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Leadership

Restaurant luminaries we lost in 2021

The industry's ranks of innovators were thinned by the passing of these giants.

Among the bitter developments of the past year was the loss of talents who’ve indisputably left a stamp on the restaurant business.  Here are some of the standouts who passed in 2021.

Preston "Pres" Blake, Friendly’s co-founder, proud gadfly

It’s not an overstatement to call Blake a founding father of the modern restaurant chain. He and younger brother Curtis launched their brainchild in 1935, in the throes of the Great Depression. Pres was 20—two years older than Curtis. They’d have to temporarily shut the operation so the twentysomethings could fight in World War II.

For the last 86 years of his life, the elder Blake would show a propensity to air his opinions on how Friendly’s should be run—even long after he and his brothers had sold the brand. He famously forced a sale of the family dining chain to the giant private-equity company Sun Capital, a move so controversial that it led to a temporary rift between the Blake brothers.

Curtis died in 2019 at age 102. Ever a competitor, Pres persevered for nearly two more years, passing in early 2021 at age 106. Both had professed that they ate at least one scoop of ice cream every day.

Peter Buck, Subway’s co-founder and seed capitalist

The story is now a part of industry lore: A young go-getter about to enter college laments that all he could afford to eat on his budget was greasy fast food. Hearing that complaint from an ambitious Fred DeLuca, family friend Peter Buck challenged the youngster to fill the void himself. He agreed to lend DeLuca $1,000 to open what started in 1965 as Pete’s Super Submarines.  When the concept failed to find traction, the partners changed the name to Subway and set it on a fast growth track.

It would of course grow into one of the world’s largest restaurant chains by unit count.

The two would remain partners until the day DeLuca died. But from Day One, Buck, a nuclear physicist with a Ph.D., had no desire to be in the spotlight. Although Subway would make him a wealthy man, he ceded the figurehead part of the founder’s role completely to DeLuca, along with day-to-day operations. The younger partner would die in 2015 from leukemia.

Buck remained a co-owner of the brand with DeLuca’s widow when he died in November at age 90. In 2015, Forbes estimated the scientist’s net worth at $1.6 billion.

Cliff Freeman, restaurant advertising’s Midas

Wendy’s would have had a tougher time climbing to prominence if it hadn’t been for Freeman, an industrious ad man with a gift for hilarity.  The spots he created for the burger brand back in the mid-1980s, when it was just emerging as a national brand, remain affixed in the popular consciousness.  He harnessed humor to great effect in touting Wendy’s points of distinction—the greater heft of its burgers, for instance, or customer’s ability to customize their sandwich. His catchphrase, “Where’s the beef?”, even figured into the 1984 campaign for the  U.S. presidency.

He did similar work for Little Caesars, introducing the nation to the chain’s two-for-one signature deal via the tagline, “Pizza, pizza.”

Freeman died from pneumonia in late summer at age 80.  

Harry Knowles, founder, The Manor

Rags-to-riches stories abound in the restaurant industry. The textbook example may be the account of Knowles, patriarch of the family that built a fine-dining and catering empire back in the days when gentlemen dined out in suits and ties and a woman wouldn’t leave the house without wearing a hat, if not white gloves.

The son of a policeman who worked his way up to chief from a mechanic’s job in the squad’s garage, Knowles was a fighter pilot during World War II.  Coming out of the service, he landed a job as a busboy for the Robin Hood Inn in New Jersey, steadily rising through server and bartender’s posts to become banquet manager. As a side hustle, he also started a jukebox company and grew it to 81 locations.

Seeing little future in coin-operated amusements, Knowles sold his venture and used the money to buy an existing but aged old-guard restaurant in northern New Jersey. It would become The Manor.  Together with his sons and wife, the daughter of the Robin Hood Inn’s owner, the one-time pilot would build his venture into one of the nation’s top fine-dining destinations. It remains in operation today.

Other restaurants and catering operations would follow, run in collaboration with sons Wade and Kurt.

The elder Knowles died in early October at age 97.

Mark Peel, Los Angeles chef and field-to-fork pioneer

After working in Los Angeles kitchens with the likes of Wolfgang Puck, Alice Waters, Jonathan Waxman and Ken Frank, Peel and then-wife Nancy Silverton became a sensation when they opened La Brea Bakery and Campanile restaurant in the late 1980s. The American cuisine movement was at full throttle, and the couple proved masterful proponents of serving fresh, seasonal ingredients from local producers.  They helped to popularize what would be called California cuisine.

The marriage and Campanile would not last. The couple eventually sold La Brea to an international baker from Europe, which parlayed it into a major supermarket brand.

Peel would continue to launch restaurants, but his years of kitchen left him with debilitating Carpel Tunnel Syndrome. He died in June shortly after being diagnosed with an aggressive form of germ cell cancer.  Peel was 66 years old.

