NFL veteran Mike Lodish builds a peanut brittle empire

In a sprawling manufacturing facility in an industrial park in Warren, Mich., Mike Lodish cuts a ­curious figure as he strides across the factory floor. An imposing 6 feet 3 inches and 275 pounds, Lodish wears a white lab coat and a hairnet over his gleaming bald head as he strolls the production line, towering over the contract workers who are cooking, cooling, and packing delicate chunks of his signature product. Leaning over a copper kettle of bubbling, golden brown syrup, Lodish inhales the wafting scent—the caramelizing sugar smell of a campfire marshmallow roast gone wonderfully awry.

The vat of liquid candy will yield 40 pounds of Lodish’s Champion Brittle, a family-recipe confection that Lodish has turned into an entrepreneurial ­
focus. After 11 years in the NFL, Lodish has graduated from the crunch of colliding with an opponent’s shoulder pads to the crunch of biting into a chunk of peanut brittle.

At Pat’s Gourmet LLC, named after Lodish’s mother, Lodish calls himself the COE: chief operating officer of everything. He wears every hat there is: overseeing the books with his accountant, making sure operations run smoothly, being director of sales. And he aims to elevate Pat’s from regional business to national brand. “Launching a small business is much tougher” than playing football, Lodish says. “I’ve gotten my MBA essentially by doing this.”

Lodish, 47, is best known as a walking, talking answer to a trivia question: He was the first to play in six Super Bowls (a record that quarterback Tom Brady tied this year). Lodish won two of those games with the Denver Broncos, after the 1997 and 1998 seasons, having lost four with the Buffalo Bills. If his name doesn’t ring a bell, that’s not surprising: Lodish, an all-conference defensive tackle at UCLA, was undersize for his position in the pros and spent most of his NFL career as a backup. “I was a drone in the beehive,” he says.

Patriots v Broncos Lodish won two Super Bowls with Denver, after losing four with Buffalo.Photograph by Brian Bahr — Getty Images

After retiring in 2000 and completing his college degree—with a minor in business administration—Lodish went home to Michigan and tried a few different careers. He got the inspiration for his peanut-brittle path when he saw a commercial for LegalZoom, a company that helps small businesses with legal paperwork; the ad featured Janet Long, a fellow UCLA alum who brought her mother’s toffee recipe to market.

To succeed in the food business, you have to offer something unique, and Lodish believed he had that in his mother’s brittle, from a family recipe going back several generations. (Pat Lodish estimates she’s been making it for nearly half a century.) The brittle was also a tribute to Pat, whom Lodish credits with imparting his work ethic. “I was a champion in football, and my mom is my champion in life,” he says.

Pat’s nickname, tellingly, is General Patton. “I like to be accountable for my actions,” she says, “and I try to instill that in my children.” That sometimes meant curbing Mike’s entrepreneurial drive. His first love was hockey, and his father, an oncological surgeon, would give him rolls of medical tape to use for his ankles and shin guards. At age 10 or 11, Lodish built a side business selling tape to teammates who’d forgotten theirs; he was busted after a well-meaning hockey mom came to Pat and thanked her. “I made him give back their money, every penny of it,” Pat says.

“That was probably the start of my entrepreneurial endeavors,” Lodish says with a grin. These days, those endeavors win Pat’s approval: His brittle, available in three flavors, is stocked regionally in about 30 metro Detroit specialty food stores, including local Whole Foods (WFM) stores.

Getting it there wasn’t easy. Lodish launched the company in September 2011 with an initial investment of $16,000; it took 14 months to get the product to market. He started by doing market research, sampling 150 other recipes, but decided none could improve on his mother’s. Pat’s product is lighter than typical brittle, with air bubbles that give it a satisfying crunch. That, Lodish says, is a function of the precise time and the temperature at which it is cooked, both of which are top secret. Factory visitors (including reporters) are required to turn away at crucial points in production.

Lodish runs a taste test at the factory where he makes his peanut brittle.Photograph by Nick Hagen

But Lodish also realized his product was highly marketable as a locally made, relatively health-conscious treat. The recipe is vegan—no butter or dairy—and ­gluten-free. And Lodish’s football fame gave the product a built-in local appeal.

The company makes a profit, says Lodish, and volume has almost doubled since the brittle’s debut, with the company selling 700 to 1,000 pounds a week (at $7 a pound). But for now, though he’s the sole full-time employee, Lodish doesn’t pay himself a salary; he’s living off savings and a side job while he plows his gains back into the business. He’s hoping a bigger company will invest in the brand and expand it nationwide.

In the meantime, he’s learned a lot of lessons—especially about salesmanship. “Once I get in front of somebody face-to-face, I can pretty much close ’em,” Lodish says. Spiro Liras, who runs the Warren manufacturing facility, says of Lodish, “He’s very witty, very quick on his feet … beating on people’s doors and getting [the brittle] on the shelves.”

Lodish credits athletics with giving him the discipline to be an entrepreneur. But he has found his Super Bowl losses to be as important as the wins. “You need the disappointment in order to teach you and to test your resolve,” he says. “Losing four Super Bowls taught me to say, ‘You know what? Don’t ever give up, keep going, there’s always another day tomorrow.’ ”

A version of this article appears in the August 1, 2015 issue of Fortune magazine with the headline “An NFL veteran tackles a sweet new gig.”

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