|Bob Gaines, like his father, put the food first|
In this era of corporate-owned restaurants, when it's rare to have a manager acknowledge customers, let alone greet them and engage them in conversation, the late Bob Gaines was among the last of his kind.
Gaines, who operated the popular Colony Steakhouse and Lobster Pot restaurants (with younger sister Karen Gaines) for several decades, died of a heart attack on July 22. He was 59 years old and was getting ready to play a game of racquetball.
"He was in great shape and under so much less stress since he got out of the restaurant business," Karen tells me. "He had just seen his cardiologist, who told him he was fine."
Although Gaines and his sister grew up working in the dining operations owned by their father, the legendary local restaurateur Ralph Gaines, Bob finished college with a degree in economics and went on to get both an MBA degree and a law degree. Still, customers at the Colony and Lobster Pot restaurants -- which eventually moved from one end of the metro to the other -- can recall him cheerily busing tables, bringing out food, refilling water glasses and whatever else needed to be done on busy nights.
"That's exactly what his father would have done, too," says singer Marilyn Maye, who was "discovered" by TV star Steve Allen while performing at the original Colony Steakhouse in the Ambassador Hotel at 35th Street and Broadway. "Ralph was all business. A perfect gentleman, which Bob was, too, but all about serving food and making sure his patrons got the best service."
Maye likes to tell the story of asking the elder Gaines why he refused to put a sign in the window of the restaurant promoting her since she had become a national act, frequently seen on The Tonight Show. "He told me that if he put a sign up, it would be to promote his steaks," Maye says, laughing. "He felt people already knew about me. Ralph put the food first. And later, Bob did the same thing."
"Bob wasn't forced into the restaurant business by our father," says Karen Gaines. "He wanted to go into it. It's a tough business, though, and after so many years, I think he was ready to get out of it."
Bob Gaines returned to law after closing the last incarnation of the Colony Steakhouse in 2003 -- 50 years after his father opened the first one. Over the years, the Gaines family would move the Colony Steakhouse and a seafood concept, The Lobster Pot, from 35th and Broadway to Union Station to the Country Club Plaza, to Westport and, finally, south Kansas City. None of the venues after the Union Station location really captured the magic of the early restaurants, though.
"Bob Gaines was the consummate pro," says former Kansas City Star restaurant critic John Martellaro. "He knew how to run a restaurant and keep customers happy and did so at several different locations. If there was one problem with the Gaines' restaurants, it was that they always seemed to end up in locations that weren't the most favorable to what they were trying to do."
But Bob Gaines, to the very end, tried to follow his father's mandate of giving customers a lavish dining experience. Nearly two decades after closing the final Lobster Pot restaurant, people still talk about the seafood buffet with fondness. Why not? It was a big deal back in the day -- before the all-you-can-eat casino buffets, with their steak-and-seafood nights.
I ran into Bob Gaines a few years ago and asked if he missed the restaurant business. He chuckled, shook his head and then paused. "When times were good," he said, "it was a lot of fun. We had a lot of regular customers who had been coming to us since the 1950s and '60s. They were very loyal to us. I'll miss them."
Bob Gaines will be missed, too.