The man credited with changing the way Americans dine out, Norman Brinker, died Tuesday, June 9 from aspirated pneumonia in Colorado Springs, Colo. Brinker, the chairman emeritus and former CEO of Dallas-based Brinker International, was 78.
His career in restaurants began in 1957 with Robert Peterson’s diner chain, Oscar’s, but he quickly was drawn to Peterson’s fast-food concept, Jack in the Box. He grew the concept throughout the Southwest and became president within two years of joining Jack in the Box. He moved to Dallas when Jack in the Box went public, selling his shares in the company and opening a diner called Brink’s, where he expanded on the concept of meeting Americans’ growing desire for quick, affordable food. After two years, he sold Brink’s and used the proceeds to found Steak & Ale in 1966 with the intent of making affordable steak dinners available. In doing so, he introduced the concept of the salad bar and the “scripted” server greeting, all in an effort to establish systems to ensure a consistent, quality dining experience and efficient operations. In doing so, Brinker launched the casual dining segment that is now a major component of the restaurant industry in this country.
In 1976, Brinker sold the then-109-location Steak & Ale chain to Pillsbury, where he assumed the position of executive vice president of Pillsbury’s restaurant operations and held a seat on the company’s board of directors. While at Pillsbury, Brinker developed the concept of a casual dining restaurant designed to attract single adults, and Bennigan’s was launched. He then took over operations for the company’s floundering fast-food Burger King chain in the early 1980s. Brinker initiated Burger King’s “flame-broiled” advertising campaign, which resulted in a lawsuit by rival McDonald’s but succeeded in driving sales increases for Burger King. Brinker was named president of the company’s restaurant division in 1982, but he left in 1984 to assume leadership of a Dallas-based full-service burger restaurant chain with 21 locations, Chili’s.
Chili’s flourished under Brinker’s leadership, and went public two years later. In 1991, the company was renamed Brinker International. He ran the company until 2000, when he stepped down as chairman after growing it to 1,000 restaurants in nearly 30 countries.
Brinker was a graduate of San Diego State University and was a competitive equestrian, competing as a member of the U.S. Team in the 1952 Summer Olympics. He was inducted into the Polo Hall of Fame in 1999, having captured the two biggest prizes of American polo, the USPA Gold Cup and the U.S. Open in 1976. He was former chairman of the United States Polo Association.
He survived a near-fatal polo accident in 1993, and throat cancer later. He is the author of On the Brink: The Life and Leadership of Norman Brinker (Summit Publishing, 1996).
The Brinker family is requesting donations be made in his name to the Communities Foundation of Texas, Methodist Health System Foundation in Dallas or the Museum of Polo and Hall of Fame in Lake Worth, Fla.