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Restaurant luminaries lost in 2018: The builders

The restaurant landscape would be much different today if it weren’t for the businesses these departed leaders built. Here’s a look at those industrious forces who were lost during 2018.
Photograph: Shutterstock

The restaurant landscape would be much different today if it weren’t for the businesses these departed leaders built. Here’s a look at those industrious forces who were lost during 2018.

Tom Margittai, Four Seasons

It could be a movie script: A Transylvanian who narrowly escaped execution by the Nazis because of a bribe paid to Adolf Eichmann comes to the U.S. after a stop in Israel and lands a job as a dishwasher. He leapfrogs from job to job before landing at Restaurant Associates (RA), the multiconcept restaurant group that claimed the famed Four Seasons among its charges. It was no longer the jewel in that crown, having lost its luster as the Mad men era came to a close. Enter Margittai and longtime business partner Paul Kovi, who bought the lease from RA ($15,000 down) and turned the restaurant into a lunchtime haunt of the city’s power brokers and bold-faced names. That role, along with a well-executed menu that changed seasonally, made it world famous and a model for fine-dining restaurants everywhere. Margittai retired in 1994. He was 90 at the time of his death.

Caroline Rose Hunt, Rosewood Hotels (Mansion on Turtle Creek)

The founder of Rosewood Hotels could have stepped right out of a “Dallas” episode if she’d only been meaner and coarser. Neither descriptor fit the genteel Hunt, the daughter of legendary Texas oilman H. L. Hunt. She made a lasting contribution to the restaurant industry by adorning her jewel of a hotel in Dallas, The Mansion on Turtle Creek, with a namesake restaurant featuring American fare, a cuisine that drew little respect on the world stage beforehand. Chef Dean Fearing did much to change that, using native ingredients to make North America the new center of culinary innovation. It was a devotion Hunt maintained as her Rosewood Hotels opened or assumed management of other lodging gems, including the Hotel Bel-Air in Los Angeles and the Crescent Court in Dallas. She died at age 95, still one of the richest women in America.

Rick Diarmit, One Off Hospitality (Blackbird, Avec)

While chef Paul Kahan ran the kitchen of a Chicago newcomer called Blackbird, veteran operator Rick Diarmit worked the dining room, becoming the face of a restaurant that would quickly become one of the most celebrated dining spots in the nation. The outlet would become the foundation of a multiconcept group called One Off Hospitality, which would grow to include hot spots Avec, Publican, Big Star and Violet Hour, all in Chicago. Diarmit died while attending his daughter’s graduation in New York City at age 59.

Orin Smith, Starbucks

Among the driving forces behind Starbucks’ rapid expansion at the start of the current century was Smith, CEO and president of the coffee giant during the crucial years of 2000 through 2005. He was part of a triumvirate known as H2O, the H’s being Howard Schultz, the executive who parlayed a coffee stall in Seattle’s Pike Place Market into the behemoth it is today, and Howard Behar, who was known to square off with his namesake over key strategic issues. Smith, the O of the trio, was the cooler head that brought tempers back down to a simmer. Schultz described Smith at the time of his death at age 75 as the older brother he never had.

Sahar Sander, Naf Naf Grill

An Israeli native with a jovial, energetic style, Sander turned a shuttered Taco Bell into a fast-growing chain that would snare the attention of consumers and investors alike. His brainchild, Naf Naf Grill, opened in a Chicago suburb in 2009, another concept applying the principles of fast-casual service to Middle Eastern food. Sander differentiated his entrant in that increasingly crowded field by doing almost everything in-house, from roasting the shawarma (the towers of spiced chicken and beef that rotate on a vertical spit) to making his own pitas. Naf Naf became a cult favorite, and more branches followed. While the concept was still in its infancy, it drew the attention of Roark Capital, the private-equity firm that had focused until that point on wheezing big restaurant brands in need of rejuvenation. Sander relinquished his CEO title but remained a culinary adviser to Naf Naf, which translates to “fan the flames.”  He was 57 at the time of his death from a cause that was not revealed.

