June 17, 2024


Free For All Food

Luminaries lost by the restaurant business in 2020

RIP 2020

Illustration: Restaurant Business staff

Death swiped a number of standouts from the restaurant industry in 2020. Here are some of the luminaries to whom we said goodbye.

1 / David Berlin
Tragedy struck in a mysterious way with the death of Berlin, a 9-year veteran of Firehouse Subs’ management team, the last six of them spent as director of franchise operations.  On a June afternoon, the lifelong member of the restaurant industry left his home in the Jacksonville, Fla., area for a walk. After he failed to return for hours, his family called the police, and an intensive manhunt was mounted. Firehouse co-founder Robin Sorenson offered a $30,000 award to whoever could locate Berlin.

A few days after Berlin went missing, the police found Berlin’s body not far from his home. They did not reveal the cause of death, and an investigation was begun. The results have not been widely circulated. Berlin was 67 and had been suffering from undisclosed ailments for years, according to local media reports.

His death drew a slew of warm reminiscences from his co-workers at Firehouse.

2 / Herman Cain
With his booming voice and gift for engaging an audience, Cain enjoyed a prominence that extended considerably beyond the restaurant industry. He had success as a conservative radio commentator and even briefly led the race for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination in 2012. President Trump wanted to appoint the native Atlantan to the Federal Reserve Board, a serious panel of suits, but Cain declined.

But it was as a restaurateur that he first drew notice. Cain was appointed as CEO of Godfather’s Pizza in the mid-1980s by its owner at the time, Pillsbury Co. That led to presentations at industry events, where his storytelling and occasional burst into song often made his appearances the most memorable portions of the conferences. His rise into an industry leader earned him a selection as chairman of the National Restaurant Association, a one-year post that is largely honorary. Cain used his oratorical skills and knack for the theatrical to wail against President Clinton’s universal health plan, often landing him on the mainstream evening news because of his well-stated opposition.

His style and effectiveness in that and other political battles prompted the association to hire him as its CEO, a full-time staff gig. His fame would climb accordingly as he led the organization for a stretch of several years. Long afteward, allegations would emerge of Cain making unsolicited advances on women. The assertions effectively sank his 2012 campaign. But Cain remained active in politics through his radio work.

Cain died from complications of COVID-19. He was 74.

3 / Floyd Cardoz
One of the industry’s first and still most heartbreaking losses from COVID-19 was the death of Cardoz on March 25. He was 59 years old.

The Bombay-born chef had drawn national attention with Tabla, a fine-dining Indian restaurant he created in New York in partnership with Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group in the late 1990s. The place drew raves from critics, but it lacked staying power and Cardoz eventually had to cool down his naan ovens. He subsequently helped Meyer open a broader-menu new restaurant in New York, North End Grill, in 2012, and stayed to man the kitchens. Later, he opened two restaurants in India.

Shortly after returning from a check of his overseas operations, Cardoz tweeted that he was heading to a hospital in New York City because he felt feverish. He tested positive for COVID-19 and died roughly a week afterward.

Acquaintances universally described Cardoz as a mild-mannered and outstandingly kind person who readily shared his knowledge.

4 / Frank Carney
With $600 that he and his older brother wheedled from their mother, Carney opened a 600-square-foot pizzeria in Topeka, Kans., in 1958. Because the place was so small, they called it Pizza Hut. Carney was 19 years old at the time.

The shoebox-sized venture grew into a 3,400-unit international chain by the time the Carneys sold their business to Pepsico in 1977 for $300 million. Frank Carney stayed with Pepsico as president of his brainchild, finally deciding he’d had enough of the pizza business. But he would return years later as a franchisee of arch-rival Papa John’s., which pressed him into service as a star of the upstart chain’s first national TV ad. In the spot, Carney barges into a fictional meeting of Pizza Hut franchisees and announces, “Sorry, guys, but I’ve found a better pizza.”

Carney died of pneumonia after surviving a bout with COVID-19 and suffering for years with Alzheimer’s. He was 93.

5 / Gray Kunz
Long before the term “celebrity chef” had been coined, there was Kunz, a globetrotting culinarian best known for artfully melding French and Asian flavorings and preparations. His re-inventive cuisine at Lespinasse and Café Gray in New York City had boosted him to national prominence among high-end diners the world over.

He earned special praise among his fellow chefs by inventing a sauce spoon that functioned better than the standard piece of flatware most classically trained culinarians had been taught to use. It had a larger, rounder bowl and a shorter handle than the standard European version. The Gray Kunz spoon is now commonly found in the kitchens of fine-dining restaurants.

Neither the cause of Kunz’s death nor his exact age were revealed at the time of his passing, but he was believed to be in his mid-60s.

6 / Sirio Maccioni
As host and proprietor of New York City’s celebrated Le Cirque restaurant, Maccioni embodied a suaveness and charm that made James Bond seem like bumbling clod. The fine-dining landmark’s celebrity clientele ate it up. Famed food writer Gael Greene once observed that the famed restaurant perfectly fit the era of dining out as theater and intrigue.  

