Tuesday, December 14, 2010

So long to a legend

One of the establishments that shaped the U.S. restaurant industry—the trade’s own Chuck Berry—will shut its doors for good on Dec. 31. After 91 years, Regas Restaurant will no longer show the business how important service can and should be.

You might not have heard of it, but the chances are extremely high that you’ve felt its influence. If you dined at a P.F. Chang’s, for instance. The company is co-led by Rick Federico, one of the many, many industry standouts who learned the business from paterfamilias Bill Regas, a true legend.

When I was the editor of Restaurant Business magazine, we ran an annual feature called the Undercover Service Report, where the editors and our freelancers acted as finicky customers to test the service mettle of various restaurant chains. Bill wrote me a letter, saying that the story would be a yawner if places could just remember to put the customer first. By all accounts, his family’s Knoxville institution never forgot that imperative.

Dave Thomas, the founder of Wendy’s, would remember his education at Regas decades later. Thomas started working there at age 12. According to the legend, he was fired in short order because he didn’t agree with management. He supposedly vowed never to repeat his mistake and lose another job. Working with management became a hallmark of his time at KFC, where he first became a multi-millionaire, and then Wendy’s.

Despite the trajectory of Thomas’ career, the Regas’ influence was felt mainly in casual dining, not quick service. Indeed, Brinker International, the parent of Chili’s, bought rights to build a chain of Regas-inspired restaurants. The name was changed to Grady’s, and the concept was watered down, starting with the ice cream, then moving to other aspects.

It proved to be a bomb for Chili’s, which sold the rights to Quality Dining, a Burger King and Chili’s franchisee,
which completely re-engineered the DNA.

The times apparently caught up with the Regas, however. Business by all accounts has been down, so the current owners decided to shut down with the close of the year.

But fans should take heart: The restaurant closed once before, in 2000, only to reopen in ’02.

It’s been navigating the changes in consumer tastes and its local market place ever since. That process may end, but the restaurant’s influence lives on.

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