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Steak & Ale founder, Chili’s mogul Brinker dies

Image: Norman Brinker
Before retiring as chairman of Dallas-based Brinker International in 2000, Norman Brinker had built the chain of more than 1,000 casual-dining restaurants.AP file
/ Source: The Associated Press

Norman Brinker, a restaurant mogul who popularized the salad bar and built a worldwide casual dining empire that includes Chili’s Grill & Bar, died Tuesday at age 78.

Brinker died at a hospital in Colorado, said Robin Rymer at Swan-Law Funeral Home in Colorado Springs. He suffered complications related to pneumonia while on vacation, Brinker International Inc. spokeswoman Stacey Sullivan said.

Before retiring as chairman of Dallas-based Brinker International in 2000, he had built the chain of more than 1,000 casual-dining restaurants. The company now has 1,700 restaurants in 27 countries, according to its Web site.

While Brinker wasn’t necessarily a household name, he had a high profile in Dallas and Americans have enjoyed his eatery concepts that fit somewhere between fast food and fine dining.

“My goal is to wipe out dining room lights across the country,” he told The Associated Press in a story published in 1996.

A former Olympic equestrian who competed in the 1952 games, Brinker was born in Colorado and grew up poor on a farm in Roswell, N.M. He moved to Dallas in the 1960s and started a coffee shop before developing the concept for Steak & Ale restaurants — a chain he established in the mid-1960s where he’s credited with popularizing the salad bar and casual dining.

He sold Steak & Ale to Pillsbury Co in the early 1970s and went to work for Pillsbury’s restaurant division. During his time at Pillsbury’s restaurant division, he created the Bennigan’s chain and became known for creating a “fern bar” chain concept of upscale eateries intended to attract single people.

In 1983, Brinker purchased Chili’s, which had started as a single restaurant in Dallas and now has about 900 company-owned restaurants and more than 550 franchises. He took Chili’s public and in the 1990s renamed the chain Brinker International.

Among the chains Brinker International has bought and sold are Corner Bakery Cafe, EatZi’s Market and Bakery. It now operates On the Border Mexican Grill & Cantina, Maggiano’s Little Italy and Chili’s. Brinker also holds a minority investment in Romano’s Macaroni Grill.

Brinker was a polo buff who started the Willow Bend Polo and Hunt Club in Dallas in 1972.

In 1993, Brinker was seriously injured when a horse fell on him during a polo match. For 14 days a mechanical respirator kept him alive. He was in a coma for three weeks and was paralyzed on his left side for nearly three months but recovered and eventually walked again.

Doctors said it would take at least a year for a meaningful recovery, but four months after his accident Brinker was back leading his company.

Brinker was divorced from Nancy Brinker, a former U.S. ambassador and Republican fundraiser, who last month was named the World Health Organization's "goodwill ambassador" to raise cancer awareness. She is the founder of Susan G. Komen for the Cure, a breast cancer charity named for her only sister who died of the disease at 36.

Norman Brinker served on the Susan G. Komen for the Cure board since the organization's founding in 1982.

"The world lost a great man in the passing of Norman Brinker," said Nancy Brinker. "Norman was one of the savviest business and philanthropic leaders our time, and I, along with the entire Susan G. Komen for the Cure family, are indebted to him for the wise counsel, sage advice, mentoring and support."