Gino Marchetti, the Pro Football Hall of Famer who built the Gino’s Hamburgers chain into a regional power during fast food’s infancy, died Monday at age 93 from pneumonia.
Regarded by many as the best defensive end ever to play professional football, Marchetti spent 14 years in the NFL, from 1952 through 1964. All but one of them, his rookie year with the team that would become the Dallas Cowboys, were spent with the Baltimore Colts. His combination of speed, strength and agility presaged the skills prized today in the league’s best defensive backs.
Along the way, he joined teammate Alan Ameche and several businessmen to launch a namesake quick-service chain, Gino’s Hamburgers. Not long afterward, former teammate Jerry Richardson also entered that field with a burgers and biscuits concept called Hardee’s. Marchetti focused on Gino’s after retiring from the NFL in 1964.
It was a period of unprecedented growth for fast food. Gino’s initially concentrated its development efforts on the Eastern Seaboard. Marchetti and his partners also purchased the Rustler budget steakhouse chain and became the Mid-Atlantic franchisee of Kentucky Fried Chicken. The chicken was branded under its own name, but sold in Gino’s stores.
Gino’s would grow to 359 restaurants. Its specialties included the Gino Giant, a predecessor of McDonald’s Big Mac, and a Meal for Five, a bundled family meal priced at $1.75. Burgers initially cost 10 cents, and shakes, 20 cents.
“He was at the birth of the fast-food industry and figured out a way for ordinary families to go out to a place to eat for a low cost at a restaurant that celebrated their beloved Colts,” says Neal McGarity, a longtime Baltimore Colts fan who grew up in the Baltimore area. “It was a combination that made him a millionaire.”
In 1982, Marriott Corp. bought Gino’s to accelerate the hotel giant’s penetration of the quick-service market. The units were converted into branches of Marriott’s regional roast beef and burgers concept, Roy Rogers.
Gino’s left behind a cult following that persists today. Tom Romano, Gino’s COO when the chain was sold to Marriott, attempted to revive the brand as a better-burger fast-casual entrant in 2010, and tapped Marchetti as a consultant. A unit was also opened that year in Baltimore’s Camden Yards, home of MLB’s Orioles. The concession has since closed.
Marchetti also maintained a relationship with the Baltimore Ravens, the NFL team that was relocated to the city after the Colts bolted to Indianapolis. He remained a celebrity in Baltimore until the time of his death.