Norman Eugene Brinker was born in Denver in 1931, and grew up in Roswell, New Mexico. He worked for a local newspaper before enlisting in the U.S. Navy during the Korean War. Upon his discharge, he lived in the Navy city of San Diego and earned a business degree from what is now San Diego State University. A member of the U.S. Olympic equestrian team in 1952, in 1955 he married a fellow athlete, Maureen Connolly, a tennis star from San Diego who also loved horses. They remained married until her death in 1969. He would marry three more times, including to Nancy Goodman, whose sister, also a cancer victim, inspired her to create the Susan G. Komen for the Cure foundation. Including her son from a previous marriage, Norman Brinker would be the father of three daughters and two sons.
He went to work for Robert Peterson, a San Diego businessman who owned the chain known originally as Oscar's, and then as Jack in the Box. Peterson had pioneered an intercom system that made drive-thru fast-food ordering practical, this inspiring Brinker's penchant for innovation. In only two years, Peterson was impressed enough with Brinker to name him president of the company that ran the restaurants and make him a 20 percent owner.
Peterson took Jack in the Box public, but Brinker decided to sell his shares, and try something new. He thought of low-budget coffee shops, like the one he owned in his new hometown of Dallas, called Brink's, and more upscale restaurants, and thought he could meet them halfway. Thinking of people between the ages of 25 (old enough to have jobs that paid enough to eat out) and 44 (young enough to still have patience with a young waitstaff) - thus meeting the needs of, at that time, people who grew up in the hardships of the Great Depression or the rationing of World War II, and ready for something good and able to pay for it - in 1966 he established Steak and Ale, saying, "I wanted something that is reasonably priced and a hell of a value."
At Steak and Ale, the steaks were priced considerably less than at traditional steakhouses, and Brinker added a salad bar. Previously used mostly in cafeterias, it was the first restaurant chain to have the feature. He is also credited with coining the now-universally-familiar waitstaff opening line: "Hi, my name is (Name of Server), and I will be your (waiter/waitress/server) (today/tonight)." The idea was to make the connection between customer and server more personal, so that each saw the other as more than just a face, a piece of a transaction, a means to an end. In the quickly-growing Dallas-Fort Worth area, a.k.a. the Metroplex, Steak and Ale was a hit, and expanded outside the region.
By 1976, Pillsbury was not only willing to buy Steak and Ale and its 109 locations in 24 States, but make Brinker the chairman of its restaurant division, which then also included Burger King and Bennigan's. Pillsbury would later sell the Steak and Ale and Bennigan's brands, which have since gone out of business.
In 1982, Brinker was asked to lead Burger King's "Burger Wars" against McDonald's, and was enjoying some success, when he suddenly left a year later. He bought Chili's Grill and Bar, then a small Texas chain, from founder Larry Lavine, and added a Tex-Mex theme to its original burger-based menu. "It was a small company - exactly the right size," he said in a 1988 interview, "and I thought that it would be fun to compete with the giants."
He took Chili's public in 1984, and in 1991 he renamed his company Brinker International. Before his retirement 10 years later, the company would also own Romano's Macaroni Grill, Maggiano's Little Italy and On the Border Mexican Grill and Cantina. Some of the people his company trained to run his restaurants would end up running Sizzler, Applebee's, T.G.I. Friday's and Boston Market. If he didn't invent "casual dining," he is essentially the founding father of the industry.
As Brinker grew older, he realized that his original base, the people born in the 1920s and '30s, his generation, was growing older, too. He had his restaurants' menus printed in larger type, and he had them turn the loudspeaker music down. But, knowing that the 25-to-44 age group, the prime working-age group, would always be the largest share of the restaurant market, he did research on what they were beginning to want, and added lower-fat and vegetarian meals and side dishes to the menu. He also made Chili's one of the first restaurant chains to actively use computers for scheduling and inventory.
Brinker remained an active polo player until 1993, when a competition accident nearly killed him. But he returned to work in six months, retiring in 2001, and died in 2009 at age 78. He was played by Mark Harmon in "Little Mo," a 1978 film about his first wife, with Glynnis O'Connor in the title role. Their daughter, Cindy Brinker Simmons, became a public relations and charity executive, and wrote a biography of her mother.