But beneath Maccioni’s David Niven exterior was a steely businessperson who kept Le Cirque a favorite of Gotham’s elite through two location changes and shift after shift in the dining preferences of up-and-coming New Yorkers. The restaurant’s New York outpost finally threw in the well-starched napkin in 2017. By then, clones were feeding the well-heeled in five cosmopolitan cities, from Mumbai to Dubai.

Maccioni was 88 at the time of his death.

7 / Bill Palmer
Working as a franchise district manager for Burger King in the late 1970s, Palmer would grouse to then-wife T.J. that he was pouring a lot of smarts and effort into making the chain’s parent richer.  How about the two of them? They decided to try a restaurant business of their own. The first venture succeeded—too well. Its licensor took back the unit. So the next try was completely independent from any chain out there. Ironically, it would become the foundation for what’s the biggest chain today in casual dining, Applebee’s.

Palmer would sell his brainchild within three years to W.R. Grace, the parent of the time of Houlihan’s, then a giant in the emerging segment. But he would retain close contact with the brand as a franchisee and advisor, even as he started more concepts of his own. Operating restaurants was in his blood, and he clearly relished it. A personal note: I had the chance to spend time with Palmer at an awards event more than a decade ago. My sides have only recently recovered from laughing at his quips.

Palmer died at the start of December from pancreatic cancer. His age was not revealed.

8 / Fred and Rick Rosati
The 200-plus-unit Rosati’s Pizza chain lost two key members of its founding family in 2020, co-founder Fred and his son, Rick, who was running the chain as CEO at the time of his sudden death while visiting units in Arizona. The younger Rosati was 70; his father, 102.

Rick Rosati had worked for the family company since he was 14. One of seven children, he opened his first store at age 20. Expansion was a focus. In 1979, he steered the Chicago-based chain into franchising. Many of the operators who became franchisees in the years since had worked for the chain as dishwashers and cooks. Other family members say he was extremely popular with the franchisees because he’d slung his share of sauce and punched plenty of dough over the years. “This isn’t just a professional loss for our franchisees; it’s personal,” sister Regina Rosati said in the statement. “A lot of our store owners have known Rick since they were teenagers.”

Fred Rosati started the chain in 1964 with two of his brothers. The family had relocated to Chicago after living in New York, where the pizza they knew was thin-crust. The decided to give that sort of a pie a trial run in their new hometown, where deep-dish pizza was the norm. The idea took off, though the venture finally caved to local tastes and added deep-dish pies, and Rosati found a ready stable of future execs in his children and grandchildren.

Fred died in March and Rick passed in June. Rosati’s remains family-owned and operated.

9 / Faith Stewart-Gordon
Food might have been less of a draw at the Russian Tea Room than its mashup of quirkiness and old world charm. A big part of that latter elegance was embodied in Faith Stewart-Gordon, proprietor and hostess during the famed restaurant’s three-decade heyday. From the time her husband left her the restaurant in 1967 until she sold it to the flamboyant Warner LeRoy in 1995, the one-time Broadway actress was as readily connected with the landmark as its giant samovar.

Stewart-Gordon, who’d been out of the limelight in recent years, died at age 88. The cause of her passing was not revealed.

10 / Tony Vallone
For more than 50 years, Houstonians would celebrate anniversaries, business deals and landmark birthdays at Tony’s, the city’s benchmark for fine dining. At the helm of the place, and as much a part of the experience as the pasta and seafood, was Vallone. The lore held that he opened his first version of the restaurant in 1965 at age 22. He would remain active in its operation and a few spin-off businesses until his death from what were described as natural causes in early September. In a city with an unofficial dress code of cowboy boots and Stetsons, Vallone would flit from table to table in his suit, providing a dab of continental elegance to a town known for fajitas and other border fare. He introduced many to the dishes of Naples and Milan at a time when Italian food was still synonymous with red-sauced pasta and proteins served atop a red-checkered tablecloth.

Vallone was 75.

11 / Barbara “B.” Smith
A successful model before she tried her hand at running restaurants, Smith continued to smash barriers in her second calling. She rose to prominence in the field in the 1980s, when a Black female chef was even rarer than it is today.  Her upscale B. Smith restaurant became a racially blind hotspot in New York City at a time when much of fine dining still catered to the white carriage trade. It also served as a springboard for a host of business affiliations; her iconic name appeared on everything from furniture to a namesake glamour magazine. Her success in the cookbook market was especially noticeable. Smith said she saw herself as a cross between Martha Stewart and Oprah Winfrey. 

But that world was upended when Smith was afflicted with Alzheimer’s Disease early in the last decade. Smith went public with the diagnosis in hopes of raising awareness of the ailment. By 2015, all of her restaurants had closed. 

She died of the disease in February. Smith was 70 years old.