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Adventures in casual dining with Norman Brinker

By Bill Zeeble, KERA 90.1 reporter

Dallas, TX – Bill Zeeble, KERA 90.1 reporter: Head down any suburban main drag, for something other than the fast-food burgers and fries, and chain restaurants abound. There's everything from Chili's, Bennigan's, and Boston Market, to TGI Friday's, Red Lobster, and Outback Steak House. It didn't used to be this way.

Ron Ruggles, Nation's Restaurant News, Southwest editor: There wasn't anything there. Farmland.

Zeeble: Ron Ruggles is the Southwest editor for the Nation's Restaurant News. He says that's what the restaurant landscape looked like 40 years ago, before Norman Brinker opened his first Steak and Ale in Dallas.

Ruggles: He saw the need in society at the time, the late 60's, where people were starting to dine out, wanting something more than fast food, not wanting to dress up. He came up with casual dining, Steak and Ale, Bennigan's, at a time when people were becoming more suburban.

Zeeble: Norman Brinker, who turns 71 in June, says he didn't originally plan to follow the ballooning population into the suburbs. He just watched what his customers wanted and where they lived. After seven years with the young Jack in the Box chain, and a stint running his own coffee shop in Dallas, Brinker saw his niche.

Norman Brinker: You know, I looked at what was the problem with restaurants. You'd go in, the waiter would come up to the table, maybe he wouldn't, and then he'd take an order, and disappear for a while. You'd fill up on bread. I said I want to let the customer see what he's getting. And that includes a salad.

Zeeble: Brinker's concept became Steak and Ale.

[Steak and Ale ad]

Brinker: ?So he can get a salad while the waiter is turning in the order and delivering it. Speed was much faster. And you, the customer, ate what you wanted from the salad bar, right off the bat.

Zeeble: The all-you-could-eat salad came with the steak, which was priced more like chicken. Brinker also served bread hot and charged extra for corn on the cob or a baked potato. Some said it couldn't work.

Brinker: It was an instant success. I felt very good about if from day one, because it had the appeal.

Zeeble: Brinker took the casual, British-themed Steak and Ale success and multiplied it. A few years later, he created the fern bar concept aimed at young professionals, and launched Bennigan's Tavern. Both were built on Brinker innovations. For example, hiring college students, who introduced themselves at the table, and creating systems that let Brinker duplicate successes. It worked. It still does.

[Chili's ambience]

Marcia Becker, manager Chili's Number One: I mean, there's just a system in place for everything?

Zeeble: Marcia Becker manages Chili's Number One in Dallas, the oldest in the chain.

Becker: ...down to the ordering and where we order from. Right now, one of my computers could go down and I can call them up and they say do this, do this, do this. There's a safety book that actually tells you how to handle, you know, if a guest slips and falls, exactly what to say. And how to handle the situation.

Zeeble: Brinker International's Chief Operating Officer, Doug Brooks, acknowledges Norman Brinker's organizational and planning skills, but says Brinker's real accomplishment was, and is, his ability to instill a caring attitude into the corporate culture. He tells the story of traveling with Brinker years ago to a Chili's in Illinois. It was the end of the day. The pair needed to catch a plane.

Brooks: A busboy came up to Mr. Brinker and had a complaint about management. Norman sat down and heard him out. I was more worried about missing the plane. We missed that plane. And spent the night in Bloomington, Illinois. Missed the meeting here 'cause a busboy had a concern. Before Norman left, he got management to sit down and figure it out. It was embarrassing for me to think later I was more worried about my plane than helping resolve this management-employee issue at this one restaurant.

Brinker: If I care about you, I'll do things for you I'd never do for money.

Zeeble: Again, Norman Brinker.

Brinker: ?So if I'm a leader or manager, and I care about employees, they know it. If I'm a customer, they know if you care about them or if you're in it for the dollar.

Zeeble: The dollar's important, but more so to Brinker, it's a restaurant that's fun, relaxed, and prompts repeat visits. That means it better be fun for workers, too. It's a philosophy dating back to Brinker's college days.

Brinker: I'd hear my friends say, "Well, I'm going to work for this company or that company." I'd say great! That's wonderful. But to myself, I'd say, "Mmm, Norman, you don't want to do that. You do NOT want to do that. That'd be no fun. I want to have fun in my life. That meant doing things that were generating ideas, generating excitement. That was just part of me.