Joe Perrino, Home Run Inn Pizza

Perrino was a descendant of the mother-and-son team that developed a pizza to sell in their Home Run Inn, a tavern in Chicago’s Italian Village. He would keep the business a family-run enterprise while broadening its scope to include selling frozen pies inside supermarkets, still a novel diversification for restaurants at the time. He also continued to open pizzerias under the Home Run Inn name. Perrino had his children and other relatives work in the business, starting in such positions as grinding sausage and bussing tables. At least four are still involved, including Perrino’s successor as CEO, nephew Dan Costello.

Charlie Sarkis, Back Bay Restaurant Group (Papa Razzi, J.C. Hillary’s)

Multiconcept restaurant operators (MCOs) are a significant part of the restaurant landscape today, but were still a little-noticed phenomenon back in the days Sarkis was developing a stable of casual- and fine-dining restaurants in his native Boston. He would develop 30 restaurants, also pioneering the now standard approach for MCOs of seeking out areas heading for gentrification to hold down their occupancy costs. Sarkis’ choice was the Back Bay section of Beantown, now a major destination for visitors. He did it while discouraging public associations with his father, an organized crime figure arrested several times for the routine goodfellas crimes of gambling and bookmaking. The younger Sarkis was 78.

Bill Galt, Good Earth

Back when health food restaurants were viewed as bark-and-berry refuges for the hemp-underwear crowd, Galt proved there was pent-up demand for something more mainstream. His vehicle was Good Earth, a casual concept featuring better-for-you fare in a setting closer to a TGI Fridays than an ashram. He also didn’t neglect taste as a key factor in drafting the menu. The operation grew to 15 restaurants before snagging the interest of General Mills, then the parent of Red Lobster. It saw a possible future in Galt’s brainchild, though Good Earth never came close to matching the size of its sister concepts, including Olive Garden. Galt was 89.

Jack Williams, Richie’s Real American Diner

While working as a salesman for a wholesale baker, Williams overheard a restaurateur-client speaking with a strange-looking white-haired gent who was raving about a chicken recipe. The restaurateur was Jim Collins, an early operator of Sizzler and one of KFC’s first franchisees, and the guy with the white goatee was Colonel Harland Sanders. Williams butted in to suggest he supply KFC restaurants in the Los Angeles area with baked goods from his employer. The relationship with Collins led to Williams becoming a Sizzler franchisee, and ultimately to opening his own concept, Richie’s, named after his good friend and In-N-Out principal Rich Snyder. The menu of Ritchie’s may have evolved with the times, but Williams’ belief in hospitality as the foundation of a concept never wavered. Well into his golden years, he was still dashing out to the parking lot to open the car door of a customer, and made a practice of shaking guests’ hands as they exited. His age was not revealed.

Mike Snyder, Red Robin Gourmet Burgers and Brews

Back in the 1990s, casual dining was the shiny new thing, the fast-casual sector of its time. One of the more differentiated players in the emerging field was Red Robin, a mall-based concept that positioned itself as the logical trade-up for generations that had grown up on fast food and were now rearing families of their own. It provided burgers in a sit-down setting with a drink program for all tastes. But it lost that orientation in a growth spurt, blurring the concept’s image and distracting franchisees from their core mission of delivering good service and value. Enter Snyder, the concept’s first franchisee and leading cheerleader. He became CEO and strived to put the brand back on track before mistakenly using corporate flying privileges for personal reasons. Rather than risk a scandal, he resigned. Snyder took his life in early December at age 68.

Richard Cousins, Compass Group

Three months before retiring, Cousins and his family were flying to a cricket match in Australia when their small aircraft crashed into a river outside Sydney. All aboard were killed, triggering a stipulation in a will Cousins had just rewritten to ensure his considerable wealth would pass to a charity if none of his immediate family were still alive. Cousins had righted Compass financially and reputation-wise after the world’s largest foodservice contractor had been investigated by U.S. authorities for alleged improprieties in the way it secured contracts from the United Nations. Cousins isolated the accused perpetrators, changed practices and policies and streamlined the whole operation. He was 58.

See more restaurant luminaries lost this year. 

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