From Football to Finance
At this juncture, Keys was ready to make the transition from football to finance. Though Keys was a successful athlete, he was rejected by many banks when he applied for business loans to start his All-Pro restaurants.
Keys was told by bankers, “You have an excellent franchising idea, but we’re afraid to risk the money on Negro management.” He was denied loans from greater than ten banks, all for this very reason.
Not one to give up, Keys approached Steelers’ owner, Art Rooney, Sr. who had been very supportive of his efforts both on and off the playing field. Rooney loaned Keys the seed money to start All Pro Fried Chicken on nothing but his word that he would repay the loan. Says Keys, “he (Rooney) was sent from God.” Rooney never accepted repayment of the loan.
Keys eventually left the Steelers in 1967 and went on to play for the Minnesota Vikings and later, the St. Louis Cardinals. Altogether, he spent eight seasons in the National Football League.
He opened the first All Pro Fried Chicken in San Diego , California in January 1967. Keys left his mother in law and brother in law in charge of the store and he returned to the football field. He was then able to approach the banks from a position of strength. The tenacity and doggedness Keys developed on the football field served him well in the business arena.
“I want to be a model for black people who want to go into business for themselves,” Keys said in a 1969 interview in the Christian Science Monitor. He became the role model he hoped to be, and attracted the attention of the nation. Scores of articles on the “Negro athlete turned businessman” appeared in newspapers across the country.
The All Pro Fried Chicken franchisees proved successful. They were turnkey operations buttressed by Urban Talent Development, a training center that provided continuous marketing, accounting, and food preparation advice. Keys understood the importance of training and support, as this was the first business venture for the majority of the new franchisees. The franchise deals were structured so that each of the franchise holders would eventually have equity participation in the company.