Entreprenuer Norman Brinker, 78, Pioneered Casual Dining, Invented Salad Bar

By Joe Holley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Norman Brinker, 78, an innovative restaurant entrepreneur who shaped Americans' eating-out habits by exploiting a niche between fast-food and upscale restaurants with casual, full-service eateries including Chili's Grill and Bar and Bennigans, died June 9 at a Colorado Springs hospital.

The longtime Dallas resident was in Colorado Springs to celebrate his 78th birthday with his wife Toni and aspirated food while dining out a week ago. Mr. Brinker, who had battled throat cancer in previous years, died of aspiration pneumonia.

Mr. Brinker, the retired chairman of Dallas-based Brinker International and a longtime Dallas resident, was credited with inventing the salad bar at his Steak & Ale restaurants in the 1960s and the singles-oriented "fern bar" concept when he created Bennigan's. Steak & Ale set the prototype for subsequent Brinker ventures: dependable quality, relatively modest prices, casual dining.

He was known not only for emphasizing friendly customer service, but also for quick calibrations in response to changing customer tastes. Chili's, for example, was one of the first chains to respond to consumer concerns about health and nutrition by offering an array of chicken and fish items, in addition to its steak and burger staples.

He also was a mentor to other restaurant entrepreneurs around the country, including the CEOs of Outback Steakhouse, Houston's and the Chuck E Cheese pizza chain.

"He was the most influential and impactful restaurant person in the country," said Doug Brooks, chief executive of Brinker International. "He recognized that casual dining was where America was going."

Brooks, who joined Chili's in 1978, described Mr. Brinker as "a consummate salesman" who combined business savvy and people skills.

In 1966, Mr. Brinker opened his first Steak & Ale restaurant with $10,000 in savings and a $5,000 loan. When he sold the chain to Pillsbury in 1976, it had grown to 109 units. Steak & Ale, with its trademark half-timbered buildings and faux Old English theme, later went defunct.

In 1982, he was named president of the Pillsbury Restaurant Group, then the second-largest restaurant organization in the world. He created the Bennigan's chain during his time with Pillsbury.

After serving as chairman and chief executive of Burger King, Mr. Brinker purchased Chili's, which had started as a Dallas hamburger joint and had grown to 28 restaurants and $35 million in sales when he took over. He took the chain public in 1983 under the brand Brinker International Inc. Chili's now has about 900 company-owned restaurants and more than 550 franchises. Brinker International also owns Maggiano's Little Italy, Romano's Macaroni Grill and On the Border Mexican Grill & Cantina, totaling 1,700 restaurants in 27 countries.

Norman Eugene Brinker was born in Denver on June 3, 1931, and raised as an only child on a hardscrabble farm near Roswell, N.M. "We were very, very poor," he told Nation's Restaurant News in 1996. Eager to make money, he started with a paper route at age 10, and then got into the business of breeding and raising cocker spaniels and rabbits.

Predictably, he ended up with a surplus of the long-eared furry creatures, which gnawed through their hutches and taught the budding entrepreneur a market lesson: "Be sure to get into something where sales equal production, think about where you want to be before you start and know how you're going to get out before you get in."

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