Marketplace Scratch Pad

Baby back ribs and salad bars

Scott Jagow Jun 10, 2009

I’d like to take a moment to remember Robert Brinker. Brinker died yesterday at age 78. Now, some people might be inclined to scoff at the guy who made the salad bar a national phenomenon and who made chain restaurants grow like Bloomin’ Onions. But by all accounts, Brinker was an amazing entrepreneur and human being.

Brinker started his career working for the founder of Jack in the Box. He opened his first restaurant, Brink’s Coffee Shop, in Dallas in 1965.

That same year, he used $10,000 and a $5,000 loan to start Steak and Ale. It was at Steak and Ale that the salad bar was popularized. The chain eventually grew to 109 restaurants and was sold to Pillsbury a decade later.

Brinker is best known for turning Chili’s into an international powerhouse. When he took over, Chili’s was a hamburger joint with 21 restaurants. It’s now a publicly traded company with 1,700 restaurants in 27 countries.

Brinker also started Bennigan’s and is credited with instituting the greeting you hear everywhere: “Hi, my name is ___. I’ll be your server tonight.”

Some of these developments you might lament. I can’t say I enjoy going to foreign countries and seeing Applebees. I can’t say 3,000-calorie plates of food with names like Awesome Blossom and Big Mouth Burger have been good for the national waistline or heart attack rate.

In fact, chain restaurants, in general, are eye sores with mediocre, unhealthy food. But some of them do serve pretty good eats, and sometimes, they’re okay as a guilty pleasure. “I want my baby-back-baby-back-baby-back-baby-back. Chileeeeees.”

Really, I’m just impressed by Brinker’s accomplishments as a businessman and how universally well-respected and liked the man was.

He gave an interview to the Dallas Morning News, knowing that it wouldn’t be published until after his death. It was published this morning:

“What gives me the biggest charge?” he responded. “I was a CEO for 28 years, and I had 28 years of consecutive bottom-line increases.

“Secondly, I probably helped more youngsters pay their way through college than anyone else in the United States.

“I nurtured people. Over the years, I’ve employed about 1.4 million people, and I’ve watched these people grow. Some, who worked in the kitchen, became managers, then store managers and then executives.

“There are about 17 or 18 heads of major restaurant chains now who worked for me. That’s really thrilling. I never liked having someone leave. But I was excited to see people take the risk and do something successful.”

The NPR News blog has this story sent in from a reader. I think it’s probably the way most people will remember him:

I was a struggling waitress at Chili’s in Newport Beach, California back in the late 1980s when one busy Friday night, an elderly customer in a three-piece suit took pity on my obvious inability to keep up with my work.

To my horror, he started helping me clear the plates, mugs and silverware piling up on my tables. Fearing what the manager might think, I said, “Please sir, you don’t need to do that!” but he just smiled sweetly and without a word, kept clearing my tables. At this point, figuring my job was probably coming to a quick and painful end, I shrugged it off and finished my shift.

It wasn’t until later that I discovered my quiet, kindly “helper” was none other than Norman Brinker, company CEO.

He remains to this day an inspiration to me and an important reminder that there are, in fact, corporate “suits” out there with unselfish attitudes and lots of heart. I, for one, will never forget him.

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