Monday, October 17, 2011

Bill Gilbert says the restaurant industry's future is sort of like its past

Bill Gilbert explains why the future of KC restaurants is in the past.

Posted by on Mon, Oct 17, 2011 at 5:20 PM

It all started at the Westgate Hotel...
What's the future of the restaurant industry in America?

Why not ask an important figure from the past: Bill Gilbert, the dapper-looking octogenarian and co-founder — with his father, Joe Gilbert, and Paul Robinson — of Kansas City-based Gilbert/Robinson restaurant empire.

Gilbert/Robinson was a major player in building the American casual-dining concept in the 1970s and '80s. The company was sold off, in pieces, in the 1990s, but Bill Gilbert still continues to work as a consultant. Today, Gilbert spoke to the members of the 40-Years-Ago Column Club at the Plaza III Steakhouse, the iconic local steakhouse that Bill Gilbert and his partners opened in 1963. When asked what he saw as the future of the restaurant industry, Gilbert said that "change is always the case. Every day there are new ideas, new change, a new innovation."

Discussing the current culinary trend, gourmet hamburgers, Gilbert says, "Once there's a hot new concept introduced, everyone jumps on the bandwagon. A few years ago it was steakhouses, and there was a glut of overbuilt, overdone steakhouses."

And Gilbert well understands how the current economy is affecting today's restaurant business. Long before the Gilbert/Robinson partnership became a chain powerhouse, exporting the Houlihan's Old Place and Bristol Seafood Grill concepts across the United States, Joe Gilbert ran a lunch counter at the junction of Ninth Street and Delaware — during the Depression.

Bill Gilbert and Steve Noll, executive director of the Jackson County Historical Society.
  • Bill Gilbert and Steve Noll, executive director of the Jackson County Historical Society.
Bill Gilbert's grandfather operated several modestly priced restaurants, all called Fowler's Lunch, in downtown Kansas City. One of his restaurants was, consistently, a money loser: the Fowler's Lunch on the first floor of the triangle-shaped Westgate Hotel. Joe Gilbert was an awning salesman when his father offered to give him the restaurant — with one condition.

"My grandfather said that Dad had to work with him for a year and learn the restaurant business," Bill Gilbert says. "He loved the restaurant business from the first day."

Joe Gilbert and his family, including young Bill, lived in the hotel for the next 13 years. Unlike another early Kansas City-based restaurant empire, the Fred Harvey Company, Joe Gilbert saw the writing on the wall for the future of urban restaurants and its connection to transportation in America. Train travel would be replaced by the fledgling airport industry. The Fred Harvey Company was closely tied to train depots, including Kansas City's Union Station. (The headquarters for the Harvey Company was located there until the late 1930s.)

In 1940, Joe Gilbert made an offer to lease the restaurant facility of the Municipal Airport. "The company running the restaurant paid the city $1 a year to lease the space," Gilbert says. "But it kept losing money. Dad believed in the future of commercial aviation and found a partner to go in business with him." The new airport restaurant that Gilbert created, the Four Winds, was an immediate hit. Ernest Hemingway reportedly wrote part of For Whom the Bell Tolls sitting at a booth in the restaurant in 1949.

Five years later, Bill Gilbert returned to Kansas City from a stint in the Army.

"My mother begged me not to go into the restaurant business," Gilbert says. "She told me I'd be working all the time, that I'd never see my family. But after three months working for my father, I was hooked."

Bill Gilbert didn't actually go into partnership with his father until the 1960s, after Bill and Paul Robinson had opened their first suburban restaurant in a brand-new shopping center, the Landing. Yes, this was when 63rd Street and Troost was considered suburban. Later, in keeping with the family tradition of taking over money-losing restaurants, Bill Gilbert and Paul Robinson negotiated with the J.C. Nichols Company to purchase the failing Empire Room restaurant at 4749 Pennsylvania. After the success of Plaza III Steakhouse, Gilbert says, "My father said he was lonely being out at the airport. He wanted to go into business with us."

Years later, Bill Gilbert thought of expanding Plaza III into the space being vacated, right next door, by men's clothing store Tom Houlihan's. Instead, the partners created a sexy, casual restaurant called Houlihan's Old Place. "All during construction, we couldn't come up with the right name," Gilbert says, "and people kept referring to the space as Tom Houlihan's place anyway, so we decided to call it that."

"I called Tom Houlihan and asked if we could call it Houlihan's Old Place, and he was fine with that. I told him that we would have a reserved table, only for him — and three guests — in the middle of the dining room every day for the rest of his life. The table would have a brass plaque with his name on it.

"He never set foot inside the door of the restaurant," Gilbert says. "Maybe it made him mad."

Two decades later, Bill Gilbert was in a similar situation: The owners of a new Johnson County steakhouse asked his permission to call the restaurant J. Gilbert's, in honor of his late father.

But they never offered him his own table.

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