Industry luminaries we lost in 2023

The restaurant business said goodbye to a cheeseburger fiend who could also play guitar, the Buster of Dave & Buster's and the genius who came up with the Double-Double. Here's a list of the deaths that made the industry a poorer place.
Photos courtesy of the brands

Jimmy Buffett

Jimmy Buffett, Margaritaville

We hear he played music, too. But Buffett was no stranger to the hospitality business, having lent his name and laid-back vibe to no fewer than four restaurant concepts (Cheeseburger in Paradise, Margaritaville, Landshark Bar and Grill, It’s 5 O’Clock Somewhere Bar and Grill) and a hotel line. Not to mention an assisted living community (Latitude Margaritaville) and, astonishingly, a cannabis brand (Coral Reefer). And few can claim to have done as much to popularize the notion of Happy Hour. He died at age 76 from a rare form of skin cancer.

Michael Chiarello

Michael Chiarello, Bottega

One of the most respected chefs in the U.S. and well-liked among his peers, Chiarello graced northern California with such celebrated Italian restaurants as Bottega, Coqueta and Ottimo, drawing on his Italian heritage. His cooking earned him selection as Chef of the Year by Food & Wine and Alumnus of the Year by the Culinary Institute of America. He died of an acute allergic reaction to an undisclosed ingredient at age 61.

Buster Corley

Buster Corley, Dave & Buster’s

The Buster of Dave & Buster’s, Corley was the food guy of the pair, drawing on his experience prior to co-launching the eatertainment brand of running conventional restaurants. He insisted that the games-and-grub operation hold its own as a dining destination, sometimes bringing in outside chefs to refine the food offerings. He died of what police said was likely suicide. Relatives said he had suffered a stroke four months prior that impaired his ability to communicate and affected his personality. Corley was 76.

Nicholas Gray

Nicholas Gray, Gray’s Papaya

Any starving college student or aspiring actor is likely familiar with Gray’s Papaya, the quirky fast-food chain specializing in dirt-cheap hot dogs and a fruity drink that supposedly is extracted from papayas. For a long stretch, through good economic times and bad, it offered a Recession Special of two franks and a cup of the papaya mix for about $2. The eccentric behind the brand was Gray, a one-time stockbroker who apparently wanted a freer lifestyle. He found it at Gray’s, which set its own rules. During one U.S. presidential campaign, the chain endorsed Bill Bradley, explaining that he was the tallest candidate. It failed to push the New Jersey senator over the top. Gray died at age 86, reportedly from Alzheimer’s disease.

Bob Lang

Bob Lang, Sr., In-N-Out

The human race’s greatest advances may well be the discovery of fire, the invention of paper and the development of the Double-Double Burger, as any In-N-Out fan would attest. For the later advance, we have Bob Lang, Sr., to thank. He was hired by chain founder Harry Snyder in 1954, and was managing a store not long after, at age 19. When the chain opened its sixth restaurant in 1966, Lang pitched the idea of adding a double hamburger with two slices of cheese, all garnished with a mayonnaise-y spread. Snyder liked it so much he introduced the sandwich at the other five stores. In the pantheon of great burgers, the Double-Double is right up there with the Whopper, the Big Mac and the Butter Burger. He died at age 87 from undisclosed causes.   

Stew Leonard

Stew Leonard, Sr., Stew Leonard’s

As much of a showman as he was a retailer, Leonard turned what was known as a dairy store—think of a c-store with a better cheese and milk array—into what was lauded as the Disneyland of food stores. Customers of his namesake market in Connecticut found much more than fresh two-inch-thick steaks or Thanksgiving Dinner Every Day at a bargain price. Leonard was a pioneer in selling ready-to-eat and heat-and-eat meals along with packaged groceries. He also mixed plenty of  entertainment into what grew to be a six-unit chain, with employees dressing in costumes and an animatronic quintet belting out songs for shoppers. A boulder outside one of the stores became a billboard displaying the concept’s creed. The operation capitalized on the interest by selling rocks to shoppers. Leonard died at age 93 from an undisclosed illness.

John Metz Sr.

John Metz, Sr., Metz Culinary Management

A leader in the foodservice business for more than 50 years, Metz rose to prominence as a contracted facilities manager, operating the feeding operations of office buildings, healthcare facilities and other institutions. He would ultimately sell the contract management concern to Morrison, then the parent of Ruby Tuesday and a number of other casual-dining and buffet chains. Metz went into the streetside component of the business by becoming a franchisee along with his sons of TGI Friday’s, and was operating a Ruth’s Chris at the time of his death. Metz died at age 83. This cause of his passing was not revealed.

Mike Reeves

Mike Reeves, Mellow Mushroom

Reeves, a Georgia native, was a serial concept creator, having hatched such restaurant operations as Fox Brothers BBQ, Smith’s Old Bar, Peanut Place, The Point and Cotton Club. But he was likely best known as co-creator of Mellow Mushroom, the hippie-themed full-service pizza-and-beer chain. It currently has about 170 locations, and remains headquartered in Atlanta. Reeves was 69 when he died. The cause of his passing was not revealed.

Mimi Sheraton

Mimi Sheraton, The New York Times

For 60 years, Sheraton ate for a living, sharing what delighted or made her gag with readers of The New York Times as the paper’s first female restaurant critic. She was also reputedly the first restaurant reviewer to don disguises so she’d get the same treatment as any other customer.  Sheraton was known for refusing to pull punches stirring up controversy when the opportunity arose. Meeting with Col. Harlan Sanders after the white-suited entrepreneur had parted company with KFC, she told him how the brand had deteriorated since his involvement ended. They stopped at the unit near Sheraton’s New York apartment, where Sanders proceeded to rip the operation apart and give the staff a primer on how to prepare mashed potatoes correctly, all while Sheraton scribbled down notes for her published account.  Her other feats included investing 11 months to taste the nearly 1,200 food items that were sold by the upscale department store Bloomingdale’s. A decade ago, she estimated that she had eaten 21,170 restaurant meals. She died at age 97 from undisclosed causes.

Mike Young

Mike Young, Chuy’s

Citing Jose Cuervo tequila as the inspiration for the hubcaps, Elvis shrine and other design elements, Young and business partner John Zapp opened a funky watering hole in 1982 called Chuy’s. The menu was inspired by what they ate while trekking around Mexico and attending beach parties. Church-social specialties didn’t seem to figure into the mix. Young would remain involved in more of a consultative capacity with the full-service Tex-Mex brand for the next 35 years, expanding the brand beyond its Austin, Texas, base to about 100 locations. Local media reports say he died at age 74 from pancreatic cancer.

Dorothy Zehnder

Dorothy Zehnder, Bavarian Inn

For 85 of her 101 years, Zehnder fed the busloads of tourists who stopped in the flyspeck town of Frankenmuth, Mich., for a homestyle chicken dinner enroute to someplace else. They could choose between two mammoth restaurants, Zehnder’s and the Bavarian Inn. Both were run by Dorothy’s family. She was stationed since the Truman administration at the Bavarian Inn, the younger of the concepts at a mere 73 years old. It serves an estimated 900,000 meals a year out of its 12 dining rooms, which can sit a total of 1,200. Dorothy Zehnder was their hostess, though she also had a hand in menu and recipe development. The cause of her death was not revealed.

This story is part of Restaurant Business’ look back at 2023. Click here to read our other year-end coverage. 

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