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It was a scary moment for David Rowe, 40, whose football career at the University of Missouri ended after the Holiday Bowl in 1997.
“You go from four to five years of college with almost every day planned out for you — classes, practices, meetings, games, weightlifting — and then all of a sudden, poof, your career is over,” Rowe says. “Like a lot of people I played with, I didn’t know what I was going to do next.”
Chase Patton, 29, joined the Tigers seven years after Rowe and experienced similar trepidation when his hopes for playing quarterback in the NFL didn’t pan out after graduation.
“The first year was really weird,” Patton says. “Sports was such a big part of my life, and then all of a sudden it was over.”
When former MU student-athletes look for something different to dominate their lives, it’s not surprising many become business owners in Columbia. This is the place where these men and women reached a level of athletic excellence few others do, and by repurposing qualities such as hard work, teamwork, leadership and perseverance, they look to do the same in new arenas.
Laura Lee Brown ran track and field for the Tigers from 2009 to 2011, but she also spent 12 years as a gymnast. She says participating in sports, particularly individual events, pushed her beyond what she thought possible. It’s the same mentality the 25-year-old brings to running Laura Lee’s Healthy Plate out of Wilson’s Fitness on Forum Boulevard.
“It definitely made me very strong willed,” Brown says. “I have competitors, and they don’t want me to succeed. I have bad days, but I still push through. I don’t get defeated. I get creative.”
Brown and Rowe agree sports also teach you how to carry heavy loads. Things aren’t just given to you. You have to manage your time and balance several different responsibilities at once.
“I am a total multitasker,” Brown says. “I think sports helped with that. You can’t just be an athlete. You’re a student-athlete. So you have to do great at school, or they won’t let you be on the team. You also have to do great at the sport, or they won’t want you on the team. There are days now when I can be a smoothie maker one minute or a chef or a manager the next. But it’s doable.”
What’s not doable is returning to the thrill of the games they once played. Sure, there are times they wish for a fleeting taste, like when Patton watches football on TV and thinks, “I can still make that throw.” But then again, Patton says, “A lot of things came about by not having life go how I would have planned it.”
If you ask David Rowe what he remembers about the night he introduced his restaurant to friends and family, he’ll tell you about the hour he spent sitting on top of an air conditioner with questions and doubts churning in his mind.
“By no means was I ready to run a restaurant,” Rowe says. “There’s no way.”
Despite the disastrous trial run, Rowe wasn’t about to walk away. Frustration became resolution in the chill of that December night in 2002. Not all learning processes are smooth, he told himself. Sometimes there are rough spots, even very rough ones. He had to get better. He had to toughen up.
Starting a new restaurant was the next challenge for Rowe to persevere through, like when he walked on to play football at MU even though people thought he was too small, or like when he beat the odds and returned for his senior season after being diagnosed with stage 4 non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
Thirteen and a half years later, few but Rowe remember the not-so-glamorous origins of D. Rowe’s restaurant. If anything, they recognize D. Rowe’s for its steady presence at the corner of Forum Boulevard and Club Village Drive.
“The most rewarding part to date is I’m still here 13 and a half years later,” Rowe says. “A lot of people didn’t think I would be. I say that out loud because it’s crazy enough to think it’s been 13 and a half years. I’ve seen kids when they were 5 years old; now they’re 18 and graduating from high school. I saw them when 10; now they’re 23 and can come in here and have a beer.”
When Rowe started his restaurant three years after finishing his football career with the Tigers, he knew he couldn’t just rely on his name. Too many athletes and celebrities think their name is enough to ensure success. Rowe wanted substance underneath his endeavor, which is why he worked hard on a business plan and finding a good location.
“When Walgreens bought their lot, I was like, ‘OK, that’s going to be a good location,’” Rowe says. “They don’t spend their millions of dollars and do their companywide studies just to pluck those things down in the middle of nowhere.”