Matt Prentice, Detroit’s culinary innovator

As a 20-year-old student at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., Prentice was on his way to becoming a fine-dining chef when he learned that his father, a deli operator, had taken sick back in the family’s home turf of Michigan. With the family business in bad shape, Prentice dropped out of culinary school and headed home to save it. He had $200 to his name, which he slipped into the deli’s till to serve as working capital.

Drawing on practical experience and what he’d learned as one of the nation’s leading training grounds for chefs, Prentice turned the deli into a culinary hit for the greater Detroit area, not exactly a hotbed of fine dining. He would parlay that success into a group of restaurants sporting creative menus and plenty of culinary twists, including a kosher establishment designed to appeal to a non-kosher audience.    Such places as Morel, Coach Insignia and Shiraz would make his Unique Restaurant Groups one of the Midwest’s best-known multi-concpet operations.

He died in the spring at age 62 from colon cancer, according to local press coverage.

Bill Regas, a mentor to many

If there was a finishing school for service-driven entrepreneurs, it may well have been Regas Restaurant, the family run landmark in Knoxville, Tenn.  The dean would undoubtedly have been Bill Regas, who died this summer at age 92.

Regas would run the restaurant for much of his adult life, inheriting that responsibility from his father and uncle. But he wasn’t handed the keys; Bill had to work his way up from the lowliest job, reminded at each step of his elders’ mantra, “Work as if your job depends on every single customer, every day.” 

During his long tenure, the younger Regas found himself working shoulder-to-shoulder at Regas Restaurant with a young go-getter named Dave Thomas, who would go on to found Wendy’s. Thomas lauded Regas as a key influence on both his personal and professional life.

Regas also worked with Rick Federico, who would eventually become   CEO of P.F. Chang’s; Mike Connor, the founder of the upscale Chop House and Connors groups; and Steve Paleo, founder of Paleo’s.

He was also viewed as a distant uncle of sorts by many of the families that make Regas Restaurant a local dining option. The restaurant closed in 2010 after 90 years of business. The community acknowledged its contribution, and the memories generated by Bill Regas, by name a section of the city Regas Square.

Kent Taylor, Texas Roadhouse founder

If you need another reason to curse the pandemic, put the loss of the Roadhouse founder on the list in big, bold letters, if not in neon. Anything less would be inappropriate.

He was widely admired (and cursed by competitors) not only for building his honkytonk entrant into a seemingly bullet-proof casual-dining concept, but also for the contrarian way he led that ascension. No convention was sacrosanct, and no innovation was too crazy to consider. Like having servers break into line dancing when the mood hit them.

He also tossed the standard playbook for concept founders. He was no cheerleader who trotted out for the occasional inspirational speech drawn from the lessons of the early days. Until the day he died, Taylor was running the brand, and in his idiosyncratic style to boot.

 A case in point: When the pandemic hit, many chain CEOs opted to redirect their pay into relief funds for employees who were laid off. So did Taylor. But he sweetened his contribution with $5 million from his own pocket.

Taylor himself was a victim of the pandemic. A bout with COVID-19 left him with an unbearable ringing in his head. He took his life at age 65.

Arne Sorenson, former CEO and dealmaker, Marriott

When Marriott was looking for a CEO to succeed Bill Marriott, the son of founder and longtime leader J.W. “Willard” Marriott, the famously conservative company made an uncharacteristic move. Instead of naming yet another Marriott family member to the job, the lodging giant chose Sorenson, an outsider, to serve as its third-ever leader.

The choice was validated in short order. Under Sorenson’s direction, Marriott amassed $13 billion to buy Starwood Hotels and Resorts, swelling its already extensive operations to 7,500 properties from 32 chains operating in 132 counties.

Simultaneously, Sorenson focused internally on bolstering the lodging giant’s diversity, equality and inclusion efforts.

A few years afterward, when the company was riding high, Sorenson was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. In early Feb. 2021, the company announced that the popular leader was paring down his duties to focus on treatment. He died two weeks later at age 62.  

Don Tober, Harvard lawyer turned sweetener king

You may not recognize his name, but Tober's legacy is as unmistakable  as the pink Sweet 'n Low packets that adorn many a restaurant table. The alternative sweetener was the signature product of the Harvard-educated lawyer's company, Sugar Foods. He and business partner Steve Odell launched the venture in the late 1960s, when heightened interest in health led many consumers away from sugar. The product would become as ubiquitous in the industry as forks.

But that wasn't the only way Tober shaped the business. He shared his wealth with a variety of industry causes and institutions, including the Culinary Institute of America. He and his wife Barbara, a one-time editor of Brides magazine, helped to found New York City Meals on Wheels, a highly successful program for feeding the elderly.

Tober died in January after being diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease.

 

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