And, Thomas says, he was a little confused by the assortment of flatware at the table settings. Institutionalized segregation and nefarious tradition still kept African-Americans out of white establishments in the South in the 1960s, and his upbringing hadn't included a habit of dining out.
His father scoffed at spending money in restaurants when perfectly acceptable food was available in the home. And the only black-owned eating establishments in town, Thomas says, were "greasy spoons."
James T. Thomas encountered other firsts after his days as a high school football star. He was the first African-American to play football at Florida State University, where he earned a business degree. In 1973, he was a first-round draft pick of the Pittsburgh Steelers, the beginning of a nine-year career in the National Football League during which he achieved All-Pro status.
Two decades after retirement from football, Thomas looks as though he could still intercept a pass or flatten an opposing running back. These days, however, he is more interested in tackling new opportunities in the equally challenging game of the restaurant business -- "maybe because of all those years when I was a kid in Georgia that I wasn't allowed in restaurants," Thomas offers, partly in jest.
Thomas and his partner, Larry Brown, a former Steelers teammate and African-American as well, own 13 Applebee's Neighborhood Grille & Bar casual dining restaurants, operated under a company known as B.T. Woodlipp Inc. and employing more than 800 people. The company has been involved in numerous philanthropic efforts and commits its resources in the communities where it does business, yet Thomas and his partner have retained a low profile since he and Brown incorporated in 1987 to develop restaurants in Pittsburgh.
Sixteen years later and two decades after leaving football, Thomas thinks it's time to make the most of the association with the Steelers.
"A lot of people probably don't even know we're the owners of the restaurants," says Thomas. "We feel it's probably to our advantage to leverage the Steelers connection."
Ola Jackson, an entrepreneur who publishes Onyx Woman, a magazine targeting African-American women, didn't have that luxury of remaining in the background when she launched her business, although she admits that wasn't necessary, since her magazine is aimed exclusively at black women. But she says she understands why Thomas and Brown might have chosen to keep a low profile in a business designed to serve the general public.
"They were smart, in a sense, to let the brand speak for itself," says Jackson.
The restaurant business is a natural choice for him, Thomas says. During his final season in the NFL, spent with the Denver Broncos, he saw a lot of his friends in football going into restaurant ventures. For Thomas, the industry seemed like a comfortable fit.
"I think that kind of focused me on the restaurant business," Thomas says.
And going from sports to the restaurant business isn't an uncomfortable stretch in some respects, he says.
"I think it's kind of similar to what I was doing in sports; you're dealing with people, primarily, and it's kind of entertainment," Thomas says.
"The double whammy"
Being African-Americans posed an obstacle as Thomas and Brown made the transition from sports to business careers, but it wasn't the only limiting factor.
Despite the fact that they were well-known athletes from one of the most storied football teams of all times -- the standard by which all other Steelers teams have since been judged -- they found that their status as professional athletes wasn't necessarily an asset. In fact, Thomas says, stereotypes about athletes can be almost as limiting as negative racial attitudes.
"That was a double whammy," he says.
Thomas says the white business community isn't accustomed to black entrepreneurs, and African-Americans, equally unfamiliar with seeing other African-Americans in business leadership positions, often view black businesspeople with skepticism, sometimes considering them fronts for white-owned enterprises.
Despite their notoriety, bankers took especially hard looks at their business plan, Thomas says, and held them to the most stringent credit standards.
"They're used to business plans," says Thomas. "They're not used to your pigmentation."
It's a cinch that Thomas now knows plenty about the business that was a mystery to him when he was a teen-ager, and he and Brown expect to leverage their accrued experience to expand Applebee's, as well as to spin out a new concept.
Beyond additional Applebee's locations, B.T. Woodlipp is planning to introduce Red, Hot & Blue barbecue restaurants to Pittsburgh, a Memphis-based concept that features traditional Southern barbecue dishes like grilled catfish, beef brisket and barbecued ribs. The first most likely will be in the South Side Works development.
While a formidable number of local and national competitors vie for scarce prime spots in Western Pennsylvania, Applebee's Neighborhood Grill & Bar has snared some of the most desirable retail sites in the area. Thomas says he looks for a dense population within a three-mile radius, proximity to a main artery with heavy vehicle traffic and placement within a cluster of at least 1 million square feet of retail space.
The group can expand easily to 30 stores within its Pennsylvania and West Virginia footprint, Thomas says.
Mentoring and coaching
While negative attitudes toward athletes and racial stereotypes were handicaps at the outset, Thomas gained rich insight into what it takes to run a successful business through his experiences in football.
"Business is trying to get quite a few people focused on a mission, a vision," Thomas says, not much different from what is required from an athletic team to win on the playing field.
Accomplishing it, he says, takes leadership that develops talent and brings it out on the diamond, the gridiron or in the workplace.
Thomas says B.T. Woodlipp has been successful at limiting turnover in an industry that is dogged by it by providing a favorable work environment and outstanding training for its employees. The industry average is 200 percent turnover a year, a factor that increases recruitment and training costs for restaurant operators.
The National Restaurant Association reports the median cost of replacing an hourly worker is about $2,500. The price tag jumps to about $24,000 when it comes to replacing a manager. Thomas estimates it costs between $500 and $2,000 to train servers and kitchen workers, and about $10,000 to train a manager.
"And those are the dollars you can count," he says.
Lost productivity, potential dips in morale because of personnel changes and labor shortages can take their toll, as well.
Thomas says his restaurants have held hourly employee turnover to 80 percent, and turnover for management employees at about 25 percent.
Sports, business and leadership
Patricia Carr, president of Oakmont Consulting Group Inc., does leadership consulting and works with the Washington Wild Things, a Frontier League baseball team, to help businesspeople develop their leadership and coaching skills. She says there are many similarities between successful business leaders and outstanding coaches, and that the teamwork and coaching skills acquired on the athletic field often transfer well into the business world.
"Athletes are used to clearly focusing on the outcomes necessary to achieve to win games," says Carr.
And, says Carr, a good coach gives players feedback, direction, training and discipline, then trusts them to go onto the field and perform effectively, putting their skills to effective use as situations present themselves in the course of a game.
"There is a balance between the discipline and letting people do their job," says Carr. "Once they've practiced that, they're on their own."
That view squares well with Thomas' experience. He says that while he was with the Steelers, Chuck Noll, the Steelers head coach, concentrated on skill development and discipline in training and practice, all the while encouraging players to use their own skill and judgment during the game to accomplish the goal of winning.
Managing a business, while necessary, isn't enough to create a successful enterprise.
"You can manage things, but you mentor and coach people. I'm really not running a restaurant; it took me about six years to figure that out," Thomas says. "What I'm doing is mentoring and coaching people." How to reach: B.T. Woodlipp, www.steelapple.com; Onyx Woman, www.onyxwoman.com; Oakmont Consulting Group Inc., DrPatCarr@msn.com