Allen J. Bernstein, former Morton’s CEO, dies at 65

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Editor's Note: A previous version of this story has been updated to include quotes from industry executives about Allen Bernstein.

Allen J. Bernstein, former chairman and chief executive of Morton’s Restaurant Group, died Tuesday. He was 65.

Most recently, Bernstein was chairman emeritus of 77-unit Morton’s, which he helped grow from nine restaurants in 1989 to 69 locations at the time of its initial public offering in 2006.

He was a recipient of Nation’s Restaurant News’ Golden Chain award in 2001.

“Allen instilled in Morton’s the values that will live on forever: the focus on high quality and perfect execution,” said Chris Artinian, chief executive of Chicago-based Morton’s, who worked with Bernstein from his first day at the 45th Street location in Manhattan, which was Bernstein’s “home base.” “I’ve lost a daily advisor and the kind of guidance you only get from a father or a mentor.”

Bernstein also served as a director on the board of The Cheesecake Factory Inc. and Bravo Brio Restaurant Group.

“Allen Bernstein was a brilliant advisor to our company and to me, personally,” said David Overton, chairman and chief executive of The Cheesecake Factory. “He was extremely generous of spirit and an amazing restaurateur. Our hearts go out to [his wife] Lori and the rest of Allen’s family. He will be sorely missed by all of us at The Cheesecake Factory.”

According to New York-based private-equity firm Castle Harlan Inc., which backed many of his ventures in a long career in the restaurant industry, Bernstein graduated from the University of Miami in 1968 with a degree in marketing, after writing a senior thesis on restaurant branding. He became a franchisee of such chains as Wendy’s, Hardee’s, Long John Silver’s, Godfather’s Pizza and Le Peep.

“He was iconic in this industry, even being recognized several times at [the Multi-Unit Foodservice Operators conference],” Artinian said. “He was a restaurant guy. It didn’t matter what level of dining. Allen knew and understood concepts and culture.”

While working with Castle Harlan, Bernstein founded Quantum Restaurant Group in 1988, first purchasing Atlanta-based Peasant Restaurant Inc., before acquiring Morton’s of Chicago in May 1989.

In 1996, Quantum became Morton’s Restaurant Group, and by the time Bernstein retired from day-to-day operations in 2005, the brand had entered Toronto and the Asian markets of Hong Kong and Singapore, which are among the chain’s most profitable restaurant locations, Artinian said in the most recent earnings call for Morton’s.

Of the “hundreds” of moments that stand out for Artinian during his career working alongside Bernstein, the current CEO shared a memory reflective of Bernstein’s attention to detail.

“It wouldn’t be unusual for Allen to find out about something that had happened in the restaurants at 1 a.m. and to call me right then to let me know what went wrong,” Artinian said. “It was never to admonish anybody, but to educate, and to convey that the urgency to fix something means [doing it] now. In our business, tomorrow’s too late. It gave me even greater pride in Morton’s to know that we should care that much.”

Bernstein is survived by his wife, Lori Waltzer Bernstein, and two children.

Contact Mark Brandau at mark.brandau@penton.com.
Follow him on Twitter: @Mark_from_NRN