J. Willard and Alice “Allie” Marriott
The founding parents of Marriott’s hospitality empire were pioneers of the restaurant business long before their surname ever appeared on a hotel. In 1927, the couple opened a nine-seat A&W Root Beer stand in the Washington, D.C., area. From that simple franchise would grow arguably the industry’s first multibusiness foodservice conglomerate, with more than 1,000 restaurants, one of the world’s largest concessionaires, a foodservice contract management company and even two theme parks. That’s not counting the food and beverage operations of hotel chains encompassing about 6,500 properties.
All accounts of their early days portray the couple as a true partnership. J. Willard was the operations specialist; Allie handled the bookkeeping.
She would continue to manage the money as the company grew at a head-turning rate.
“My father was a perfectionist,” the couple’s youngest son, Richard “Dick” Marriott, recalls today. “He had a set of service standards covering everything, from your fingernails being clean to how you brush your teeth and how to use mouthwash to be sure your breath was fresh.”
Allie was “the velvet glove over the iron fist,” says Dick Marriott, who would join the family business in 1947. “I never heard her raise her voice. She was very easygoing, very smart, always smiling. Everyone who met her loved her.”
What they shared was drive and a knack for building chains, few of which were around at the time.
The first hotel, a 300-room motel just outside D.C., would come in 1957. Gradually, the company spun off its restaurants to focus on contract feeding, concessions and hotels. The company exited the restaurant business in the late 1980s and early ’90s.
Subtlety was not a trait regularly ascribed to Baum, the operator-consultant who shaped New York City’s fine-dining scene for four decades. Once, while on a panel at a major industry event, the New York native was asked what he’d do with a failing restaurant that just wouldn’t turn around. Simple, replied Baum: Torch it.
He was equally over the top, though still in the realm of good taste, in many of his creations, whether it was The Forum of the Twelve Caesars, The World’s Greatest Bar atop the World Trade Center or the reopened Rainbow Room of 1987. He outfitted the restaurants he helped create with brilliant chefs, a menu that stood out because of its creativity, and top-flight service and fare. But Baum breathed new life into the hoary principles of fine dining, aiming for excitement and plenty of showmanship along with haute cuisine.
It was Baum, according to lore, who first encouraged servers to greet their table with, “Hi, my name is Renaldo, and I’ll be your server today.” Ditto for approaching the table with an oversized pepper mill for tableside grinding to the customer’s preference.
More profound was the splash made by the elaborate, standout restaurants he had a hand in creating from the mid-1950s through the ’90s. That list includes not only Windows on the World, but also the Four Seasons, the Hawaiian Room and a casual German sausage concept called Zum Zum.
When fine dining was well into its retreat from starched tablecloths, tuxedoed servers and menus printed in French, a 27-year-old Missourian came to New York City to try out his take on ambitious food and service. He secured a so-so location in an iffy area of the city to open a comfy but proper spot serving high-end yet accessible food and wine. Its most noticeable feature might have been what was missing: the stuffiness of places operating at a similar echelon.
Its food, service and understated style immediately drew attention, making Union Square Cafe a hit and a place every restaurateur had to check out. Meyer, with the help of appearing in an American Express TV ad, became an instant celebrity.
Personal style was a big part of the reason. Meyer was the Jimmy Stewart to old guard restaurateurs’ Jeremy Irons, a down-to-earth guy seemingly more comfortable in sweaters than a suit. His appeal was sharpened with the publication of his book, “Setting the Table,” a best-seller that put forth his theory of “enlightened hospitality.” Among other things, he stressed, long before it became an industry fashion, that appreciating employees was the key to financial success. Indeed, the mindset may have come into vogue in no small part because of what Meyer practiced in his highly successful restaurants.
Meyer was crucial in redefining high-end dining. No longer was it where the Monopoly man and his old-money friends might pop in for a classic coq au vin. In his sort of fine dining, customers could enjoy the food, wine and service without worrying about using the right fork.
More recently, Meyer provided full-service restaurants with a new compensation model to replace tipping as the prevailing method. His Hospitality Included approach called for increasing prices and eliminating tips. All profits from the dishes sold go into a kitty that’s then distributed according to a complicated formula to supplement employees’ hourly wages. The model has since been extensively copied, but with few successes.
After living through most of the Great Depression, a 19-year-old resident of Waycross, Ga., believed he saw an opportunity in 1938 to shake off the era’s economic curse and fulfill some big dreams. Bill Darden opened a luncheonette in his hometown called The Green Frog, promising “service with a hop.” According to accounts of the time, the venture’s points of distinction included a refusal to separate white and black patrons.
Any controversy stirred by the move failed to hold back the Frog. It provided Darden with the capital to invest in the Howard Johnson’s restaurant chain and to think about another restaurant venture. He noticed that seafood was one of the big sellers at his luncheonette, and that most seafood restaurants at the time operated along the coast, charging tourists exorbitant prices.
Darden figured he’d give seafood a try, but sell it inland, where he’d face virtually no competition. Still, he knew people regarded prices differently day in and day out than they did while on vacation. A key part of his brainchild would be prices low enough for working people to enjoy on a regular basis.
