A private graveside service is scheduled on March 7 for casual-dining industry veteran Gene Knippers, who died last month in St. Petersburg, Fla., at age 83, following complications from knee replacement surgery.
Knippers was a longtime business partner and personal friend of Norman Brinker, the founder of casual-dining giant Brinker International, and was a developer and franchisee of that company’s Steak and Ale, Bennigan’s and Chili’s concepts. He was also the former owner of Beef ‘O’ Brady’s and an investor in PDQ Restaurants.
Knippers, left, first met Brinker in 1968, and the following year he moved to Atlanta to develop the Steak and Ale chain in the Southeast, for what was then known as the Steak and Ale Restaurant Corp. When Brinker launched Bennigan’s in 1976, Knippers opened that chain’s first unit and led the expansion of the concept in the Southeast and mid-Atlantic states while he continued to develop Steak and Ale.
He left Steak and Ale in 1983, and partnered with former colleagues Bob Basham and Chris Sullivan, who later founded Outback Steakhouse, to form Sunstate Restaurant Corp., which became the first Chili’s franchisee. Chili’s corporate parent, which later became Brinker International, eventually acquired Sunstate, but Knippers continued to work with Brinker on restaurant site selection, and formed Sunstate Franchise Co. with Chuck Winship to develop Chili’s in Alabama and South Carolina.
Knippers and Winship also later partnered to acquire Beef ‘O’ Brady’s and form Family Sports Concepts, the parent company and franchisor for Beef ‘O’ Brady’s. During Knippers’ time as owner and chairman, Beef ‘O’ Brady’s locations increased almost tenfold.
After Knippers and Winship sold Beef ‘O’ Brady’s, Knippers invested in PDQ Restaurants, the fast-casual chain Basham launched in 2011.
Knippers received the Florida Restaurant & Lodging Association’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 2007.
“He was always on the go, and he was ready to keep going,” said Kersten Rettig, Knippers’ daughter-in-law, who noted that Knippers had survived three bouts of cancer and quadruple heart bypass surgery, but remained energetic up until the time of his death.
Knippers is survived by his son Clark and daughter Krista Allred, and grandchildren Ben, Will and Annie Allred; Max and Sam Knippers, and Connor and McKenna Cook. He is predeceased by his wife, Pat, who died in 2018.
A celebration of Gene’s life will be held at a later date.