Although people call D. Rowe’s a sports bar, Rowe’s intent from the outset was to attract a diverse crowd, including families with children. The walls might be covered with sports memorabilia, and high-definition TVs play Cardinals and Royals baseball games, but he designed the interior so there’s distinct separation between the restaurant and the bar.
“Sports is my background, but I always wanted to be more than a sports bar,” Rowe says. “I didn’t want you to avoid coming here if you had a 5-year-old.”
Rowe also diversified his restaurant with live music, a party room and a catering service, but food accounts for 80 to 90 percent of his business. D. Rowe’s has a basic menu that offers a bit of everything, from a selection of barbecue classics to various pastas and seafood. It’s another attempt to reach a wide demographic.
Still, what Rowe hopes sets his restaurant apart most is his staff. He says his 40 employees make up for all the deficiencies he has hosting, serving, cooking, washing or bartending. He can do those jobs, but they do them better. His wife, Meghan, plays a big role, too, providing support, connecting with the staff and doing different jobs.
“All pieces need to work together,” Rowe says. “It’s like football. You have to get your team on the same page. They have to buy into what your game plan is. If they don’t, the wheels just start falling off.”
This dedication has not only meant longevity in Columbia, but it has also translated to increased profits every year since D. Rowe’s opened. And he’s not done. The 40-year-old wants to make it another 13 and a half years. To reach that mark and beyond, he knows there’s always room for improvement, always something to work on. You can’t get complacent, you can’t coast, even when it’s something you really enjoy doing.
“I’ve had people approach me about expansion and doing another location, but I have no interest in that at all,” Rowe says. “This is all I want. I’m not trying to conquer anything. We’re trying to figure out ways to grow in these four walls. I don’t think we’ve perfected it.”
Laura Lee Brown
Laura Lee Brown never imagined a request to use a refrigerator would be the catalyst for fulfilling a lifelong dream.
She just needed space to store meals and wondered if her employer could accommodate. Wilson’s Fitness Center surprised the 21-year-old business marketing major by offering her space to lease and start a business.
This was March 2012. Momentum had been building to this moment since the previous August, when Brown got a job as a physical trainer for Wilson’s. She noticed her clients weren’t making the kind of progress she would expect, despite training with her three to five days a week. She discovered their eating habits included fast-food stops and gas station visits. But when she stepped in to give one client recipe suggestions, he asked, “Laura, can you just do it for me?” So she did. After the first week, he lost six pounds. Soon other clients wanted the same benefit.
By the time Brown was making meals for 20 clients and maintaining four fridges in a small apartment, she decided Wilson’s offer was a risk worth taking. The result was Laura Lee’s Healthy Plate, which quickly burst to life by providing fresh whole-food meals, protein shakes and vitamins.
In fact, the new endeavor consumed so much of her time, she decided to drop out of MU less than two months away from graduating.
“I’ve always wanted to own a business,” Brown says. “I knew I could always go back to school, but I couldn’t always go back to start a business as easily as this opportunity came up.”
Brown knew age didn’t have to be a hindrance to starting a business. Her brother Michael Brown started McGregor Manufacturing in Ozark, Missouri, at age 18. The best time to struggle and try to make it is when you’re young.
For the first two years, she worked 12 hours a day, seven days a week to help alter the landscape of healthy eating in Columbia.
“What do people think about when they eat healthy?” Brown asks. “They think cardboard. They think it has no flavor. I set out to make healthy food that takes good for everyone, not just myself. And it has really caught on.”
The youngest of nine children, Brown grew up eating fresh foods. There was no exception. A typical meal after gymnastics practice was steak, dark leafy greens, brown rice and a side salad on a plate in the car. There was no McDonald’s. Cheerios was considered junk food.
Although Brown realizes this wasn’t a common experience, she embraced it, especially when she noticed the edge it gave her in sports.
“If you don’t fuel a Ferrari properly, you’re going to have issues,” Brown says.
Brown’s intent is not to be a food dictator who watches your every step and makes you count calories. She doesn’t want it to be a chore. Heck, she even says you don’t have to eat healthy 100 percent of the time.
