Calif. restaurant pioneer Jack Williams dies

In a foodservice career spanning more than five decades, the old-school operator built a number of successful operations and launched what he estimated were thousands of careers.

Jack Williams, a pillar of the Southern California restaurant scene for more than 50 years, died over the weekend.

His age and the cause of his death were not revealed.

jack williams horseback

Williams was recognized nationally for his most recent operation, Richie’s Real American Diner, a retro-style concept that allowed the onetime bakery salesman to practice his warm, interactive style of service. Williams was known to charge into his parking lot to open the door for an elderly customer, or to shake the hands of patrons as they passed through his front door.

“We want to make sure we’re on that Top 5 list of where people want to eat,” he told the International Foodservice Manufacturers Association in 2014, the year he was presented with a Silver Plate Award by the group as the industry’s best independent operator. “The best way to make that happen is through old-fashioned manners and courtesy, where the customer knows we appreciate your business and that we hope to see you back real soon.”

The operation was named after Richie Snyder, a member of the family that started and still owns and operates In-N-Out Burger. Snyder rose to CEO of the burger chain at age 24, early in the cult favorite’s development. He was a close friend of Williams and his wife of more than 60 years, Linda.

Williams was friends with many of the restaurant pioneers in Southern California, the birthplace of such chains as McDonald’s, Denny’s, Taco Bell, Carl’s Jr., Winchell’s, Hot Dog on a Stick and Marie Callender’s.

In the 1960s, while working as a sales executive for a wholesale baker, he delivered a rebate check to a customer who was having coffee with a quirky old guy who said he had a killer fried chicken recipe. The customer was Jim Collins, who’d learned how to cook a hamburger from the McDonald brothers, and his guest was Colonel Harland Sanders. Collins would become one of the first and largest KFC franchisees, and Williams would serve as the operation’s bakery supplier.

Later, Collins launched a chain of budget-priced steak concepts called Sizzler. Williams decided to switch from supplier to operator. He became a Sizzler franchisee, expanding to 34 locations.

He left that operation and started Richie’s in 1991. His daughter, Sally Myers, remains a major Sizzler franchisee, with about 26 units.

Williams and his wife, Linda, known as the Pie Lady, would expand to four Richie’s locations. Three remain open.

He also worked with Polly’s Pies, the pie shop concept started by Eddie Sheldrake.

Williams said he delighted in building the restaurant industry and giving young people a start on their careers.

“We’ve hired thousands of people, some of whom have gone on to make careers in the restaurant industry, some of whom it was their first job and they went on to become doctors and lawyers and professional men and women,” he told the podcast “Restaurant Unstoppable.”

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