled urban areas by opening up his trademark Magic Johnson Theaters, Starbucks coffeehouses and T.G.I. Fridays restaurants.
The nearly 50-year-old Fatburger, which was founded in Los Angeles, has 47 restaurants in California, Nevada, Arizona and Washington. New locations are planned in California and Nevada along with 12 other states in the next five years.
Johnson and fellow investors said they don't expect the economic slowdown to hurt their expansion plans, given that people "still have to eat" and may be getting tired of the mainstream fast-food chains.
Billing itself as "the last great hamburger stand," Fatburger touts its burgers as "gourmet." Johnson fans flocked to the crowded Santa Monica restaurant Tuesday where they bellied up for free food as old rhythm-and-blues selections played from the business' trademark jukebox.
Johnson said he has been flooded with calls from some 30 fellow athletes and celebrities looking to run Fatburger franchises, but he wouldn't reveal any of their names. Anyone who wants one of the few franchises he will make available, he said, must be capable of running the business properly and won't get into the business on star power alone.
"What I've done now guys want to do, but they don't know how," Johnson said. "We're trying to protect the brand at all costs."
Kenneth Lombard, president of Johnson Development Corp., said the investors will look at putting Fatburgers in new kinds of locations.
"We're looking in airports. We're going to do a lot of things," Lombard said. "We're going to have a very aggressive rollout plan."
Johnson, who has always been proud of his fitness level and low body-fat ratio, rejected suggestions he's presenting an inconsistent image by promoting food considered less than healthy. The restaurant offers turkey burgers and may consider offering vegetable-based burgers, he said.
"I eat them all over. I'm a turkey burger guy," Johnson said. "Those health-conscious people -- we've got them covered."