Bill Regas, mentor to a host of standout restaurant executives, dies at age 92

Regas was renowned in the Southeast for the service provided at his family's namesake restaurant in Knoxville, Tenn.
Bill Regas obituary
Photograph: Shutterstock

Bill Regas, the legendary Tennessee restaurateur whose focus on guest service and operations influenced concepts ranging from fine-dining establishments to Wendy’s, died Monday at age 92.

The cause of his death was not revealed.

Regas’ best-known operation, the Regas Restaurant in Knoxville, Tenn., closed in 2010 after 90 years of operation by the Regas family. By then, many alumni of the landmark were running their own restaurant companies. Many still cited Bill Regas as a career-setting influence, particularly when it came to connecting with customers.

Bill Regas

A genteel southern gentleman, Regas charmed guests ranging from U.S. presidents to locals celebrating a high school graduation. He had an ability to remember the names of even casual customers, and made a point of welcoming them as if they visited the establishment or one of the family’s other restaurants every day.

That warmth and charm extended to Regas’ dealing with employees. Many regarded him as a key mentor.

Those individuals included Rick Federico, a longtime executive of Brinker International and a CEO of P.F. Chang’s; Mike Connor, the founder of the upscale Chop House and Connors groups; and Steve Paleo, founder of Paleo’s.

Regas had to work his way up the family business, which was run by his father and uncle at the time he entered adulthood.  Their motto: “Work as if your job depends on every single customer, every day.” 

Among the stations Bill Regas worked was the lunch counter at the family’s main restaurant. One day in 1942, he was assigned to take a new hire under his wing, a young man who’d been hired after lying that he was 16. The recruit was a go-getter, actually aged 12, named Dave Thomas, who would go on to found the Wendy’s burger chain.

Bill and Dave became fast and lifelong friends. Regas recalled decades later that he and Thomas would compete to see who could earn the most in tips. Even then, Regas said, Thomas was talking about his dream of someday starting a burger chain.

Thomas would mention Bill Regas as a key influence on his life and career right up until his death in 2002.

In 1989, the Regas family sold one of their casual brands, Grady’s Goodtimes, to Brinker International, the parent of Chili’s.  The concept had been started by Bill Regas' son, Grady.

Brinker struggled to capture the specialness that had made Grady’s such a hit in Knoxville. Those efforts included a change of the name to Regas Grill.

But the corporation failed to hit the right code, and eventually sold the brand to a Chili’s franchisee that excelled in operations, Quality Dining.

Bill Regas was said to have worked in the restaurant industry since his age was in single digits. The community acknowledged his contribution to the culture of Knoxville by naming a key intersection as Regas Square.

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