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Jim O’Brien: Former Pittsburgh Steeler Larry Brown builds winning teams at Applebee’s

August 8, 2013

Jim O’Brien: Former Pittsburgh Steeler Larry Brown builds winning teams at Applebee’s

Pittsburgh sports author and Valley Mirror columnist Jim O’Brien

Larry Brown was checking out Applebee’s Neighborhood Grill & Bar in West Mifflin late last month.  It’s one of 13 Applebee’s restaurants he’s responsible for as an owner and officer in a chain linked with Apple American which has over 60 restaurants nationally, based out of San Francisco.

He had called me on the telephone a week earlier while visiting Applebee’s in Monaca, which was closed at the time for renovations. Brown makes the rounds, making sure all is going well and that Applebee’s is at its best.

Brown is a good example of a former Steeler or Pittsburgh pro athlete who went to work – in the real world – as soon as he retired as a player and has made a successful transition to what Chuck Noll always called “your life’s work.”

This was the morning of Friday, June 21, the first day of summer and the longest day of the year.  “All days are long if you don’t love what you’re doing,” said Brown.  “I love what I’m doing.”

Brown has been in the operations end of the restaurant business since 1984, his last season with the Steelers, when he and former teammate J.T. Thomas hooked up with a Burger King outlet and then eventually got involved as owners of several Applebee’s throughout Western Pennsylvania.

He works out of an office in Penn Center East, Wilkins Township.   J.T. Thomas is no longer associated with the company.  He last owned a restaurant – Red Hot & Blue Southern Grill — on The Waterfront in Homestead, but closed it last June..

“The restaurant business is a demanding, highly-competitive business,” said Brown.  “People have a lot of options.  We want to treat our customers the right way, and make it compelling for them to come back to our restaurants.

“Chuck Noll had a saying I am sure you are familiar with: Whatever It Takes.  That’s what I tell our people over and over.  We have to do whatever it takes to do it right, and offer the best dining experience possible.  It also takes teamwork.  I know how valuable it is to create an environment — a culture — that our employees and our customers enjoy.  Some people just endure in the restaurant business.  It’s better if you have a true passion for it.  We are in the service business.  We want to have a winning team.”

Like many of his former teammates, Brown draws upon those experiences to make points with his employees.

“I use the philosophy and mindset every day in business,” continued.  “The sports analogies are always good.  They are a simple way to convey complex perspectives that aren’t always clear otherwise. People get them.

“It’s also highly competitive, like athletics.  You have to overcome adversity.  It teaches you to deal with those kinds of things.  To have the attitude to do whatever it takes to get things done.  You can’t make excuses, just like in the NFL.  If you do, you lose your job.  You can’t find reasons to fail. You can’t accept failure – you’ve got to make your own success to keep your job.”

Brown said he has tried to create the same kind of environment that breeds success in sports in his restaurant ventures.

“You want to provide an opportunity for people to be working for a good purpose, for them and for us.   You’re looking for good people.  Some people just don’t get it and they’re never going to get it.  It takes a special person to handle the rigors of running a restaurant.”

Greg Kiniry, the general manager at Applebee’s Lebanon Church Road location, said, “I’ve worked with Larry Brown for 15 years and I love working for him.  I’m proud to say our restaurant is the most successful one in the chain. We want to keep it that way.”


My wife Kathie and I stopped at Applebee’s Restaurant on Lebanon Church Road in West Mifflin on the way home from KennywoodPark last month.  We had our granddaughters, Margaret, 9, and Susannah, 5, with us.  The place was packed.

I like the atmosphere at Applebee’s because there’s always lots to look at on the walls.  They are filled with nostalgic stuff, artwork, photos and all sorts of interesting artifacts from the entertainment and sports world, with pictures and pennants of the local teams, right down to the local high schools.

They have a new menu and some new features and it’s not hard to find something to like, no matter your age.

Larry Brown says the people who are employed in those restaurants must add their skills and smiles to create an even more appealing atmosphere and dining experience.

“You’re never off duty,” said Brown.  “You be the change you want to see.  You be the one who sets the example.  When you’re a leader everyone is watching you to see what you’re doing.  It’s more important what you do than what you tell them to do.

“You can take a manager from one store and send him or her to another store.  If he or she is mediocre at one store he or she will be mediocre at another store.  If he and she is outstanding at one store he or she will be outstanding at another store.  It matters who is managing the store.

“Everyone in our organization has read the book Winning With Accountability: The Secret Language of High-Performing Organizations, by Henry J. Evans.  It is must reading.”

“It’s hard to understand the phenomenon of the Pittsburgh Steelers of the ‘70s.   What I’m doing today – and in life – is better because I was surrounded by so many good people and we learned from each other.  We benefited from the company we were keeping.”

Brown participated as one of the alumni at the Steelers’ Fantasy Camp that was conducted at Chuck Noll Field at St.  Vincent College in Latrobe a few weeks earlier, the last weekend in May, 2013.

“I wasn’t sure how I’d fit in with that,” said Brown, “but it worked out fine.  I wasn’t sure how to intellectually examine what was going on there, but there were people from all over the world who came to be with us.  Mature people.  Why would they want to do this?  They wanted to go through real football drills.

“They wanted to experience something similar to what we experienced.  They just wanted to tap in on what we did, and to be with us again.  The fans were so much a part of what we accomplished.  It was great to see some of them again.  I admire them for that.”

Jim O’Brien’s latest book in his Pittsburgh Proud series is “Immaculate Reflections.”  His website is and his e-mail address is

One Comment leave one →
  1. August 9, 2013 9:10 am

    How many NFL players today could make the transformation from TE to OT? Larry caught the buzz saw of a pass from Terry in Super Bowl 9 and then went on to be a great RT in the remaining years.
    I remember Larry as the first guy down the stairs at the old United Airlines freight center at Greater Pitt airport. Larry came down the steps with NFL films shooting and along with a friend of mine who were the first two at the bottom of the stairs greeting the players I used my Dad’s press passes and had no trouble walking out to the tarmac and greeting the first time Super Bowl Champs. Times were different.

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