Thank You Mister Robinson

Photo by Chris Cummins Kansascity.com

(Note: I wrote this piece last week upon hearing this untimely news.)

I never worked for Paul Robinson.  To the best of my knowledge I never even waited on him.  When I read today that he passed away on Monday it probably should not have affected me the way it did.  Honestly, I am not sure that I have any right to be writing this post.  Mr Robinson had a greater impact on thousands of lives than he had on mine.  Still I can’t help but feel sadness at the loss of a man who was a restaurant legend in the truest sense of the word.

I grew up with the legend of Gilbert/Robinson.  Two restaurateurs that changed the face of the industry and ran nearly every great dining spot in town.  At one point “GR” ran nearly all of the restaurants in Kansas City’s main dining district, The Country Club Plaza, as well as concessions for the airport and both stadiums.  It boggles my mind to think of a single company controlling such a large number of the city’s outlets.

Gilbert/Robinson was not a single concept.  They ran restaurants offering a wide variety of cuisines.  Their success was not built on a particular type of food, but rather their ability to run a restaurant incredibly well.  You knew when you ate at one of their establishments the food and service would be impeccable.  As my friend Sharon pointed out to me today, they set many of the standards that are still practiced.

While Joe Gilbert was the “face” of the company, Paul Robinson was the culinary genius.  A single man entrusted with overseeing a variety of concepts and dishes.  He brought levels of culinary execution to their restaurants that are difficult to recreate.  Through his creativity and adherence to high standards he elevated this “cowtown” to another level of excellence.  It is safe to say that the restaurant scene in Kansas City would not exist at the level it does without the innovations of Paul Robinson.

It is also safe to say that the restaurant industry as a whole owes a debt of gratitude to Mr Robinson.  When he and Mr Gilbert took over an old haberdashery, they saw the chance to create something different.  A restaurant that served great food, in a warm atmosphere, but with a price tag lower than their nicer establishments.  Oddly enough, their lack of creativity on the next step became part of restaurant history.  Instead of coming up with a flashy new name for their restaurant, they kept it the same.  Houlihan’s haberdashery became the first location of the, now national, Houlihan’s chain.

I could go on about the number of concepts they created.  Fred P. Ott’s, Annie’s Santa Fe, Plaza III, Fedoras, The Bristol, Parkway 600, and others were amongst their successes.  I could tell stories of Homecoming and Prom nights spent at their restaurants.  Before I was ever in the business, Gilbert/Robinson defined what dining was in my mind.  So many of those early impressions still factor into the impressions I want to create on my guests.

I could also talk about the history of the company that carried Mr Robinson’s name.  In reading about him today I learned several new facts of which I was previously unaware.  That Gilbert/Robinson was at the forefront of fighting drunk driving.  In the early eighties, when most restaurants were fighting drunk driving laws, Gilbert/Robinson was running campaigns to encourage drivers to call a cab.  One of their most famous fans was Ernest Hemmingway.  Portions of “For Whom The Bell Tolls” were written at a Gilbert/Robinson restaurant.

These are not the memories that stand out for me.  I remember hearing my Grandmother talk about Mr Gilbert and Mr Robinson.  While I never had a chance to work for them, she did.  She spoke highly of them and the way they treated their employees.  This is a theme that is often repeated when others speak of the “GR days.”

I remember asking Ron Barkley, one of my first restaurant heroes, where I should work when I went away to college.  He gave me the name of a restaurant company along with the reference, “The owner is an old GR guy.”  That was all the recommendation I needed.  Over the years I have worked for a number of “GR guys” and have never regretted it.  The number of restaurant executives that came from GR is truly impressive.  A search for “Gilbert/Robinson” yields countless press releases announcing the addition of top executives to restaurant companies.  Each of these executives still proudly lists their employment at Gilbert/Robinson as a career achievement.

In my mind that is the legacy created by Paul Robinson and Joe Gilbert.  They recognized talent and developed it.  They appreciated their people and knew that those people were the true assets on which a company is built.  In doing so they created a company of incredible scope and a talent pool that continues to run some of the best restaurant companies in America.  This is the true lesson of Gilbert/Robinson is that respecting your people and giving them the freedom to run their restaurants can produce tremendous results.

I never worked for Paul Robinson.  In a way we all have though.  He set in place a revolution in our industry.  He showed that casual dining could be a successful business model.  He proved that talented people could be developed into future leaders.  In that way we all owe a debt of gratitude to Paul Robinson.  He is one of the true legends of our industry.

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About David Hayden

David Hayden is a restaurant marketing and training consultant based in Kansas City, MO. He writes a series of 9 blogs collectively known as The Hospitality Formula Network and is the author of “Tips2: Tips For Improving Your Tips” and “Building Your Brand With Facebook”

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