Creed Ford, a career-long casual-dining operator who helped build Chili’s parent Brinker International into one of the segment’s dominant players, died Friday from complications of a heart attack three days earlier. He was 65.
Ford had been a franchisee of Chili’s as well as an executive of its parent company. His association with the brand, still the largest part of Brinker International, began when the Texas A&M grad landed a job at age 24 in the original Chili’s restaurant, a venture of concept developer Larry Lavine. Ford remained with Chili’s after the brand was acquired by former Steak and Ale founder Norman Brinker as the foundation for a multiconcept operation, eventually rising to COO.
During Ford’s 21 years at Brinker, the company diversified into a number of other chains, from Romano’s Macaroni Grill to On the Border, Cozymel’s, Spageddies and Grady’s American Grill, among others. It still operates one of those additions, Maggiano’s.
During that time, Ford worked with many of casual dining’s founding fathers, including John Miller, Doug Brooks, Lane Cardwell, Ron McDougall, Rick Federico, Alan Palmieri and Jim Parrish.
After Brinker went public, Ford became one of the multibillion-dollar company’s largest shareholders, though his considerable wealth failed to temper a love of pickup trucks, guitars and cutting loose. He was known to stand up during intense Brinker meetings to remind his co-workers they were selling burgers, margaritas and fun, not engineering rocket ships for NASA. As a die-hard ChiliHead, he was known to plunge into Brinker activities, whether it was an outdoor party or the conversion of the offices into a giant miniature-golf course.
Ford left Brinker in 1997 to launch Fired Up with fellow alumnus Norm Abdallah, now CEO of Del Frisco’s Restaurant Group. Their core concept was Johnny Carino’s, the brand that evolved from Brinker’s low-priced pasta concept, Spageddies. Carino’s grew to 173 locations before Fired Up filed for bankruptcy a second time in 2016.
Ford suffered a heart attack while walking on the morning of July 17 with his wife, Lynn, also a restaurant veteran. Three days later, he was taken off life support.