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Robert Brooks, 69; Head of Hooters Restaurants

July 19, 2006|From Times Staff and Wire Reports

Robert Brooks had a simple explanation for the success of his Hooters chain, known as much for the tight T-shirts of its waitresses as for its chicken wings.

"Good food, cold beer and pretty girls never go out of style," he told Fortune magazine in 2003.

Brooks, the 69-year-old chairman of the restaurant chain, was found dead Sunday at his home in Myrtle Beach, S.C.

Coroner Robert Edge said an autopsy found that Brooks had died of natural causes, but he would not be more specific.

Brooks had diabetes for 30 years and suffered a stroke in the mid-1980s.

Since opening its first restaurant in Clearwater, Fla., in 1983, Hooters of America Inc. has expanded into 46 states and 20 countries. Hooters has about 61 million visitors a year.

His fortune was estimated at $500 million in 2003, but Brooks liked to say that "If you can count it, you must not be worth too much."

Born Feb. 6, 1937, on a tobacco farm without electricity or running water near Loris, S.C., Robert Howell Brooks graduated from Clemson University with a degree in dairy science. He broke into the food industry with a milkshake formula that was used by restaurant chain Burger King.

In 1966, he founded Eastern Foods Inc., which initially sold nondairy creamer to airlines and now makes dressings and sauces as Naturally Fresh Foods. He continued as chairman of the company, which has more than $100 million in annual sales.

In 1984, he and a group of Atlanta investors bought expansion and franchise rights for the Hooters chain. He eventually bought majority control and became chairman.

Brooks tried to parlay the restaurant chain's success into an airline in 2003. At its peak, Hooters Air flew to 15 destinations, but the company racked up debt and stopped commercial flights earlier this year. The firm now flies charters.

In addition to the airline, Brooks had in the last few years focused on other projects for the chain, including a hotel and casino in Las Vegas owned by franchisees who licensed the Hooters name.

Brooks shared his wealth with a school near his hometown, giving $2 million to Coastal Carolina University for its first football stadium, which was named for Brooks in 2003.

He also contributed to the Episcopal church he attended with his wife, Tami. When asked once if his minister approved of the clingy attire and the buxom waitresses the restaurant chain is known for, Brooks said, "He eats here! In fact, every minister I've ever had ate at Hooters."

Brooks' survivors include his wife, two children and two stepchildren. His first marriage ended in divorce after the 1993 death of his son Mark, who died in a plane crash that also killed NASCAR driver Alan Kulwicki.

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