LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Kent Taylor liked to say he was a failure.
His plan for a Florida salad company wilted. Ditto for a seafood concept that never got off the beach.
And when he finally persuaded three Kentucky doctors to invest in Texas Roadhouse — after 80 other investors turned him down — three of his first five restaurants failed, and he had had to close their doors.
“I think you have a better, more open mind when you fail,” Taylor once said.
He eventually succeeded, and then some.
Before he died by suicide Thursday, racked by post-COVID 19 symptoms his family said became unbearable, Taylor, 65, had built his casual dining chain into a goliath of more than 600 restaurants in 49 states and seven countries worth more than $6 billion.
A graduate of Ballard High School in Louisville who started in the business busing tables at Captain Quarters, Taylor built a personal fortune worth more than $600 million, about half in company stock.
Over the past 15 years, he cashed in stock worth more than $300 million, including $6.8 million worth he sold three days before his death.
But he forsook his salary and bonus over the past year so the money could go to hourly employees stung by the coronavirus pandemic.
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He liked to say Texas Roadhouse was “a people company that happened to sell steaks” — that happy employees make happy guests.
Recalling the abuse he suffered early in his career managing restaurants for other companies, he said, “I swore to myself if I ever had my own business, I would take care of employees first, guests second.”
“He was unwavering with his commitment to the quality of the food, design, layout and ambiance of the restaurant, but his biggest strength was the amazing culture he developed within his organization,” said Steve Ritchie, a former CEO at Papa John’s, where Taylor was a director. “He loved his employees, and they reciprocated by sharing his passion for excellence.”
Ritchie, who now owns a restaurant group that includes LouVino, said, “I can unequivocally say he was the most talented restauranteur I have ever worked around.”
David Novak, the retired chairman and CEO of Yum! Brands, said Taylor “was a master at hospitality and never took himself too seriously.
“He understood the business was all about people and making the customers happy, and that made him an iconic leader in the industry.”
He paid his managers well, vesting them with stock, and he minted many millionaires, said former Gov. John Y. Brown Jr., who invested in another of Taylor’s ventures, Buckhead Mountain Grill.
Despite his wealth and successes, Taylor remained “modest and humble,” Brown said.
He also liked to have fun — he took off three months a year to ski, including at his second home in Deer Valley, Utah, Brown said.
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The guy who like to hire people who ‘maybe got in trouble’
Born in Sept. 27, 1955, to Marilyn and Powell Taylor, Wayne Kent Taylor grew up in Louisville. His father helped start the GE Answer Center. His mother was a buyer for a local boutique.
Kent Taylor attended the University of North Carolina on a track scholarship. According to company legend, he designed the Texas Roadhouse concept on a cocktail napkin.
He opened the first Texas Roadhouse on February 17, 1993, at the Green Tree Mall in Clarksville, Indiana.
Earlier in his career, he managed restaurants for Bennigan’s in the 1980s and at KFC in Charlotte, North Carolina, where he was raising two daughters on his own, according to a December profile in Business First.
But innovations he adopted at KFC stores, like hot wings, only got him in trouble.
“KFC was too bureaucratic for him,” Brown said.
Years later, Taylor said he liked to hire people who “maybe got in trouble at other companies because they were a little bit of an entrepreneur.”
Uncomfortable working for others, Taylor decided to try and raise capital for one of his restaurant ideas.
He had lived in Colorado, where he had worked at nightclubs and restaurants, and returned home to Louisville in 1990 with thoughts of opening a Colorado or Texas cowboy-themed restaurant.
He launched both, serving as executive chef at Buckhead, but sold that to focus on Texas Roadhouse.
Offering customers a free bucket of peanuts — and the freedom to throw the shells on the floor — along with free dinner rolls with honey cinnamon butter and non-stop country music, the concept caught on.
“There’s nothing special about them, it’s just a good, honest, American steakhouse,” Brian Connors, a restaurant consultant told the Tampa Bay Times.
“They aim and shoot right down Middle America, he said. Do they “attract the health-conscious, city-living millennials? Probably not, but the 30-somethings with a minivan and two kids? Absolutely.”
Taylor made sure his steak dinners cost less than Outback and other competitors. And to enhance quality, Taylor decided to serve dinner only, except on Fridays and weekends.
Still, the average location serves 5,000 guests a week, making it one of the busiest restaurants in the industry. And it continued to open new stores, including in the Middle East.
Texas Roadhouse ate the competition’s lunch, according to FSR (for full-service restaurant) Magazine, reporting 32 consecutive quarters of sales growth through 2018.
Even during the 2008 recession, the company opened new restaurants, hired more corporate staff and managed to boost profits.
“He built a better concept of food and fun,” said Brown, who lives a block from a Texas Roadhouse in Lexington, Kentucky, and stops by twice a week for salmon. “They have a cult following.”
There were a few hiccups along the way.
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In trouble for hiring practices
In 2006, when two officers were fatally shot in Chantilly, Virginia, forcing police to cordon off streets and close businesses, the manager of a Texas Roadhouse store calculated the closures cost his restaurant $9,000 — and submitted a bill to the police department, according to a story in the Washington Post headlined “It’s enough to make your stomach turn.”
The company apologized and said the manager had been disciplined.
And in 2011, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission alleged in a lawsuit that the chain — known for its line-dancing staff — did not hire workers over 40 for front-of-the-house positions, such as servers and hosts.
Taylor criticized the agency — and the Obama administration — for targeting his company, which had not been the subject of an employee complaint. But in 2017 Texas Roadhouse paid a $12 million settlement and agreed to change its recruiting and hiring practices, the EEOC said.
But Taylor and his company largely avoided controversy.
It has no national spokesman and instead relies on its cartoon mascot, “Andy the Armadillo,” as its brand representative, Vice President of Communications Travis Doster said.
“One of my favorite things about Andy is that he doesn’t talk, so he can’t get in trouble,” Doster said in a dig at former Papa John’s CEO John Schnatter, when engulfed the company after a Forbes report in July 2018 detailed Schnatter’s use of a racial slur during a conference call with a marketing contractor.
For years, Texas Roadhouse employees have contributed to a charity, “Andy’s Outreach,” a nonprofit which now has $7 million in assets and helps workers, known as “Roadies,” when they are in need.
The company, which advertises “legendary food and legendary service,” relied on extensive charity campaigns in local communities rather than conventional advertising.
Taylor was also known for his philanthropy and personal generosity.
“He was a caring individual who would never seek credit for helping others,” Ritchie said in a text. “The infinite number of people he touched will be forever grateful and that includes me and my family.”
Contributing: Grace Schneider, Louisville Courier-Journal
Follow Andrew Wolfson on Twitter: @adwolfson.