Kent Taylor was dressed like he didn’t have a dime, in shorts and a T-shirt as he toured a site in North Carolina. Taylor didn’t care for the location, but nearby was a for-sale sign on a lot he felt was a better fit. “We’ll reach out later,” the team told Taylor.
Texas Roadhouse’s CEO grabbed his phone and made the call.
Taylor’s number came in as “blocked,” as it always did. He didn’t look the part, and, by the rule book, he never acted it, either. The founder of the $2.4 billion brand drove Chevrolet Suburbans stuffed to the trunk with everything from architectural plans to a Santa suit. He wore cowboy hats, American flag boots, camouflage hoodies, and liked to count employees in meetings to see if they broke his two-pizza rule—if it took more than one pie to feed the room, you had too many opinions.
“If you were going to hang out with Kent Taylor, you better drink some energy drinks or you had better have taken your vitamins, because he would make you earn every minute of it,” says Jerry Morgan, the steakhouse chain’s CEO and Taylor’s successor.
On that day in North Carolina, the agent arrived and negotiated with Taylor, not for one moment having any clue who he was. That’s why Taylor kept his number restricted over the years—if people understood who they were talking to, they would jack up the price.
“And to me, that was Kent Taylor,” says Travis Doster, the chain’s vice president of communications. “A lot of people could have said, ‘Yeah, you guys call them, set it up, let me know.’ But his thing was always, ‘Let’s just do it now and get it over with.’ They ended up getting the site, by the way.”
Taylor passed away March 18, taking his own life following a struggle with post-COVID-19 symptoms, including severe tinnitus, a condition defined as a ringing in the ears with no external source. He was 65.
The news floored the restaurant world and left a prodigious hole at Texas Roadhouse, a chain that couldn’t be more like its founder if it tried. Few brands and founders, perhaps only KFC and Colonel Sanders, are more closely tied than Texas Roadhouse and Kent Taylor.
He was labeled a maverick with a preference for the unorthodox. And his decisions worked out far more often than they didn’t.
You could say the same about Texas Roadhouse, with its free peanuts and rolls, low prices, and a menu that’s hardly adjusted in 28 years. Delivery? LTOs? Never on the radar. And what other 580-unit chain hardly advertises?
Yet Texas Roadhouse continues to front the casual-dining pack and has for some time. Headed into 2020, stores reported average-unit volumes north of $5.4 million, serving 6,000 guests per week. In the 10-year period from January 2010 to December 2019, Texas Roadhouse’s shares on the stock market appreciated by more than 400 percent, well ahead of increases achieved by the S&P 500 as a whole.
More recently, comparable sales soared 21.3 percent in the second quarter versus 2019 levels—showcasing a COVID-19 comeback hard to rival in foodservice. Texas Roadhouse stores averaged weekly sales of $125,442 in the period. At one point in mid-March 2020, as dine-in restrictions locked in, it was $29,432.
At the time, Taylor gathered employees and set a $40,000 per store goal. “Everybody thought that was incredible,” Doster recalls. “There’s no way. And guess what? Within two weeks, we hit $40,000, and then we hit $50,000.”
On March 18, 2020—a year to the day before his passing—Taylor made the call that would define his pandemic response. It also reflected a side of Taylor people often didn’t see—and he never cared much if they did.
Taylor forfeited his base salary and incentive bonus, and told Texas Roadhouse to give the money to front-line workers.
“He just said, ‘I’m doing it,’” Doster says. “[But] we’re a publicly held company. We have to do an 8-K [filing]; you have to do all of this. He’d get frustrated by all of that. ‘Let’s just do it.’ He was adamant.”
“He never forgot what it was like to not have things and be struggling,” Doster adds.
At a silent auction earlier in his career, Taylor heard about an organization’s struggles and dropped off a check for $500,000. He told the group to keep it anonymous or he’d never give them any more money. Before his death, Taylor also committed to fund a clinical study to help members of the military who suffer with tinnitus.
That decision to send his salary back to employees? By the time the dust settled, 13 other executives in the organization did the same. Additionally, Taylor wrote a personal check for a $5 million gift to the company’s employee relief fund, called Andy’s Outreach Fund, which helps hourly workers in need.
Texas Roadhouse as a company issued multiple stimulus packages for workers in excess of $15 million. “Tens of thousands,” of frontline employees received them, which resulted in cars lining up outside restaurants for more than half a mile in some locations. The story being customers heard about Taylor’s decision and wanted to support the brand. Not to mention thousands of letters from employees piling on Taylor’s desk. Sales that week soared 45 percent.
People had a way of following Taylor’s lead without him asking.
“I don’t care what level it was, people wanted to please him,” Doster says. “You wanted to show Kent how far you could go. You wanted to get a win for Texas Roadhouse. A win for Kent. And I just think that’s a rare quality to have.”
