Tony Roma, whose casual North Miami, Fla., rib joint became an international restaurant empire after it caught the attention of a Texas financier in the 1970s, has died at the age of 78.
Roma died Friday of lung cancer at the Chateau Battiste assisted-living center in Hemet, Riverside County Deputy Coroner Robert Powell confirmed.
The former restaurateur, who lived in Palm Springs, had moved to the center about 10 days ago and was surrounded by family and friends when he died, said Faye Otto, the facility's owner and a longtime Roma friend.
"He was quite a character and quite an interesting person, and a very well-thought-of person throughout the world," Otto said. "And he was a legend in his own time."
According to the company Web site, Roma opened his first barbecue restaurant in Florida in the early 1970s. The place originally specialized in steaks and burgers, but that changed when Roma and his chef, David Smith, decided to offer barbecued ribs, garnished with Roma's own sauce, as a weekend special.
The ribs proved so popular that they came to dominate the menu, and Roma's restaurants eventually opened across the United States and in Japan, England and Canada.
"He created the recipe that has grown world-famous," Frank Steed, president of Dallas-based Romacorp Inc., said Friday night. "As for the legacy he left behind, well, we've got over 260 restaurants in 27 different countries on six continents."
The company went international after the late Texas financier and Dallas Cowboys owner Clint Murchison Jr. visited Miami for the 1976 Super Bowl and stopped at Roma's restaurant.
He enjoyed the food so much that he purchased the majority U.S. franchise rights and established the jointly owned company known today as Romacorp.
The restaurants expanded rapidly through the 1980s, and eventually Roma sold the company to Murchison's family, Steed said. Over the years, the founder kept in touch with the company and even appeared in a recent television commercial to promote the restaurants.
"He was definitely a colorful guy," Steed said.
"Watching him work a room was the most magnificent thing. He was good at charming diners and creating excitement and fun."
Information about survivors was not immediately available, Steed said.