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Bread, business, and branding: A New Times Q & A with ex-NFL star Keyshawn Johnson 

click to enlarge PHOTO BY RHYS HEYDEN

Keyshawn Johnson—a star NFL wide receiver for 11 years and an ESPN football analyst for the seven years since—is anything but camera shy. Ever since his days of catching footballs waned, Johnson’s new business has been, well, business.

On Dec. 5, Johnson was in Arroyo Grande to celebrate the opening of a new drive-thru Panera Bread on West Branch Street that he co-owns.

Johnson, 41, is the CEO of First Picks Management, a business development company funded with seed money from professional athletes. First Picks, founded in 2005, has holdings in a video production company, a vineyard, “Keyshawn, Inc,” luxury hotels, franchise and development rights for several restaurants and stores, and a cloud computing company.

Johnson was in full-fledged press relations mode at the grand opening on Dec. 5, chatting amiably with Arroyo Grande High School football players, posing for pictures, cracking jokes, and sitting down for multiple media interviews. New Times had a chance to speak with Johnson, and the conversation is posted below.

The Panera Bread at 1390 W. Branch St. in Arroyo Grande opened to the public on Dec. 6.

New Times: So, as far as I can tell, you’re got holdings in a video production company, Panera stuff, Keyshawn Inc., a vineyard in Oregon, Cold Stone Creamery stuff, luxury hotels, cloud computing, and ESPN. How do you balance all of that?

Keyshawn Johnson: It’s all the same thing. It’s all under the same umbrella. It’s not as big as it sounds, I guess. There are people who are all kind of working together to make everything flow, and I’m more of the CEO of the company [First Picks Management] and I deal with big picture stuff. I’m not here doing the construction of Panera or watching them jackhammer the floor open. I’m finding the site, approving the site, looking at the numbers, approving the top managers, those sorts of things.

NT: It seems like you’re mostly centered out in California, so you must be making a lot of flights between here and Bristol, Conn. [ESPN Headquarters], right?

KJ: Oh yeah. I live in LA, and I fly back to the East Coast, let’s see, eight to 10 times a month, round trip. It’s a lot.

NT: How did you decide you wanted to start First Picks?

KJ: Well, I started First Picks in ’04 and ’05, so towards the end of my career. Then I was in Carolina in ’06, and I played for six months and then I retired. It was kind of like one of those deals where I woke up and I said “I don’t want to play football any more.” I was tired, I had played 11 years, and I wanted to start my career. I wanted to start building the brand, and, when I’m 50, I want to sell of my brand and I want to ride off into the sunset (laughing).

NT: I think that sounds like a good plan, man. What was the best advice you got in the NFL about starting your career, the career after your career?

KJ: Just to pay attention to what’s going on around you, for the most part. I think I’ve done that pretty well. Take care of your money, make sure that you’re doing things wisely for the future, just all the same bullshit spiel that you get, but a lot of times people don’t listen to that. I was listening to the people as they were telling me, I didn’t pooh-pooh it and say “Man, I don’t want to hear that shit.” I actually followed through and paid attention to it.

NT: So, why Panera Bread, and why Arroyo Grande?

KJ: Well, when I first started getting into this franchising business several years ago, Panera was and still is a quality business. It employs people, you make money, and it’s a great company to work with. We looked, initially, at probably 50 or 60 different companies to partner with when we were first starting, and I made the decision that we’re going to deal with Panera. I like the food, and it was something that just fit in the various communities we were focusing on. As far as Arroyo Grande, we’re already in San Luis Obispo and Santa Maria with Panera, so we put one right in the middle. About 50 or 60 new jobs will be created with this store in this community, which is always a plus. Not only that, you help build and be a part of the community. It was something that was missing in this area, there aren’t a lot of drive-thrus, and it was all sorts of positive things that just kind of rolled together.

NT: So, you have a B.A. in social sciences and history from USC, that’s what Wikipedia told me … .

KJ (interrupting): Man, Wikipedia doesn’t know shit (laughing).

NT: Yeah, isn’t that true? I mean, you did graduate, though, so how do you feel you’ve been able to apply what you learned at USC to your life?

KJ: I think, in college, you just learn a skill set. Everybody goes to school thinking they’ve going to do something, and it’s like, no you’re a fucking mechanic. That’s what you’re going to be. “Oh, my math degree,” no, you’re nothing but a mechanic. “Oh, I’m an engineer,” no, you’re a mechanic. “Oh, I’m the this,” no, you’re a schoolteacher. Your life skills are what catapult you to the next level. If you have common sense and life skills, you can go a long ways. You don’t have to be a numbers guy, you can hire those guys, that’s what they’re there for. I think a lot of people over-emphasize the importance of 20 hours of studying or whatever in college. I couldn’t tell you anything I studied in college. You ask me a question about anatomy, I could tell you a few pieces, but that’s it. Anthropology, what’s that? In the business that I’m in, the math that I learned, I’m not doing that. I’m not trying to figure out how many centimeters in this beam, because I’m not the guy doing the construction. I understand it, but I’m not the guy doing it. Common sense. You know, you don’t get in the fucking car and turn it on, put it in reverse, and then hit the gas pedal full speed. It’s common sense. You learn those things.

NT: Alright, last thing, but I’m curious: Were you disappointed with your Dancing With the Stars performance of a few months ago? [Keyshawn was the first contestant eliminated].

KJ: No! Not at all. It gave me the opportunity to step outside the box and do something that I’ve never done before, which was dance. Just because I got voted off as the first guy, I thought, oh shit, I thought I was supposed to be here for a minute, but, that’s just the way it was at the time. It was really social media-driven and I’m not a social media guy. I just got Twitter when I started DWTS. I get like one follower a day, and I think that hurt me. The dancing, though, that was fun.

Staff Writer Rhys Heyden can be reached at


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