In fact, Taylor, who told shareholders in his final report that his knowledge of poets and poetry “could fit in a thimble,” liked to repeat a T.S. Eliot quote shared with him during the crisis. “Only those who risk going too far, find out how far they can go.”
“He did that with everybody,” Doster says.
Taylor’s restaurant leadership began bridled, although he never excelled at following orders. He cut his teeth at casual-dining icon Bennigan’s in the 1980s before heading to KFC. He’d experiment with recipes and even sold bottled water alongside chicken sandwiches. Guests loved the innovation, but Taylor’s bosses didn’t.
Taylor escaped before trouble caught up to him, he used to say. Unsurprisingly, he was more comfortable going solo. His debut, Buckhead Hickory Grill (now Buckhead Mountain Grill), arrived in 1991 and is still in operation. Taylor sold his interest in 1994—a year after launching Texas Roadhouse with a $300,000 investment from three Kentucky doctors.
Texas Roadhouse had its rocky days. Three of the first five locations failed, and Taylor kept the photos of closed stores on a wall in his office throughout his career.
The brand began by opening in conversions that zigzagged across the map—one in Cincinnati, Ohio, and others in Sarasota and Clearwater, Florida—to balance Texas Roadhouse’s original Clarksville, Indiana, location. Sales at the first restaurant were just a touch over $2 million annually out of the gate. Many of the others averaged even less.
By 1996, Taylor connected with George Lask to develop a ground-up prototype for the brand’s home base of Louisville, Kentucky. Minus some kitchen upgrades and a bar remodel, the store remains a near replica of the ones opening today.
Taylor was always proud of the finished product and saw no reason to stray from what got Texas Roadhouse to the ball. Its hallmarks are sightlines where guests can see front to back walking in and how the manager is a central focus.
Taylor also stuck to a managing partner model where operators compete for success, Doster says, because it affects them directly. While other concepts show you how to run a restaurant, he says, Texas Roadhouse shows you how to own one.
Operators put up money and get 10 percent of the store’s profits. The first forked over $30,000 (instead of the $25,000 it would become later) because Taylor was low on startup cash. Texas Roadhouse didn’t invent this method—Outback was once well-known for it—but most eventually abandon it as outside capital flows in.
Taylor tapped the ingenuity of these managing partners often during COVID, just as he did throughout the years. One sold $5 sliders in the parking lot. Another propped up a farmer’s market. A market leader tested Family Packs that soon rolled across the chain.
“He really believed in that dream of man: You can create your own destiny,” Doster says. “Create 600-something odd entrepreneurs. He didn’t like rules. He didn’t like being told what to do. So he created a system where our managing partners have a lot of flexibility to figure it out.”
Taylor tried everything to clinch big-name investors in those fresh years of Texas Roadhouse. He chased NBA legend Larry Bird through the airport in Louisville, only to watch the 6-foot-9 Celtics great hop in a car and race away. Taylor laid a proposal on the front door of former presidential candidate Ross Perot’s Bermuda home. Taylor had to talk his way past a guard, telling him his package needed a signature. He brought ribs and beer to the offices of country music megastar Garth Brooks. Brooks’ team accepted the beer and ribs, but never called back.
Setbacks, though, never shook Taylor from his principles. The moniker, “Legendary Food, Legendary Service,” wasn’t intended to confuse anybody. “He had this passion for the food,” Morgan says. “He had this passion for genuine service. But he understood the flow of the restaurant. It was about the greeter at the front door. It was about the knowledge of the server. It was about the hospitality that we had.”
Texas Roadhouse’s name was inspired by trips Taylor took through Dallas while working at Bennigan’s. It was the culture of the Lone Star State that hooked him.
“Big and friendly,” Morgan says. And this idea of a restaurant on the side of a highway where you stop and get a good meal.
It didn’t hurt that “Texas” and “beef” are synonyms in the steakhouse vocabulary.
But Texas Roadhouse wasn’t in Texas, of course. So Taylor secured a P.O. box in Dallas and put a Texas address on comment cards to offer his brand credibility.
Taylor didn’t know why he tried that, only that it worked. Texas Roadhouse didn’t open a restaurant in Texas until 1997. Fittingly, it was Morgan who managed that store in Grand Prairie, which remains one of Texas Roadhouse’s top-five performers.
Steve Ortiz, who would later ascend to the role of chief operating officer at the company, recruited Morgan in early 1997 after he was laid off from Bennigan’s. Morgan says he spent three, maybe four, minutes with Taylor, and came away hesitant.
“I swear to goodness, I turned around to [Ortiz] and I said, ‘Steve, are you sure this is the guy we want to get into business with?’” Morgan says. “Steve, without even a hesitation, he goes, ‘Absolutely Jerry.’ I said, well, if you trust this guy and believe in him, then I’m in, because this food is fantastic.”
