The restaurant industry lost standouts in seemingly every aspect of the business during the past year, from finance through operations. Here, more or less in chronological order, are some of the luminaries who died and the imprint they leave on the field.
Joe Buckley, financial analyst
Buckley died of cancer at the end of 2016, but the loss would not hit home for many in the industry until public companies started airing their financial results to Wall Street in early 2017. One by one, restaurant executives paid tribute to the longtime restaurant-stock analyst, praising Buckley’s talent for unearthing the information needed to peg an operation’s true financial health. After two decades of tracking the business, he could cut through the spin and deliver assessments that likely colored many a board meeting.
“He had no hidden agenda, no axe to grind,” Lenny Comma, CEO of Jack in the Box, told other analysts during the company’s first-quarter financial recap. “He was as fair as anyone I've ever met.”
Executives expressed admiration in particular for Buckley’s willingness to visit their restaurants for a deeper understanding of the operations. “He often sent me thoughts about his Panera experiences, and they weren't always pleasant notes,” CEO Ron Shaich told portfolio managers in February. “His passing is truly a loss personally and a loss for our industry and for Wall Street.”
Shaich also mentioned Buckley’s craft at asking questions during analyst calls, when Wall Street participants are typically limited to one query each for the sake of brevity. Buckley, the restaurant analyst for Bank of America Merrill Lynch at the time of his passing, was brilliant at packing several questions into one lengthy multiparter.
He was 62 at the time of his death.
Richard Snead, TGI Fridays leader
The longtime executive of Fridays and its parent company died at the end of 2016 after a long bout with cancer. He had retired as CEO of the parent concern, Carlson Restaurants Worldwide, in 2009 to combat the disease, and recovered sufficiently to serve as the CEO for several years of Gatti’s Pizza, a venerable chain that was trying to make a comeback from its headquarters in Dallas.
Under Snead’s direction, Fridays aimed to broaden its appeal. The prototypical fern bar toned down its cheese and gimmickry, shedding such touches as the circus-tent stripes that figured into the restaurants’ design and uniforms. Much of the junk posted on the concept’s walls, another mark of distinction, also came down, and what remained was far more tasteful than kitschy. The rejuvenation came as casual dining was beginning the slowdown that is still afflicting the segment today.
Snead remained active in giveback activities, collaborating with the Texas Restaurant Association and the National Restaurant Association, where he had served as a director. He was 65 at the time of his death.
Richard Thomas, serial concept creator
His name may not be familiar, but Richard Thomas’ restaurant ventures will be known to anyone who’s driven down a decent-length fast-food row, especially if it’s in the South. Bojangles’, the chicken-and-biscuits concept, was one of his creations. KFC wasn’t, but Thomas was the chain’s first president, hired by founder Harland Sanders himself.
All told, Thomas hatched or nurtured some 350 restaurant ventures, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s website.
One of the most successful was the full-service place that Thomas was operating at the time of his death in January, R. Thomas Deluxe Grill in the Buckhead section of Atlanta. The restaurant opened in 1985 as a burger joint with a health orientation, a rare animal at the time. Like Thomas, the 24-hour operation was eccentric, known for its parrots and jungle foliage.
Thomas, a trained chef, described the 48-seat place as a counterbalance to all the fat-flinging quick-service places he’d created earlier in his career.
Thomas’ age at the time of his death was not revealed.
Mike Ilitch, Little Caesars founder and owner
As a Detroit native and baseball fanatic, the son of Macedonian immigrants likely dreamed of playing someday for the Tigers. He never took the field for his hometown team, but ended up owning it—along with the Red Wings NHL hockey team and several entertainment landmarks that were beyond his means growing up.
The wherewithal came from Ilitch’s most visible success, the Little Caesars pizza chain. Ilitch and his wife opened the first branch in a Detroit storefront, using capital they’d scraped together from Mike’s stint as a door-to-door salesman. By that point, the high school graduate had already decided against college. He’d worked for Uncle Sam, as a soldier, and proven a decent major league prospect during his time in minor-league baseball. But his ambitions exceeded his fielding abilities, so he plunged into business.
Ilitch’s restaurant brainchild was a pioneer of what marketing sages would later call everday value—a steal that wasn’t limited to a short stretch of time. A regular order at Caesars was two pizzas priced at what many competitors charged for a single pie. The standing deal was popularized by Caesars’ signature menu slogan: “Pizza! Pizza!”
Today, Caesars ranks as the nation’s third largest pizza chain, behind Domino’s and Pizza Hut. The storefront operation had grown into a cash machine generating $3.8 billion in annual sales by the time of Ilitch’s death at age 87 from unrevealed causes.
Dave Theno, food safety’s Yoda
The worst food-safety crisis in restaurant history is generally regarded as the E. coli poisonings that killed four children and sickened 178 other people in the Pacific Northwest in 1993. The outbreak was traced to undercooked hamburgers served at 73 Jack in the Box restaurants, but the repercussions spread far beyond a single market, brand or segment. The incident forced the industry to face up to its vulnerabilities and responsibilities in regard to food safety.
Delivering on that mission was the lifelong quest of David Theno, who drowned in June while snorkeling in Hawaii with his grandson. He was hired by Jack in the Box in 1993 essentially to save the brand. The public company gave him carte blanche to make the chain the safest in the industry and win back customers.
