More than a quarter century after he left the restaurant business, former western cattle rancher Stuart Anderson's name remains the iconic brand on the concept of affordable steakhouses.
And on April 1, Anderson, now 91 and retired with his wife, Helen, to a condo in Rancho Mirage, CA, will mark the 50th anniversary of the opening of the first Stuart Anderson's Black Angus near the Seattle waterfront.
That first restaurant, in 1964, became a chain of 110 steakhouse restaurants across 19 states, each restaurant bearing the Stuart Anderson's Black Angus name and menus with the icon that became known affectionately as "the square cow," a squared cow's head inside a square frame.
The image has changed but the Black Angus part of the name, as well as the explanation of Anderson's philosophy in launching his steakhouse concept, are still touted on the menus at the 45 Black Angus restaurants, now owned by Los Altos, CA-based American Restaurant Group in six western states.
|Famous "Square cow" logo.|
I visited a couple of weeks ago with Stuart and Helen, his wife of more than 40 years, at their condo, looking west toward the San Jacinto Mountains. Anderson sported his signature mustache and cowboy hat, anxious to discuss his new book, which won't be out in time to mark the half-century milestone.
In fact, neither was certain what kind of a celebration of the special anniversary might be planned by the owners, but both enthused about the opening last month of the latest Black Angus in Brentwood, CA, where the chain brought him to be on hand and introduced.
"They still remember me," he laughed. "He was the star of the event," said Helen.
He wanted to talk about the book, Corporate Cowboy, the story of how he built the restaurant empire that became a national company with 10,000 employees and annual revenue of $260 million. It's actually a longer official title: "Corporate Cowboy Stuart Anderson: how a maverick entrepreneur built Black Angus, America's #1 restaurant chain of the 1980s."
Anderson speaks and moves slowly from the effects of a stroke he suffered five years ago but retains a firm gaze under the brim of his cowboy hat and a sharp mind. Helen refers to the recovery by the man she refers as "my cowboy" as "miraculous."
The book unfolds, as did his first one a couple of years ago, by his dictating to Helen or, if she's not there at the time, using a recorder from which she later transcribes.
He first tried his hand as an author when he produced "Here's the Beef! My Story of Beef, " a book he described as "fun and informative" that sold thousands of copies in the Black Angus restaurants. The book was meant to be an answer to the highly popular McDonald's commercial in which an elderly lady asks: "Where's the Beef?"
Anderson recalls that he was already in the business in Seattle, owning a hotel and a restaurant, but says he much preferred the restaurant part of the business.
So his strategy for his Black Angus concept was simple:
"A one-price steak, with six choices of cut, for $2," he recalls. "We got the meat from Australia, which had to be tamed a bit when it got here. We soon raised the price to $2.95 for a full dinner with a good steak."
The second Black Angus was opened in Anderson's hometown of Tacoma and it turned out to be a disaster, what Anderson now describes as a "dumb decision."
But the third, in Spokane, proved the validity of the concept and it remained for years the most successful restaurant in the chain.
Expsansion to other states followed, starting with California where San Diego was the launch city.
It was in 1987, after five consecutive years of his Stuart Anderson's Black Angus restaurants being named the top steakhouse chain in the nation in a poll by industry publication Restaurants & Institutions, that Anderson retired from the business.
By then the chain he had sold to Saga Food Services more than a decade before that had been in turn sold to Marriott Corp., which decided it didn't want the restaurant part of Saga's business and the unbundling made it not fun for Anderson any longer. He said he was working too much and traveling too many hours.
So he and Helen retired to his 2,400 ranch sprawled along Interstate 90 west of Ellensburg. He had bought the ranch in 1966 with the intent of raising the black angus cattle that would be served at his restaurants. But it turned out to be too great a challenge, for various reasons, so he continued to raise the cattle until he sold the ranch to Taiwanese interests, though to most travelers going past, it remains the Stuart Anderson ranch.
Anderson sought a comeback a couple of years ago, driven not by the desire to get back into the business in his late 80s but rather to try to save the jobs at a Black Angus he had opened in Rancho Mirage in 1980 when the California expansion was in full swing but had closed during the financial downturn
It was an effort that didn't last long, with Helen recalling that "after the Black Angus closed, Stuart thought he'd be helping the economy and jobs by re-opening the restaurant."
"After negotiating the lease, we opened in late February of 2010. Stuart decided he was definitely too old to be back in this business," she said. "He jokingly said he forgot more than he knew, so in 2012 we were approached by a group who wanted to buy our lease and we were happy to accommodate them."