Doug Brooks, Brinker International's COO: Norman had this fantastic ability to understand the bottom line. But he also understood without happy, productive, focused people, there is no bottom line.

Zeeble: Doug Brooks.

Brooks: In the restaurant business, even though you serve food, you're in the people business. If the leader doesn't get that, they're not going to rally behind him. The bottom line happens if everything else sort of falls perfectly into place.

Zeeble: Brinker worked hard to make those pieces fall into place. He'd visit his restaurants often, checking in with managers, waiters, even cooks in the kitchen, to see what they needed. Restaurant writer Ron Ruggles says Brinker's famous for observing clients.

Ruggles: Back in the Steak and Ale days, he'd go into parking lots of Steak and Ales, in the 60's, and talk to customers as they leave. It was his way of doing market research but at a high-touch level. When he had the luxury of being anonymous, he'd pretend to be a customer walking in, asking, "How's the food? Is it worth it?"

Zeeble: One day, as Brinker was checking on clients as they ate, the customer was Ross Perot. The two immediately hit it off. Perot now calls Brinker one of his best friends. When Brinker suffered a near-fatal polo accident in 1993, Perot flew to Florida to see him several times. But before one trip, he stopped in to a Dallas Chili's restaurant.

Ross Perot: Each time one of the waiters would see me, including the men, they would cry. They all said, "Have you been to Florida to see Norm?" I said yes, and they wanted to know all the details, and you would've thought he was their dad. Then when I left, they said, "Can we all go out?" In essence, they just shut the restaurant down. Everybody, cooks and everybody, went out front and had a picture made and then they all signed it 'cause they knew I was going down in a day or two.

Zeeble: Doug Brooks also knows that sense of connection to his workers and Brinker. With the company now for 19 years, Brooks' respect for Brinker deepened after the operations executive was hit by a car while jogging four years ago. Brooks lost most of his left leg. When he woke up in the hospital, he says Brinker was there, urging him to get better, just as others had urged Brinker back to health after his own accident. Brooks says Brinker's as good as it gets.

Brooks: The guy is?there's no guy I would, as far as an idol, a mentor, even if we weren't in the restaurant business?

Zeeble: Norman Brinker has what restaurant writer Ron Ruggles calls the human touch.

Ruggles: It's a high-turnover business. And he's been able to keep a lot of good people, and also mentor a lot of good people who went on to create their own businesses.

Zeeble: People like Chris Sullivan and Bob Basham, both now top executives of Outback Steakhouse, Wally Doolin, former chairman of TGI Friday's, now head of the La Madeleine French caf? chain, Fred Hipp, president and CEO of Houlihan's, Stuart Waggoner, Vice President for Applebee's, and Richard Frank, chairman and CEO of Chuck E.Cheese.

Richard Frank, CEO, CEC Entertainment: Norman's willing to let people fail. He's willing to give people a chance, and understands people will fall and make mistakes.

Zeeble: Richard Frank spent a dozen years with Brinker at Steak Ale in its early days. Credited with turning Chuck E. Cheese around in recent years, he says Brinker taught him invaluable lessons.

Frank: The key is not whether you're always right. The key is to think things through, have a good thought process, do the right things. But be following up and making sure if you're wrong, that you correct whatever it is quick enough, and the business will continue down the right path.

Zeeble: Brinker says more key leaders of large restaurant companies have graduated from Brinker ranks than all restaurant companies combined. He's not bothered that he's spawned so many competitors.

Brinker: I'm friends with them all. I say, "Good going, I'm proud."

Zeeble: Norman Brinker stepped down as chairman of Brinker International a year and a half ago, but retains an active advisory role as chairman emeritus. Meanwhile, Brinker continues to grow and prosper. It recently added its first seafood concept, Rockfish Grill, to its eight other operations that include Eatzi's, Corner Bakery, and On the Border. In trying to keep up with consumer trends and the competition, the company's also concentrating on expanded take-out service at all its restaurants. Brinker International just reported a 20% rise in earnings for the quarter compared to last year. For KERA 90.1, I'm Bill Zeeble.

Bill Zeeble can be contacted through email: