When Grown opened its doors in March, many customers were surprised to see that the person behind the counter taking their order and serving them lunch was none other than professional basketball player Ray Allen, the top 3-point shooter in NBA history.
But Shannon Allen says that’s the kind of person her husband, a 10-time NBA All-Star athlete, is. “We’ve been together for 20 years,” she says. “We’re married, we’re partners, we have five children together, and to be in business together has been very inspiring to me. He has such a winning attitude. It’s no accident why some people are truly great at what they do.”
The Miami Heat brought the Allens to South Florida in 2012, where he played for two seasons before stepping away from the game. Her dream was to open an organic, farm-to-fast-food restaurant, and the Allens did that in South Miami earlier this year. Now they have expanded, setting a precedent by becoming the first completely organic restaurant inside a U.S. sports arena.
In September, Grown opened two concessions at Hard Rock Stadium—on the BankUnited Club Level and at Section 148-A, which continues the Grown concept of “Real Food Cooked Slow For Fast People.” “It was great to see people’s reactions knowing that there was an alternative to regular stadium food—a place for vegans, paleos, families with children with food allergies, those looking to stay on their diets,” Shannon says.
She didn’t always aspire to open a restaurant. In Boston at Northeastern University, she majored in music. Shannon Walker Williams started a girl group named Shades with three other women she met at the university. They were signed to Motown Records.
The night before the group’s first single went into stores, she met Ray at a New York restaurant. He had just been picked fifth overall in the 1996 NBA draft by the Minnesota Timberwolves. “He was out celebrating with his family,” she recalls. “It was one of those ‘our eyes met across a crowded room.’ ”
Shannon credits Ray with helping her change her eating habits. Busy traveling with Shades and spending time in the studio, her diet consisted of coffee, Coca-Cola and Cheetos. “Ray was the one that taught me that whether you’re an accountant, a fitness consultant, a teacher or a busy mom, it all starts with what you put in your mouth,” she says.
Referring to Ray, “At 42 years old, you don’t have 3 percent body fat because you’re living off of complex carbs and fried foods. Ray walks the walk, and his commitment to diet and exercise has been for his whole life. He was the one that taught me that to have stamina, you need to eat healthy.”
After they were married, she devoted time to learning about the best foods for high-performance athletes. She started meeting with his team nutritionist and would try to incorporate the suggestions in meal planning. In 2008, the family moved from Seattle to Boston when Ray was traded to the Celtics. She shot a TV series pilot in her kitchen and ended up hosting a show called “The Pregame Meal,” which led to a cookbook of the same name.
That same year, their 17-month-old son, Walker, was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes, again changing the way Shannon looked at food.
It was the incident that planted the seed for Grown.
“I was pregnant and Ray was on the road,” she recalls. “I had the kids out and Walker had a low blood sugar episode. I looked around the highway and I knew I needed to get him something, but I didn’t want to have to get out of the car. I didn’t have time to go into a market, get fresh food, and go home and prepare it. This was a case of ‘needs food now.’ ”
She scrambled for a fast-food option. “But the last thing you want to add in when someone has a medical condition is something processed, or something from a microwave, or something that comes out of the back of a truck,” she says.
There was nothing. “I called a friend who was an executive chef at a restaurant,” she recalls. “I said, ‘I need real food for my son. Can you meet me in the parking lot of the restaurant with four orders of gluten-free, panko-encrusted chicken tenders, and a bowl of chicken tortilla soup, and an unsweetened iced tea?’ ”
She was able to get Walker’s blood sugar under control after spending $63 for the order. “What single mom or a grandparent can afford $63 for what was basically four kids’ meals?” she says.
The crisis passed. Walker was safe. She put the children to bed. She was worn out both physically and mentally from the ordeal. “I remember sitting on the shower floor, pregnant and crying,” she says. “I was so frustrated. I got out of the shower and looked in the mirror and thought, ‘Something has to be done.’ ”
She called Ray: “I said to him ‘no one is going to save us. No one else has the guts to create a fast-food concept that’s healthy and I’m going to do it. Someone needs to do this, so it might as well be me.’ ”
Eight years in the making, Grown became reality when the Allens moved to the area. (Their home is in Coral Gables.) “If you live in a place where it’s always bikini season, people are highly motivated to care more about their bodies, about everyday fitness, about eating right,” she says.
Todd Kiley, the chef whose panko chicken tenders helped get Walker’s blood sugar on track, now oversees the organic menu at Grown—where, yes, the chicken tenders are available.
There’s a lot of Shannon and Ray in Grown, she says. They wanted to create a place for families. “When you walk in the door, it should smell like fresh food, like home cooking,” she says. “We don’t have a fryer or a microwave. We make our marinades, we chop our fresh garlic, and we bake fresh organic breads. We prepare everything on site.”
The doors on the exterior of Kindergarden, an event space inside the restaurant, which is used for community and private events, are from Shannon’s parents’ house in Connecticut. “I asked my dad if he could deconstruct the horse barn and ship them down here for me so I could have a piece of my childhood here.”
She has further plans for Grown but says it’s still too early to talk about them. “It is still a new concept for people, but it’s not anything that people can’t wrap their brains around,” she says. “I had a mother tell me the other day, ‘You know what the best thing is about Grown? I can tell my kids to order whatever they want.’”
8211 S. Dixie Highway, Miami