Gene Knippers had no college education, but he sealed deals with a handshake and helped spread successful franchises across the country. Places you’ve heard of: Steak and Ale, Bennigan’s, Chili’s, Beef O’Brady’s.
On paper, a poor kid from Louisiana had no business becoming a successful restaurateur. But Mr. Knippers worked on people, not paper.
He died Feb. 18 at 83 from natural causes.
A Boy Scout
Every year, Mr. Knippers sent a check to a group that maintains the cemetery in his hometown – Many, La. His dad, who died when Mr. Knippers was just 4, rests there. Mr. Knippers didn’t have much in Many, but people looked out for him.
One was a priest at the local Catholic church who led the Boy Scouts. He encouraged Mr. Knippers to stick with the program and become an Eagle Scout.
That distinction later landed Mr. Knippers a job at Orbach’s Department Store in Oklahoma City, where he started working as a stock boy at 18. He married Pat, and the two started a family.
Thirteen years later, Mr. Knippers traveled the country as the lead menswear buyer, and he helped expand Orbach’s from two locations to 10. When he began running out of opportunities to grow there, he found another after enjoying a good meal.
Mr. Knippers was on business in Dallas when he ate for the first time at a Steak and Ale. The restaurant impressed him, and soon, he got the owner’s number. Mr. Knippers wanted to buy into the franchise and take the restaurant to Denver.
Norman Brinker, who later became known as the father of casual dining, eventually met with Mr. Knippers and, after the two raced their airplanes to see whose was fastest, soon suggested Atlanta instead. They sealed the deal with a handshake, and in 1969, Mr. Knippers moved his family to Georgia.
He spent one night washing dishes in training before he was asked to run the restaurant.
“I’ve never done any formal training since then,” he said in January in a podcast about the restaurant business. “But I’ve always had good people.”
He later expanded the chain in the Southeast and on the East Coast, then added Bennigan’s. In 1983, he joined with Brinker to expand Chili’s and moved to St. Petersburg. Three years later, they sold all but three of the restaurants in a merger. Mr. Knippers ran those three franchises, allowing two partners to work on a new dining concept — Outback Steakhouse.
“Without Gene Knippers, I don’t think there would have been an Outback Steakhouse,” said Bob Basham, one of Outback’s co-founders.
Next, Mr. Knippers took on the expansion of another franchise — Beef O’Brady’s.
The restaurateur came across as a gregarious, lanky Southern boy in cowboy boots and a big hat. He was so likeable, most people didn’t realize he was negotiating with them until the deal was done, said Basham.
Mr. Knippers had what the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association called “the Midas Touch” when it awarded him a lifetime achievement award in 2007. He had a knack for picking the right locations. But he knew the real value was in the people he worked with — the servers, the hosts, the cooks, the dishwashers — and the people they served.
“Gene was a people person, and the restaurant business at its heart is a people business,” said Chuck Winship, the former CEO of Beef O’Brady’s. “I think Gene taught a lot of us that philosophy.”
A man at peace
As a young man, Mr. Knippers bought an airplane before he knew how to fly. Later, he bought Texas Longhorns, which he knew nothing about, and bred them in North Carolina.
“He saw potential and opportunities, and the obstacles were just details to work through,” said Sue Schmidt, who worked with Mr. Knippers for nearly 30 years.
Sometimes, the biggest obstacle was himself.
The restaurant industry has a lot of opportunities for drinking and socializing, said Winship. In his mid-50s, Mr. Knippers’ family encouraged him to quit drinking.
“And he did,” said his son, Clark Knippers. “He did it on the first try.”
Maintaining his sobriety took years of work and help, Clark said, but his dad never showed how hard it was. He also took that time to deepen his faith. It wasn’t something he talked about much, said daughter Krista Allred, but family and friends could see it.
“He just became a grateful spirit in his later years,” Winship said.
Last summer, mid-pandemic, Mr. Knipper’s son and family planned a stay in North Carolina. Mr. Knippers didn’t want to fly. So he bought an RV and eventually put 4,000 miles on it, driving across the country to see the people he loved.
“That’s Gene Knippers,” his son said. “‘I got a problem. I got a solution.’”
Poynter news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this story.
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