Feature

Norman Brinker

The canny restaurateur who pioneered salad bars

Norman Brinker
1931–2009

When Norman Brinker was growing up poor in Roswell, N.M., he bred rabbits to supplement his family’s small income. He was soon overrun with the creatures. But he learned a valuable lesson. “Get into something where sales equal production,” he reflected, “think about where you want to be before you start, and know how you’re going to get out before you get in.” With that philosophy Brinker became one of the nation’s leading restaurateurs. The driving force behind such national chains as Bennigan’s, Chili’s, and Steak & Ale, he built an eating empire of 1,700 establishments in 27 countries.

It was an unlikely destiny, said The Washington Post. “In Roswell all my friends worked,” Brinker recalled, “but the only ones who worked in restaurants were the ones who were too dumb to work in service stations.” However, after graduating with a business degree from San Diego State College, he worked to expand the Jack in the Box franchise, becoming president within two years. Moving to Dallas, he launched a namesake coffee shop chain and, in 1966, created Steak & Ale with a $5,000 loan and $10,000 in savings. With “its trademark half-timbered buildings and faux Old English theme,” it set the pattern for Brinker’s later successes by occupying a crucial “niche between fast food and upscale restaurants.”

“In the restaurant industry Brinker was a guru,” said the St. Petersburg, Fla., Times. He was widely credited with inventing the salad bar; by using brass railings and hanging plants as a decorative motif in Bennigan’s, he created the “fern bar” look. Its “dark, tasteful” ambience, coupled with popular pub food, proved “a magnet for single people.” He even created elaborate mock-ups of restaurants in empty warehouses. “Brinker would bring in diners with the promise of a free meal to test whether each entrée, appetizer, lamp, plate, uniform, and piece of bric-a-brac fit the theme.”

Brinker, who had suffered from throat cancer, died of complications from pneumonia.

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