Norman Brinker, the man who changed America's definition of casual dining out, died on vacation Tuesday. The chairman emeritus of Brinker International and its retired chief executive was 78.

Share story

DALLAS — Norman Brinker, the man who changed America’s definition of casual dining out, died on vacation Tuesday. The chairman emeritus of Brinker International and its retired chief executive was 78.

Mr. Brinker was with his wife, Toni, in Colorado Springs celebrating his birthday last Wednesday when he aspirated food. He died of aspirated pneumonia Tuesday.

“Through his teachings and guidance, and leadership, Norman changed the whole restaurant industry,” said retired Dean Foods vice chairman Pete Schenkel, one of Mr. Brinker’s closest friends. “He was a real entrepreneur, a very caring person and someone you were always glad to see because he had a smile on his face.”

At one time or another, virtually every major food chain in the country has been led by a former employee of Mr. Brinker’s, said Doug Brooks, chief executive of Brinker International. Just two examples: Outback Steakhouse and Houston’s were founded by Brinker protégés.

Mr. Brinker, who started out as a busboy in Southern California, moved to Dallas in the early 1960s with his first wife, tennis great Maureen Connolly Brinker, who died in 1969. His first restaurant was a Dallas coffee shop called Brink’s.

In 1966, he used $10,000 and a $5,000 loan to launch Steak & Ale, which grew into 109 restaurants and was sold to Pillsbury 10 years later.

While at Pillsbury’s restaurant division, Mr. Brinker created the Bennigan’s chain and became known as the originator of the “fern bar” restaurant concept intended to attract single people.

But he is best known for his transformation of Chili’s from 21 hamburger joints into a publicly traded restaurant behemoth, Brinker International, that owns three casual dining chains: Chili’s Grill & Bar, Maggiano’s Little Italy and On the Border Mexican Grill & Cantina.

Mr. Brinker retired as chairman in 2000 after building the chain of more than 1,000 restaurants. The company now has 1,700 restaurants in 27 countries.

In addition to his celebrated business career, Mr. Brinker was an Olympic equestrian.

He had faced serious health issues since a 1993 polo accident that put him in a coma for three weeks and partially paralyzed him for three months. He hadn’t been expected to live, much less walk again. But he did. He later battled throat cancer.

Last month, Methodist Health System Foundation honored Mr. Brinker with its Robert S. Folsom Leadership Award. He rode a three-wheel motorcycle on stage to accept the award.