Theno seized the opportunity. He introduced such then-radical safeguards as HACCP, or Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points, the strategy of focusing resources and diligence on where food-safety lapses are most likely to occur. It’s now the standard of the industry and one of many risk-mitigation techniques that other chains would borrow from Jack in the Box—with Theno’s blessing, if not his help in adopting the measures.
Theno stayed with Jack in the Box for 16 years. More recently, he served as a consultant to Chipotle after its flurry of food-safety problems in late 2015.
Asked why he was so driven to help the industry, Theno would often crack open a worn wallet and fish out a picture of a 4-year-old who died in the Jack in the Box outbreak. That, he explained, was his motivation.
Theno was 66 when he died.
Joe Rogers and Tom Forkner, Waffle House co-founders
The duo behind the iconic Southern chain died just six months apart—Forkner, the last to go, in April at age 98, and Rogers in March at 97.
The idea for Waffle House was hammered out in the mid-1950s after the two became neighbors. Forkner, who was in real estate at the time, sold the house next to his to Rogers, an employee of the breakfast-oriented Toddle House chain. Rogers felt he had the idea for a better operation, and one they could own. The friendship led to a business partnership that was formalized with nothing more than a handshake.
The first Waffle House opened in 1955, sporting that name because waffles were the most profitable items on the menu and Rogers fancied himself to be an exceptional waffle cook. Rogers focused on customer relations, while Forkner was the businessman who managed finances. They would keep those roles until both stepped out of day-to-day operations in the 1970s, around the time Waffle House hit the 400-unit mark. Yet they continued to visit headquarters well into their 80s, in part because Rogers’ son, Joe Jr., took over as CEO.
Lois Margolet, sandwich inventor
At age 28, a manager at a military base decided to give the restaurant business a try. Lois Margolet quit her job, secured a $13,000 bank loan, collected some family recipes, and opened a sandwich shop in the Little Italy section of Wilmington, Del., where she’d grown up. For some Italian authenticity, she named the place after her grandfather, Philip. The sign read, Capriotti’s.
The menu was decidedly less Italian. The venture’s signature was a sandwich borrowed from Margolet’s Aunt Bobbie. It was essentially a Thanksgiving dinner on bread, with layers of turkey, cranberry sauce, dressing and mayonnaise, and quickly became a hit. It remains the signature of Capriotti’s, now a 108-unit fast-casual chain.
Margolet sold the operation in 2008 to a franchisee and became a licensee herself.
She died early this year of lung cancer at age 68.
Frank Pellegrino, aka Frankie No, Rao’s capo
Fans of TV and movie mob dramas would recognize him as a character actor, but New Yorkers lucky enough to score a seat at Rao’s, arguably the Big Apple’s most notorious restaurant, knew Frank Pellegrino as the don of the place. The Harlem restaurant sports only 10 tables, each of which is “owned” by a customer, a tribute to the loyalty and frequency Rao’s enjoys from its regulars. The place is open only Monday through Friday, for one sitting.
To dine there, nonowners had to know somebody. Yet so many diehards have tried to talk their way into the place that Pellegrino earned the nickname Frankie No.
In front of the camera, Pellegrino was likely best known for playing the FBI agent who pursued mobster Tony Soprano on the HBO series “The Sopranos.” The inside joke was that Rao’s is widely reputed to be a hangout for real wiseguys.
Pellegrino was 72 at the time of his death from lung cancer.
Christian Millau, restaurant-guide rebel
Before the rise of TripAdvisor and the like, diners looking for a culinary adventure would thumb through the most recent edition of Gault-Millau, a printed restaurant directory conceived as a saucy alternative to the staid Michelin Guide. The pre-internet checklist of must-try places was the brainchild of Christian Millau, the former newspaper editor who died in August at age 88.
Although Gault-Millau would never wield the clout in the United States that it enjoyed in Europe, the book was once a virtual handbook for fine-dining chefs who wanted to know what trends might jump across the pond to the New World.
Millau started the guide in 1969 with one of his reporters, Henri Gault.
Robert Wood, Bob Evans Farms executive
The one-time truck stop operator retired from the restaurant business in 1992 with a trophy store’s inventory of hardware, from a Silver Plate to a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Ohio Restaurant Association. He earned the honors while helping to build Bob Evans Restaurants into one of the largest and most successful family-dining chains of its time, sporting the string tie and black preacher’s garb that served as a virtual uniform for executives. Wood rose from the unit level to become COO and executive vice president of the company, serving as a director of the National Restaurant Association along the way.
Wood died in August at age 88 from undisclosed causes.
George Bannos, key member of a Chicago restaurant clan
Jimmy Bannos was the more famous of the duo, but observers say Chicago’s Heaven on Seven would not have been a success, never mind a standout for 32 years, had it not been for a brotherly partnership. The other half of that 37-year collaboration was older brother George Bannos, who died in August of a heart attack at age 65.
Jimmy was the chef and frontman, while George was more of the business influence in the background. He was known for his humor and warmth, having grown up in the restaurant business. The Bannos boys’ parents were both in the trade, as are Jimmy’s children, Jimmy, Jr., the chef and proprietor of Chicago’s Purple Pig, and daughter Anjelica, who managed Heaven on Seven with her uncle.