Remembering Don Axleroad

Don Axleroad, a powerful figure in the restaurant media for more than three decades, died Tuesday. Restaurateurs of a tender vintage likely won’t recognize that name, but even the greenest feels his influence every time they visit our website, pick up Restaurant Business magazine, or glance at one of our competitors.

Part of that is form; Don raised the bar on how information was presented to operators, and we’re still driven by his conviction that a trade magazine doesn’t have to be schlock. Restaurateurs are provided with some of the best trade media in the business world, and Don played a key role in making that so.

But his real contribution was raising the whole industry’s professionalism, in subtle but influential ways. For most of his time in the business, Don ran an ad agency, which he started after serving as the art director of Fast Food magazine, the precursor of Restaurant Business. His clients at The Food Group were suppliers, and mostly food companies. He taught them how to speak to restaurateurs in a far more professional way, elevating their messages and speaking to restaurateurs as the smart business people they were. The presentations showed respect, which restaurateurs, and chain operators in particular, were seldom given.

“I remember him laboring over an editorial-page design or an ad he was creating, and it looked fine to me,” recalls Jeff Berlind, the longtime publisher of Restaurant Business, who was a friend of Axleroad for 50 years. “But not to him. He had this drive to succeed. He wasn’t willing to take a back seat to any magazine. When he was creating ads, it was the same thing.”

Like many in the industry he served, Axleroad was driven to succeed, in part because he came from humble beginnings. As a youngster, before going to art school, he worked in his mother’s catering business to support the family. He recalled rumbling along in a rattrap of a car, the pots and other equipment clanging in the back, rattling from booking to booking.

A pop psychologist might surmise that Don’s short stature didn’t temper his resolve to succeed, and it was indeed a consuming goal.

“Among his many traits was a fierce competitiveness—he was was very, very competitive,” recalls Berlind, who called on Axleroad to sell his clients advertising space. “He rose above all the obstacles because he was driven and a perfectionist. He was fond of saying, ‘Only the paranoid survive.’”

He also had a volcanic temper. Once, as a much younger editor, I was called to Don’s office because of a poorly chosen comment I’d made to one of his account execs. No sooner had I sat than Don barked that there was no need to sit; he’d summoned me to his office specifically to throw me out. “And don’t you ever show your face here again!” he yelled as I skulked out.

A few weeks later, he called me to commiserate about how much pressure we’re all under, and how easy it can be to say something we regret later. It wasn’t clear if he was referring to what I’d said to his exec, what he’d said to me, or both. But he ended with, “You’re welcome here any time,” and I didn’t doubt it for a second.

“Underneath everything was this innate kindness,” says Berlind. He recounts how Axleroad taught art to people with developmental disabilities after he sold The Food Group and ostensibly retired. (You can read more of Berlind's reminiscences here.)

Axleroad also contributed considerable time and money to elevating the industry’s professionalism through his committee work at the Culinary Institute of America. Even in a roomful of big egos, he didn’t hold back on speaking his mind.

Those of us who had the privilege of knowing Don need no reminder of what the industry has lost with his death. But everyone in the business is truly a little poorer from his passing.

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