Don Callender, founder of Marie Callender's chain, dies

NEWPORT BEACH Calif. Industry veteran Donald W. Callender, founder of the Marie Callender’s Restaurant & Bakery chain, died Wednesday. He was 81.

Callender was known through the restaurant world for his creative mind, attention to detail and his strong work ethic. Even with all of the success at Marie Callender’s, he most recently was designing a trio of high-volume barbecue restaurants in Southern California.

Born in Ventura, Calif., Callender parlayed the pie bakery his parents opened in 1948 in nearby Long Beach — which was named for his mother, Marie — into the Marie Callender’s chain, a hybrid concept that combined elements of a bakery-cafe with a family-dining restaurant. Callender grew the brand into a 115-unit chain with a presence in 14 states before he sold the company in 1986 to Ramada Corp. for $90 million. It was later bought by private-equity firm Castle Harlan Partners LLC.

In 2006, Marie Callender’s merged with the Memphis, Tenn.-based Perkins Restaurant & Bakery chain, and the consolidated company is now called Perkins & Marie Callender’s Inc.

After the initial sale of his concept, Callender converted the former Marie Callender’s test kitchen in Newport Beach, Calif., into a golf-themed venue called Geezer’s Garlic Grill, which he once described as “a place for me to go and play with food.” The venue later closed.

An avid pilot, Callender then opened an aviation-themed restaurant called Bottom Gun Cafe in Moreno Valley, Calif., which he later converted to the current PH Woods BBQ and Brewery.

That barbecue concept sowed the seeds for Callender’s development of Babe’s Bar-B-Que Grill and Brewhouse in Rancho Mirage, Calif., which was the first of what was to be three large barbecue restaurants in the area.

Asecond Babe’s opened in Redlands, Calif., in 2005, but closed last year after Callender fell ill. A third location, which he called Jackalope Ranch, was planned for Indio, Calif., but that operation was also put on hold.

 

Callender’s company recently leased the location to the Kaiser Restaurant Group Inc., which opened the 2,100-square-foot Jackalope Ranch this week.

In a statement, Callender’s family said, “Don was a kind and caring man who enjoyed his dear family and was loved by them very much.”

He is survived by his wife of 31 years, Katy Callender; his sons Lucky and Glen; his daughter, Cathe Sprunk; and his grandchildren.