“My mission is to help people live a healthy lifestyle,” Brown says. “It’s not about a diet. A diet will send you up and down for the rest of your life from miserable to happy, miserable to happy. It’s very frustrating for people. And I want them to know that’s not how they have to live. There’s a balance out there.”
The goal goes beyond performance and weight loss. The 25-year-old wants to hear about parents being able to keep up with their kids or about people sleeping better and experiencing improvements in their energy level.
To achieve this end, she’s created a graduated program. It’s not about having a dependence on Laura Lee’s Healthy Plate. She wants you to take care of yourself. It’s why she offers grocery store tours, cooking demos and kitchen makeovers.
It’s also why she’s transparent about everything she makes.
“I don’t think it takes a mad scientist to figure out how to be healthy,” Brown says.
Brown is quick to admit she has encountered a bigger market than she imagined, even if her efforts to expand to every Wilson’s in Columbia proved premature. She closed all but the main location on Forum after struggling to maintain a consistent and clear message.
This setback hasn’t dampened her desire to franchise and expand outside of Missouri. It’s only refined her focus and pushed her into the future.
“It feels like everything has been leading up to this point in my life,” Brown says. “This is what I’ve always wanted to do, and I didn’t know it.”
Chase Patton was facing an important choice the summer after his sophomore season at MU. Football was important, but it was not the only thing in his life. He was a good student, and he wanted to switch majors and explore the possibility of becoming a dentist.
The chance to shadow Dr. Kent Willett, who had a well-established practice on Chapel Hill Road, turned Patton’s curiosity into possibility. Patton loved the family-like feel Willett created in his office, from the personal pictures hanging on the walls to the way Willett engaged patients, asked about their lives or paused to pray for them.
“What attracted me when I started shadowing is what attracts me still; it’s a comfortable environment where people feel safe, and the care provided goes beyond dentistry,” Patton says.
Now almost 10 years later, Patton, 29, works shoulder-to-shoulder with Willet as an associate dentist in the office. Patton, who attended dental school at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, returned to Columbia in June 2013 to accept the position. Eventually, the goal is for Patton to buy the practice when Willett is ready to retire.
Although he graduated dental school “competent but still very raw,” Patton says he bypassed doing an optional one-year residency after graduating because he knew Willett would be a willing mentor.
Willet reminds Patton of some of the coaches he had growing up. The good ones were selfless. They have your best in mind and work hard to make you succeed. He is especially grateful for how Willett co-branded the 30-year-old practice Willett and Patton, DDS, and involves him in the business side, treating him like a partner even though he doesn’t have an investment.
“He didn’t necessarily need somebody to come in,” Patton says. “But from the day I left for dental school, we had conversations about a transition. I think he wanted to ensure whoever took over was somebody who would carry on the character and core values of the practice.”
The past two years have gone a long way to help build a foundation for the future. Unfortunately, Patton hasn’t had much chance to think back and reflect on everything he’s learned. A month after starting the job, his wife, Ashley, gave birth to their first child. Now a second is on the way.
“There’s been a lot of life transition, and I’ve hardly had a chance to look back,” Patton says. “But I think what they said in school is true: You learn more in the first year you’re out than you do in four years of dental school. You get faster. You get more efficient. Your confidence goes up. So in two years time, I’ve come a long way.”
Patton also tries not to look too far forward. As much as he aspires to be the best dentist he can be, he doesn’t want to rush the timeline.
By giving attention to continuing education and doing the little things with care, skill and judgment, he’s able to build on the foundation set by Willett and keep his focus on what matters most — the person in the chair.
Some of Patton’s most meaningful experiences have been helping patients who are anxious about dental work have a great experience.
“I want to be myself and really care for people,” Patton says. “I don’t want to just go through the motions. Being confident in who you are goes a long way in running a business. If you’re well-trained and confident in what you do, you can pass along that confidence to your patients.”