SEATTLE Pioneering restaurateur Gretchen Mathers passed away Aug. 7 from cancer, said longtime employer Schwartz Bros. Restaurants. Her age was not disclosed, but local press reports said Mathers was 66.
A former director of the National Restaurant Association, Mathers rose to prominence during the 1980s on the success of her Gretchen's of Course restaurants and a catering operation here. The five restaurants were renowned for their salads, including Mathers' signature, a chicken tarragon variation.
Her business was later absorbed into Schwartz Bros., the multiconcept operator and caterer based in Bellevue, Wash. Mathers launched a catering service called Gretchen's Shoebox Express and oversaw Schwartz's bakery operations.
Mathers began her foodservice career after graduating in 1962 from Washington State University with a degree in foods and nutrition. She worked for Stouffer’s Restaurants, at the time one of the country's larger collection of chains, and rose to a management position at New York City's famed Top of the Sixes restaurant. After a detour into the retail-products business, helping in the launch of General Foods' Cool Whip and Stove Top Stuffing products, Mathers joined the lodging operation that would become Westin Hotels, eventually rising to director of food and beverage.
With a loan from the U.S. Small Business Administration, she launched her own catering business in 1979, providing salmon dinners to Gray Line Tours passengers on the excursion company's Lake Washington cruises. Her success led to the opening later that year of the first Gretchen's of Course, a cafeteria-style restaurant, in Seattle's Pike Place Market. She was diagnosed with breast cancer a month before the concept's debut, but the disease was brought into remission.
As she opened more restaurants and nurtured her catering business, Mathers became active in industry affairs. She was the first woman to serve as president of the Restaurant Association of Washington and was elected a director of the NRA.
According to Schwartz Bros., Mathers' breast cancer returned last fall.
"She lived her life with elegance, courage and vivacity," the company said in a statement announcing Mathers’ death. "When you pass the red van that says, 'Gretchen's Shoebox,' smile and say, 'Safe travels, Gretchen.'"
A tribute to Mathers' life is scheduled to be held in Seattle on Aug. 26, at which chocolate-chip cookies made from her recipe will be served.