Henry “Hank” Aaron grew to international fame as a power-hitting, record-setting baseball player and a powerful voice for civil rights, but he was also a successful restaurateur. He died last week at age 86.
Aaron first became involved in the restaurant industry in 1986 when the slugger partnered with Arby’s to launch the Arby’s RBI initiative, which marked the first quick-service restaurant sponsorship in Major League Baseball. Aaron, in addition to famously breaking Babe Ruth’s longstanding home run record, also held the MLB record for RBIs, or runs batted in.
Frank Belatti, who was vice president of marketing at Arby’s at the time, had proposed the idea of the sponsorship, having noticed the close resemblance of the “RBI” baseball statistic to the sound of the “Arby’s” name. He brought Aaron on board as the spokesman, and the two became friends for life, Belatti said.
Aaron acquired an Arby’s franchise in Milwaukee, where he first played baseball with the then-Milwaukee Braves, and later with the Milwaukee Brewers. He grew his company to 10 locations, before becoming a franchisee of Church’s Chicken and Popeyes Chicken & Biscuits (now called Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen) in Atlanta, where Belatti had relocated to run parent company AFC Enterprises.
Atlanta was also where Aaron had spent much of his 23-year baseball career after the Braves relocated there, and where he hit the 715th home run that set the new record. He went on to hit 755 homers in total, which inspired the name of his restaurant company: 755 Restaurant Corp.
“He really enjoyed getting involved in the restaurant business,” Belatti said. “He loved the idea of hiring people … and creating opportunities.”
Aaron brought his son-in-law, Victor Haydel, into the franchise to run the business in Atlanta, which has since expanded to include Krispy Kreme locations. Aaron eventually closed one of the Arby’s locations in Milwaukee and sold the other nine. He also exited the Church’s business, but the company remains one of the largest Popeyes operators in Atlanta, with 23 locations of that brand and two locations of Krispy Kreme.
Aaron was widely known as a quiet, humble man, but was outspoken on issues about civil rights and creating opportunities for minorities. He was strongly influenced by Jackie Robinson, recognized as the first Black player in Major League Baseball, who broke the color barrier when Aaron was 13, and by his childhood in Mobile, Ala., where he later recalled hiding under his bed during Ku Klux Klan marches through his neighborhood.
As a professional, he was active promoting Black participation in professional baseball and supported the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, or NAACP. He also became the first Black executive in the MLB during his stint in the front office of the Atlanta Braves. Aaron created the Hank Aaron Chasing the Dream Foundation, which awards annual scholarships to Boys & Girls Club members to help them pursue a range of interests.
President George W. Bush presented Aaron with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2002, recognizing his philanthropic and humanitarian efforts.
Aaron retired from baseball in 1976, and was inducted into the MLB Hall of Fame in 1982. The Hall added a permanent exhibit honoring his life in 2009.
Belatti said Aaron also saw his restaurant business as a vehicle to bring opportunities in the form of employment and advancement, and in some ways it was even more important to him than his baseball career.
“His mindset was that he understood the power of commerce and how to apply it for good ends,” Belatti said. “It was never really about what it did for him. It really was about what it could do for other people, which I loved about him.”
Ellen Hartman, who oversaw public and community relations at AFC Enterprises and before that was involved in public relations at Arby’s, said she traveled around the country with Aaron promoting the Arby’s RBI Awards program and opening restaurants.
She recalls jogging with Aaron on one such trip, when she asked him to pick up the pace.
“Hank said to me, ‘That’s why I hit some many home runs. I wanted to take my time around the bases. I didn’t have to be fast,’” she said. “Hank taught me how to live with humility and grace.”