Chili's developer Brinker dies at 78

Tuesday, June 9, 2009 | 10:31 a.m. CDT

DALLAS — Norman Brinker, who built a worldwide casual dining empire that includes Chili's Grill & Bar, On the Border and Maggiano's Little Italy, died Tuesday at age 78.

Brinker died at a hospital in Colorado Springs, Colo., said Robin Rymer at the Swan-Law Funeral Home. She did not know the cause of death.

Brinker retired as chairman of Dallas-based Brinker International in 2000 after building 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.

A few Brinker International restaurants can be found in the Columbia area, including a Chili's Grill & Bar at 41 Conley Road and a Romano's Macaroni Grill at 305 N. Stadium Blvd.

Brinker got his start with a coffee shop in Dallas in the 1960s and later developed the concept for Steak & Ale restaurants, 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 restaurant chain concept intended to attract single people.

In 1983, Brinker purchased Chili's, which had started as a single restaurant in Dallas, and took his operation public as Brinker International. Chili's now has about 900 company-owned restaurants and more than 550 franchises.

Among the chains Brinker International has bought and sold are Corner Bakery Cafe and EatZi's Market and Bakery. It now operates Romano's Macaroni Grill in addition to other notable names.

Brinker started out as a busboy in Southern California and moved to Dallas in the 1960s with his first wife, tennis great Maureen Connolly Brinker, who died in 1969.

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

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.

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