He tested his concept, Red Lobster Inn, in the inland town of Lakeside, Fla., not far from the orange groves of Orlando. It connected quickly with Floridians and their snowbird guests, and became the foundation for one of casual dining’s market-making operators, Darden Restaurants. Red Lobster is no longer part of that fold, but its underlying principles—food viewed as up-market offered at everyday prices—would become a signature of the segment.
Healthier options might have been slower to creep onto mainstream menus if it weren’t for the phenomenal success Subway enjoyed with its positioning as a better-for-you option. Detractors say the reality did not always match perceptions, but health was a key aim of the venture from its conception in 1965. At a social gathering, 17-year-old Fred DeLuca remarked to a family friend, the nuclear physicist Peter Buck, that he wished there were fast-food options less fattening than burgers and fries. Buck challenged the teenager to start one if he believed there was a need.
With $1,000 lent by Buck, DeLuca did just that. After a few stumbles, the concept took off, in part because the relative low cost of a franchise made it an attractive business venture for mom and pop industry newcomers, including recent immigrants. Access and awareness of the brand spread quickly.
Because Subway’s sandwiches were made to order, not preassembled, and the ingredients were all in view, consumers embraced the brand as a wholesome alternative to burger, pizza and chicken joints. The perception was fostered by some of the era’s most memorable advertising, including a longtime campaign starring Jared Fogle, a real-life customer who threw off much of his weight by eating at Subway every day. With demand high among both consumers and franchisees, the brand became the world’s largest restaurant chain in terms of unit count.
Subway lost some of that momentum in recent years. Fogle was imprisoned for sexually preying on minors, and Subway’s signature assembly line was replicated in a more upscale form by Chipotle and then copied by most of the fast-casual segment. DeLuca died in 2015, at age 67, from leukemia. But it remains the industry’s largest player, still touting health along with value and convenience.
As president of the Jack in the Box fast-food chain in the early 1960s, right as the quick-service restaurant (QSR) sector was catching fire, a young Coloradan had an inkling that the restaurant industry was ripe for a seismic change. Norman Brinker believed he could get the same high level of traffic that QSRs enjoyed if he could offer adults the sort of value and consistency they expected from the grab-and-go sector, but with better food, the pampering of servers, and the option of sipping something stronger than soda. He gave his notion a try, to resounding success, with Brinks Coffee Shop, and then moved on to create Steak and Ale, the prototype for many of today’s casual-dining concepts.
Brinker also showed an innate brilliance as a motivator, successfully challenging his team to hatch and build one casual chain after another, from Bennigan’s to Chili’s Grill & Bar and Romano’s Macaroni Grill. He’s known as the father of the segment and an innovator even competitors have refused to knock.
If the Chicago native had done nothing more than open R.J. Grunts in 1971, he’d be hailed today as a great innovator. The restaurant featured a serve-yourself array of greens and garnishes—what we know today as a salad bar, in large part because of Grunts’ success. It would also establish a much-copied partnership model that Melman would use to build a collection of one-off, often idiosyncratic restaurants that formed his trend-setting company, Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises. Silent partners provided the capital, and he came up with an offbeat idea and ran the operations.
Grunts was the first example of the whimsy and personality that Melman would bring to his restaurants, starting with the name. Among the concepts he would hatch were Lawrence of Oregano, Jonathan Livingston Seafood, Wow Bao, Scoozi and Cafe Ba-Ba-Reeba.
He carried theming to new heights, without the cheesiness of the big-box “eatertainment” concepts that proliferated in the 1990s. One of his Italian concepts, positioned as a neighborhood joints for immigrants just off the boat, featured clotheslines hung with laundry. The servers at his Ed Debevic’s, a retro diner concept, snapped gum and wisecracked with patrons, sometimes sitting down at their tables. At The Eccentric, Melman’s joint venture with Oprah Winfrey, servers entered the dining room through a curtain, as if they were performers.
“Rich always saw things a little differently,” says Lettuce EVP and General Counsel Jay Stieber, a veteran of the company for several decades. By immersing ethnic cuisines in a disarming, fun environment, Melman made them more accessible.
Melman’s most influential contribution might be the model he forged for operators who wanted the financial benefits of operating multiple units without the constraints of the rules typically imposed by chains. His company became the textbook multiconcept operation, as it remains today. Lettuce currently operates more than 120 restaurants, most under their own name and concepting.
The story is now part of American lore: A milkshake mixer salesman visits a restaurant in California because he’s astounded by how many of the machines it’s buying. He finds McDonald’s, a study in ergonomics engineered by the veteran restaurant operators Mac and Dick McDonald. Where they see the means to a comfortable and not-too-taxing life, 56-year-old Kroc recognizes a chance to capitalize on the baby boom, a surge in the middle class, suburbanization, America’s love affair with the automobile and a goodly number of other megatrends that would shape the coming decades.
He used franchising to build his empire, giving that business model a major boost in acceptance during the go-go 1960s. He also set a mindset that still influences the industry in profound and small ways today. Simple is better. The basics are essential. Value is key. Uniformity and consistency translate into consumer trust. Operations are the foundation for success. Market, market, market. Build your system on local operators. And stay focused.