Entreprenuer 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."

He managed to liquidate his rabbit business at 14, began selling and trading horses and was able to pay his way to New Mexico Military Institute in Roswell. He also secured a berth on the U.S. International Equestrian Jumping Team. He joined the Navy in 1952, was a member of the U.S. Olympic Equestrian Team and later the U.S. Modern Pentathlon Team.

He moved to San Diego in 1955 and worked as a busboy at Jack in the Box while going to school. In 1955, he married tennis star Maureen "Little Mo" Connolly, who, as a 17-year-old in 1953, won the first of three Wimbledon titles. (She died of breast cancer in 1969.)

His second marriage, to Magrit Fendt Brinker, ended in divorce, as did his marriage to Nancy Goodman Brinker, a Republican fundraiser and U.S. ambassador to Hungary under President George W. Bush. She is the founder, at Mr. Brinker's suggestion, of the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation, a charity named for her only sister, who died of the disease at age 36.

Survivors include his wife of seven years, Toni Chapman Brinker of Dallas; two daughters from his first marriage; and two children from his second marriage.

Mr. Brinker received a bachelor's degree in marketing, with honors, from San Diego State University in 1957. A week after graduating, he went to work with Robert Peterson, founder of the Jack in the Box chain. He stayed with Peterson until 1965, when he decided to venture out on his own.

Moving to Dallas with his wife, he opened a daytime coffee shop called Brink's before launching Steak & Ale. He retired as chairman of Brinker International in 2000.

In 1993, Mr. Brinker suffered a near-fatal polo accident when his horse fell on him during a match in Boca Raton, Fla. He was in a coma for three weeks and paralyzed on his left side for three months but eventually recovered. He was inducted into the Polo Hall of Fame in 1999.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company