Bennigan's founder Norman Brinker dies

Most diners probably have never heard of Norman Brinker, who died today at the age of 78, but chances are they have been on a date in one of his restaurants -- or at least one of his restaurant concepts.

The chairman emeritus of Brinker International Inc. (EAT) was one of the pioneers of casual dining. In 1966, he used $10,000 and a $5,000 loan to launch Steak & Ale, a chain that went bankrupt in 2008, one of the first such companies to go bankrupt because of the recession. Another Brinker creation, Bennigan's, was also a casualty of the economic slowdown.

According to the Dallas Morning News, "While at Pillsbury's restaurant division, Brinker created the Bennigan's chain and became known as the originator of the 'fern bar' restaurant concept intended to attract single people." Among his many restaurant-related claims to fame is the development of the salad bar.

Brinker exited Steak & Ale and Bennigan's years before they got into trouble. Brinker also transformed a 21-location chain of burger joints named Chill's into Brinker International, which owns Chili's Grill & Bar, Maggiano's Little Italy and On the Border Mexican Grill & Cantina.

His personal life had its share of ups and downs.

His first marriage to tennis legend Maureen Connelly, who tragically died of ovarian cancer, was immortalized in the 1978 film "Little Mo." Brinker helped his third wife Nancy provide financial support in honor of her late sister Susan G. Komen, who died of breast cancer. That group eventually became the premiere charity associated with fighting breast cancer.

So anyone who is dining at one of the chains Brinker founded, might want to hoist a fruit-flavored alcoholic drink or a glass of soda that's been refilled in his memory.
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