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Developer of Chili's, other midpriced restaurant chains Norman Brinker dies

Norman Brinker, a quiet yet larger-than-life figure who was one of the founders of the modern, midpriced casual restaurant chain, died Tuesday at 78.

Among his accomplishments: the popularization of the salad bar; Bennigan's, the first of the fern bars; and Steak & Ale, the first steak house chain to fill the gap between budget-minded Ponderosa and the top-tier prime beef palaces. Along the way, he steered Chili's into prominence and managed Burger King to within $100,000 in revenue of McDonald's.

A rodeo bareback rider as a teen, Mr. Brinker was a world-class equestrian who competed on the 1952 U.S. Olympic team in the pentathlon and competed as a polo player into his 60s, until a fall left him half paralyzed.

At Steak & Ale and later at Chili's Grill & Bar, Mr. Brinker surrounded himself with a team of creative acolytes, several of whom moved on to Tampa, where they created or developed such national chains as Outback Steakhouse and Beef 'O' Brady's.

Before retiring as chairman of Dallas-based Brinker International in 2000, Mr. Brinker had built the chain that included Chili's Grill & Bar, Romano's Macaroni Grill, Maggiano's Little Italy, Eatzi's and On the Border Mexican Grill and Cantina. The company now has 1,700 restaurants in 27 countries.

In 1990, Mr. Brinker told the St. Petersburg Times his biggest business secrets: Listen carefully to every word you can wring from customers. When you make changes, make them slowly.

"One of the keys to this business is to be in a constant state of evolution," he said. "People's tastes change. If you don't evolve, you face the revolution of changing overnight."

While Mr. Brinker wasn't a household name, he had a high profile in Dallas, where he spent most of his adult life. And Americans — especially baby boomers — swarmed to his eateries, which fit somewhere between fast food and fine dining. In the restaurant industry, he was treated as a guru.

At one conference, he packed a room with analysts for a question-and-answer session, then left to address institutional investors down the hall.

"He emptied the room," recalled Lisa Bertagnoli, then a senior editor of Restaurants and Institutions, a trade magazine. "The next speaker started out saying he was glad there were at least a few people left who weren't Brinker worshipers."

Mr. Brinker grew up poor on a Roswell, N.M., farm. After college in San Diego, he followed a professor into work at fledgling Jack in the Box. It grew into a major fast-food chain with Mr. Brinker as a top executive. Mr. Brinker moved to Dallas in the 1960s to start a coffee shop, then developed Steak & Ale, a chain he sold to Pillsbury. At Pillsbury's restaurant division, he created Bennigan's and became known for creating a chain of "fern bars," dark, tasteful eateries filled with pub food designed to be a magnet for single people.

He had a nose for innovative small regional chains that could be shaped into national chains, such as Romano's, which was created by Phil Romano, the founder of Fuddrucker's. Mr. Brinker also created restaurants from scratch, using elaborate mockups in empty warehouses. Mr. Brinker would bring in diners with the promise of a free meal to test whether each entree, appetizer, lamp, plate, uniform and piece of bric-a-brac fit the theme.

One such creation was the former Key West Grill in the 1990s, which first took shape in a Dallas warehouse, then was built in Clearwater to see if Floridians would accept it as an authentic copy of a Key West seafood house. It passed muster in Florida, but failed to win enough customers to be a national chain after a few stores were built in other states.

Information from the Associated Press contributed to this report. Mark Albright can be reached at albright@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8252.

Developer of Chili's, other midpriced restaurant chains Norman Brinker dies 06/09/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, June 10, 2009 9:21am]

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