Skip to main content

Cheeseburgers & Wood Pellets in Paradise?: Mohegan Diversification Goes From Fat to Frying Pan

Mohegan Sun has long been known as one of the hottest spots in Connecticut, but they will be turning up the heat by diversifying their business portfolio with non-tribal casinos, restaurant franchises and more.

Despite a steady annual decline in casino revenues since 2008, Mohegan Tribal Chairman Kevin Brown believes betting on the casino industry is still a sure thing. In 2010, the tribe opened the Mohegan Sun Pocono Downs racino, which combines slot machines and a harness track, in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. Brown stated, “It is not an Indian gaming facility, so it is not on trust or fee land. It is a freestanding commercial venture like any other.” By the end of the year, the tribe may receive licenses for non-tribal gaming facilities in Pennsylvania, Toronto, Massachusetts and the Catskills in New York.

To accommodate the non-tribal ventures, the Mohegan Tribal Gaming Authority will develop a parallel organization. “The Mohegan Holdings, L.L.C. will control all of our non-tribal business ventures,” Brown explained.

The Mohegan Sun Casino and Hotel is a gaming brand that has become synonymous with “Best in Class,” and Brown said they are taking that philosophy to the next level. “There was a story recently that talked about world class gaming outside of Las Vegas, and we were the number one facility named. We are the largest gross revue gaming casino in the western hemisphere, and so what we look for are business opportunities that are also best in breed,” Brown said.

Mohegan Sun

Mohegan Tribal Chairman Kevin Brown stands with a bronze sculpture of his ancestor Mohegan Chief Matahga, Burrill Fielding.

The four new companies joining the Mohegan operations were selected because they have already achieved the highest marks for quality. The tribe signed a franchise agreement with Denver-based Smashburger to develop up to sixteen Smashburger locations across New England, including Rhode Island, Connecticut; and Massachusetts. “Smashburger has been recognized in the fast casual dining arena as the number one, up-and-coming, fast, casual, burger business,” Brown said.

Leaping from the fat to the frying pan, the Mohegans have also signed on for 15 franchise locations with Arooga?s Grille House and Sports Bar restaurants. “They just needed somebody with the wherewithal to blow it out and become bigger,” Brown said.

RELATED: Mohegan Tribe Inks Franchise Deal, to Open 15 Restaurant Locations

And bigger it will be. Arooga’s at Mohegan Sun will be a 9,000 square foot restaurant with separate restaurant and bar areas, a large outdoor deck for dining and fire-pits for social gatherings. It will feature more than 100 big screen televisions, 40 domestic and craft beers on draft and Arooga’s national award-winning food.

Mohegan Tribe

The Mohegan Tribe bought a wood-pellet production company in Ohio as part of an effort to diversify revenue amidst growing competition within the gaming industry.

Scroll to Continue

Read More

The other two businesses are more down-to-earth, as the Mohegans make a stake for a new wood pellet business, ThermaGlo. This company combines a reverence for the earth with a solid business model, the Mohegan announced. The premium certified wood fiber pellet features low ash and high BTU ratings, and will be available for home use as well as industrial customers. “ThermaGlo will meet or exceed the most stringent certifications in the industry,” said Michael Reid, Senior Vice President, Business Development for Northeast Wood Products.

Brown believes there is a strong demand for the wood pellet industry and simply needs world class branding. Brown said. “It is already moving, it’s high end. We look for those businesses that are already recognized as the best or have the potential to become the best,” he added.

The move towards diversification is inevitable and necessary for a number of reasons, Brown said. When he attended the 2014 National Congress of American Indians Conference in Alaska, diversification was a topic of conversation among many tribes.

Philosophically, Brown says the revenues from gaming are an appropriate sort of reparation for harm done to Natives over the centuries. “The Gaming Act and the resultant growth of Indian Casinos have been highly beneficial. We have social welfare now, we have elderly housing, and even tribes that are not well-to-do in regard to the gaming revenues are gaining ground on that.”

Brown also believes business diversification may be a better avenue for self-sufficiency and sovereignty than gaming, Brown said. “By owning a wood pellet plant, by owning restaurant franchises, by owning an office machine business, you are an integrated part of the economy of this nation,” he said.

Bringing the business philosophy closer to home, Brown reflected that the tribe acts today as a modern day version of the way Uncas, the Mohegan tribal founder from the 1600s, did then. He explained, “Take for example the name we chose for the business machine company, Kota-LDI,” the Mohegan’s fourth new venture.

Brown said that Kota is a Mohegan word that means “in close association with.” “If you roll back the clock to the early 1600s, Uncas chose the path of cooperation and conciliation. He recognized that for his own and his tribe’s survival, and for the survival of the settlers, close cooperation was the way to go. That became known as the Mohegan way and it has been passed down for generations. The way we operate as a tribe, the way we operate as a business is we are good teammates, and that’s what we looked for in other organizations,” Brown said.

“When we enter into a business agreement, we are acutely aware that we have to be sensitive about the impacts of our business ventures on the places where we operate them,” Brown said, giving an example of the Mohegan pursuit of a Boston gaming license.

To ensure the impacts of a proposed casino in Massachusetts on local surrounding communities will be mitigated, the tribe has offered $52 million to the twelve surrounding and host communities. “That is a twenty-first century manifestation of Uncas, of breaking arrows with first contact settlers. We are going to do it right, we have to take some of those monies and turn them back into those communities for road improvement, schools, parks, t-ball teams, gambling addiction centers, you name it. That’s how we operate, we are team mates, we cooperate . . . and it is not just because we are trying to get your business, it’s because that is the Mohegan way.”

Brown became Tribal Chairman on October 7, 2013. He served a 25 year career in the army and retired as a colonel. His background includes aerospace engineering, a masters degree in operations research and systems analysis, another masters in public diplomacy, and Lean Six Sigma helped him understand how to efficiently operate a business. He is also a PhD candidate in security studies. But perhaps his most important educational experience came from the time he spent in the Sunni Triangle of central Iraq, west and north of Baghdad. The area is known for anti-American violent resistance during the US occupation there.

“I personally spent years trying to rebuild the country, its governance, its economics, its army and its police force; everything from establishing the charter for what that small town or province might be trying to do, to giving out micro loans to help a young Iraqi cabbie set up a cab business with $2,000 and a cab. I have done that in real time and real space,” Brown said.

As Brown stood in his office, he gestured towards one window, where the river runs past the ancient burial ground of his ancestors. He then gestured towards the right, where the Mohegan Sun Casino and Hotel gleams like a reflection of blue sky upon still waters. After traveling with the military for 25 years, Brown said, “People asked me about all of this responsibility and I can only respond by telling them it is just great to be back home. Without getting into a long discussion of veteran’s stresses and strains, those kinds of things, and add on top of that, the very real responsibility to your tribe and being in public service . . . it’s not daunting, it’s humbling. I am ready for it. It feels right.”