Remembering Bill Gilbert of KC’s Gilbert/Robinson restaurant business

Bill Gilbert, of Gilbert/Robinson restaurant group, died June 12 at age 94. His business brought innovation to the Kansas City restaurant industry.
Bill Gilbert, of Gilbert/Robinson restaurant group, died June 12 at age 94. His business brought innovation to the Kansas City restaurant industry.

Kansas City’s Gilbert/Robinson helped shake up the restaurant industry 45 years ago.

Houlihan’s in the Country Club Plaza touched on the now commonplace casual-dining category, and in a time when other restaurants had “cooks,” Houlihan’s had professionally trained chefs and employees who went through extensive training programs.

Joe Gilbert, his son Joseph William “Bill” Gilbert Jr., and Paul Robinson created some of Kansas City’s favorite restaurants, including Plaza III the Steakhouse and Fred P. Ott’s. The company also launched the careers of many nationally known industry executives as well as local restaurateurs.

Bill Gilbert, the last living member of the trio, died June 12 at 94 years old. About 100 people attended a memorial service and celebration of life Thursday at Second Presbyterian Church.

Gilbert joined the restaurant business in 1945 at the Kansas City Municipal Airport alongside his father. They so enjoyed working together that in the early 1960s, they formed their own company — Gilbert/Robinson, with Paul Robinson, then manager of the Golden Ox Restaurant. Joe Gilbert became the face of the company, Bill Gilbert the financial expert and Robinson the innovator, former employees said.

The men quickly tapped into an underserved market between fast food and haute cuisine, opening a variety of concepts in the midprice range when multirestaurant concepts were the exception. They had more than 170 restaurants across the country and sales of more than $300 million.

“Houlihan’s was an empire for casual-scene restaurants,” said Dan Durick, who was vice president of food and beverage for Gilbert/Robinson. “They didn’t initially estimate the strength it would have, but it was so unique in its time and was a magnet for customers. Everything was priced so that the common person would have an interesting experience in food and liquor.”

Carl Brandt, general manager of the former Plaza Houlihan’s and director of operations at The Venue event space in Leawood, said he spent six months in Houlihan’s kitchen before working at the front of the house.

“It’s not like that today,” Brandt said. “I’ve seen a lot of restaurants come and go, and it’s not so much what you serve them, it’s how you serve them.”

Gilbert saw his restaurants as an extension of his home.

“If you had a question or needed something, you could always go into Bill’s office and he treated you like a friend or a family member,” Durick said. “We all miss the camaraderie. The company had a synergy because of the Gilberts and their personalities.”

Many of Gilbert/Robinson’s loyal employees are still in the restaurant business today. For Forbes Cross, former general manager of Bristol Seafood Grill on the Plaza, it was all about the details. Now, as owner of Michael Forbes in Brookside, he still makes sure all the light bulbs are working, that every plate is correct coming out of the kitchen and that each “guest” is greeted as they come in.

W.R. Grace acquired Gilbert/Robinson in 1978. But more than 300 former employees gathered in 2007 in Kansas City for a reunion to reminisce about the company’s glory days.

“You don’t see a whole lot of Gilbert/Robinson people getting out of the business,” Cross said. “We didn’t get the burnout effect that you can get from other restaurants.”

Friends said there was no better person to try — and to critique — a new restaurant. But Gilbert also liked his Monday lunches with “The Prestigious Golf Group,” formed 52 years ago to place bets on professional golf games, but later expanded to the NFL, college games and the Kentucky Derby. When his eyesight began to fail, Gilbert had to stop driving his signature red BMW. But instead of complaining, he turned to Uber and hoped driverless cars would soon be an option.

“Like so many other people, I thought the world of him. He had this personal charm that was pretty magical,” said Loy Edge, a former restaurateur who often had lunch with Gilbert.

“He was the most youthful man for his age that I have ever known. That includes his passion for his family and his friends and life in general, and he was still excited about ideas and thinking big thoughts. And he told me many times, just make sure you are having fun.”