Brand leader—and ‘Bubba’
Morgan’s CEO appointment was something he had to come to terms with. It wasn’t an unexpected career step—only the timing. Taylor promoted him to president in December, and his resume is Taylor-built to a tee. Morgan worked up through the Texas Roadhouse system, earning Managing Partner of the Year in 2001 before becoming market partner later in the year. In 2015, Morgan was named regional market partner, where he oversaw more than 120 restaurants in 14 states.
One of Taylor’s day one visions was to have Texas Roadhouse led by people who know how to run restaurants—and Morgan is that to his core. He isn’t buttoned up or cut from corporate cloth. He even wore a ball cap in his CEO announcement.
Morgan says Doster asked him and Taylor to read books on how companies transition from founder to new CEO. Doster knew Taylor would struggle to cede control and enjoy retirement. Again, he wasn’t a person who idled.
For Morgan, part of accepting what happened with Taylor was acknowledging his mentor wanted him to direct Texas Roadhouse. “And then I realized the obligation that I had to the company,” he says.
Morgan sent a letter to employees titled, “My Commitment,” where he outlined what he stood for: Service with heart. Hospitality. Doing things the right away.
“A lot of these things are important to me,” he says. “And a lot are following exactly what Kent taught me growing up as a managing partner and as a marketer partner and as a regional partner.”
“I had so much respect for him over the last 24 years. I will tell you, my thoughts were that Kent was the next Norman Brinker of our industry,” Morgan adds, referring to the celebrated restaurateur behind the eponymous Brinker International who also helped establish Bennigan’s.
A posthumous book from Taylor, Made From Scratch: The Legendary Success Story of Texas Roadhouse, arrived in late August.
In it is the blueprint Taylor left behind. Things like Texas Roadhouse’s decision to ban coats and ties at its headquarters (there are even scissors handy to cut neckties off visitors), avoid hiring anyone with an MBA or PHD, encourage employee line-dancing—a tradition started 23 years ago by current regional partner Neal Niklaus in Ashland, Kentucky—and make sure each store has an in-house bakery to serve up fresh rolls and a resident meat cutter who spends hours in 36 degree rooms to ensure cuts are as Taylor envisioned. “We’re not gimmicks. What we are are great executors of the plan,” Morgan says.
Taylor could be a bit mysterious along the way. There was “Kent,” “Kent Taylor the restaurateur,” and “Bubba,” his playful side, Morgan says.
Part of his enigma was Taylor’s own doing. Before interviews, he’d ask Doster to explain how this would “get one more person in our restaurant.” His focus was always outward, and he’d deflect attention.
The fact Taylor remained ever-present in Texas Roadhouse’s journey behind the scenes, however, is both unique and why the company remained so steady. Also, it’s the key to today’s healing process.
“Taylor’s top 10s” and “Bubba Whys” are gospel around Texas Roadhouse HQ. Operating ethos like managers in the window and leaders at the door. Texas Roadhouse’s first-time guest program. The Alley Rally, where employees, or Roadies, gather in the kitchen and discuss goals, sales, and other information.
“The secret sauce of our success is that, fundamentally, we run great restaurants,” Morgan says.
The industry legend
Texas Roadhouse plans to build a museum to honor Taylor inside its home office. One famous tale has already come to life. When Taylor first moved into the building, he’d tell people he only had enough money for a spot in the stairwell.
So Texas Roadhouse recently put his desk there.
Taylor hand-wrote the book using blue erasable pens; his assistant bought them by the case. The last time Taylor sat down to review the book, he removed “three or four things” to keep trade secrets out of the hands of competitors.
“Here is a highly successful operator who had his legacy and never stopped. He never wanted to give anybody else an edge,” Doster says.
Doster is excited for people to read Taylor’s thoughts and appreciate a glimpse into his genius. But there are stories and measures of Taylor that can’t be replicated.
At a meeting in Washington, D.C., Doster remembers pacing the lobby in a suit while he finished up a call. Taylor walked in and slumped down into a chair. He tilted his cowboy hat over his eyes and took an uncharacteristic break. A moment later, a security guard kicked Taylor’s foot to wake him up. “He goes, ‘We don’t allow homeless in here,’” Doster says, with a laugh.
Taylor pleaded his case and showed his room key before pointing to Doster. “That’s the first and only time you’d see us together and Kent would say, ‘I’m with him.’ I’m usually always with him,” Doster says.
Forget the fact Texas Roadhouse booked the conference there.
Decades and ample success later, Taylor remained the unassuming, yet always looming leader he started out as. No matter how big Texas Roadhouse became, Doster says, you could always see the founder in its makeup.
“Most of his life he was the underdog, whether it was while he was in school or training. We just always felt like this small, scrappy company,” Doster says. “We’ve got people who have been here 23, 24 years and they’re not coasting. You just feel like you haven’t arrived, and we could still do this and we could still push and we could still win. And that was Kent, because he didn’t. He didn’t sit back, and he wasn’t driving a $200,000 car. And he wasn’t just showing up occasionally. He was always moving.”