Morton’s The Steakhouse, the upscale chain that grew out of a Gold Coast Chicago steakhouse to become a haven for power lunchers worldwide, is usually associated with the late Arnie Morton, who founded it after running the Playboy Clubs for many years, and with his children who have started ventures such as Hard Rock Cafe, N9NE, and DMK Burger Bar. But the man who really turned Morton’s into a global institution — and invented the entire category segment of upscale chains that includes the likes of Ruth’s Chris, Smith & Wollensky, and many others — was no relation, but a former fast-food franchisee who saw an opportunity to apply that industry’s lessons to bigger-ticket meals.
Allen J. Bernstein, a former Hardee’s and Long John Silver’s franchisee who pioneered the upscale chain segment, died Tuesday at 65. In 1989, he bought Morton’s, then a nine-restaurant chain that Arnie Morton had sold to investment firms two years earlier, and expanded it to over 60 restaurants in the U.S. and Hong Kong, Singapore, Toronto, and Vancouver by the time of his retirement in 2005. His chain of nearly identical black-leather-booth steakhouses, which revived old-school shtick like the waiters showing off trays of meat to choose from, inspired numerous followers, but he was philosophical about his other best-known venture, the Le Peep breakfast chain, which never really took off, saying, “Nobody bats .1000.”
Allen Bernstein, Morton’s Steakhouse Chain Builder, Dies at 65 [Business Week]