Stuart Anderson, with his 2,400-acre cattle ranch abutting the freeway in Central Washington and his signature mustache and cowboy hat, was the icon of cowboy country as he built what was regarded, in the 1980s, as the nation's most successful chain of affordable steakhouses. (It was actually dinner house chains but probably doesn't matter.)
Anderson, 93, passed away peacefully Monday at his Rancho Mirage home., surrounded by his family, including his beloved wife Helen, who was his partner for more than 40 years. He had been a diabetic for years but it was lung cancer that caused his death, though he had quit smoking in 1980.
Stuart Anderson founded his Black Angus/Cattle Company Restaurants chain in Seattle in the 1960s and from its corporate headquarters there he grew it into a chain of 122 restaurants spread across 19 states, with more than 10,000 employees and $230 million in annual revenue.
I felt compelled to come and talk to Stuart about his knowing he was in the final stages of life and that he was reconciled to that fact because he had led such a special life. It was filled with family, success, travel and, as Helen said, "lots of love." He had agreed to have me come down on Saturday to his home and work on his obituary together but that was not to be.
That became clear with the email Monday from Helen: "My wonderful, sweet, best friend Stuart has gone to that Mansion in the sky. He will be missed more than words can tell. He was larger than life and loved by so many. He was so pleased with the 93 wonderful years he had but said he was ready to go. Thanks for all the prayers and good wishes."
I first met Stuart four years ago when Betsy and I were vacationing in the desert. I had contracted with the Coachella Valley Economic Partnership to arrange a wine-and-cheese gathering of Northwest snowbirds to learn some business facts about their second home. The local Palm Springs Desert Sun publicized the event and as people visited, someone pointed out to me "there's Stuart Anderson," to which I responded: "I don't think so. I thought he was long gone."
So I went over to introduce myself to Stuart and Helen and learned that the guy with a weathered face and wearing a cowboy hat was much alive and provided an enjoyable get-to-know visit.
A couple of days later, I learned that he was actually going back into the restaurant business, reopening one of his first Black Angus restaurants, located in Rancho Mirage, (that had been forced to close and go out of business during the downturn) This is not really true. Someone came along to buy our lease which we gladly sold because of the downturn of the economy at that time. We were not forced to close.
So I produced a column about Helen and Stuart re-opening and running the restaurant, both of them visiting with customers and making the rounds each day for a number of months before it became clear that the challenge was too much for a man then nearly 90 who had been out of the business too long so gladly sold the lease.
I visited again four months ago with the Andersons at their Rancho Mirage condo, and found Stuart, who was speaking softly and slowly but retained the firm gaze he usually offered from beneath his cowboy hat. He wanted to talk about the book and the challenge of selling copies, compared to his first book. It is the story of how he built the restaurant empire that became a best-recognized national company. The book actually has a longer official title: "Corporate Cowboy. Stuart Anderson: How a maverick entrepreneur built Black Angus, America's #1 restaurant chain of the 1980s."
He first tried his hand as an author when in 1997 he produced "Here's the Beef! My Story of Beef," a book he described to me as "fun and informative," but most importantly to him, thousands of copies were sold in the Black Angus restaurants. The book was meant to be an answer to the highly popular Wendy's commercial of the time in which an elderly lady asks: "Where's the Beef?"
At that point it had been a decade since he had retired after five consecutive years of his restaurants being named the top steakhouse chain in the nation by USA Today in a poll by industry publication Restaurants & Institutions. He admitted candidly, in an interview we did a few years ago, that he decided to retire because the new owners took the fun out of his job.
At the time of his first book, he was still well-remembered, in Washington State in particular. He was often seen as a spokesperson for a series of television commercials he did in the Seattle area for a senior housing organization.
After retiring, he and Helen enjoyed their (You mentioned this in the 1st paragraph: 2,400 acre) ranch sprawled along Interstate 90 west of Ellensburg. He had bought the ranch in 1966 with the intent of raising the Black Angus cattle that would be served at his restaurants. But it turned out to be too great a challenge, for various reasons, so he continued to raise the cattle while buying his beef elsewhere, until he sold the ranch to Taiwanese interests, though to many travelers going past, it remains the Stuart Anderson ranch.
A private family gathering is being planned in Seattle but the celebration of life will be held in Rancho Mirage in November, which would have been his 94th birthday.