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PostPosted: Wed Dec 17, 2014 6:09 pm 

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Larry Cano, father of El Torito, dies at 90

Published: Dec. 15, 2014 Updated: Dec. 17, 2014 8:38 a.m.

Larry J. Cano, who pioneered the Mexican dinner house concept and popularized the margarita as the founder of Orange County’s El Torito, has died. He was 90.

Cano, known as “Mr. C” to many who worked for him at El Torito, had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in recent weeks. He died at his Corona del Mar home last week, with his wife, Suzann, and three daughters by his side.

“Larry was a pioneer and visionary in America’s Mexican food industry and his countless contributions have left a lasting mark on the entire industry,” Real Mex Restaurants, the Cypress parent company of El Torito, said in a statement released Monday. “We are forever grateful for Larry’s unparalleled dedication to El Torito and will continue to honor his legacy of innovation as well as customer, employee and company devotion.”

Cano, a fighter pilot in World War II, founded the first El Torito in 1954 in Encino. He grew the restaurant into a national brand that popularized Mexican restaurant staples such as fajitas, table-side guacamole, blended margaritas and Taco Tuesday.

“He was iconic,” said Don Myers, owner of Cha Cha’s Latin Kitchen in Brea, who worked with Cano in the early days of El Torito Grill. “He was always trying to do something different, always trying to improve the brand. He was Colonel Sanders as far as I’m concerned.”

A dynamic leader and innovator, Cano gave many of today’s top Orange County restaurant entrepreneurs their first break, including Myers, Ivan Calderon of Taco Mesa and David Wilhelm of Jimmy’s Famous American Tavern in San Diego and Dana Point.

“Every time he talked, he was teaching, and if you were listening, you were learning,” Myers said.

Suzann Cano described her husband as a very “humble man” whose first concern was the thousands of workers he employed over the years.

“They weren’t employees. They were his friends,” she said.

Calderon, who left El Torito in the early 1990s, said Cano was like a second father. He got his start as a 15-year-old dishwasher at the El Torito in Marina del Rey in the early 1970s when the company was embarking on a major expansion.

After Calderon graduated to busboy at age 16, Cano had a heart-to-heart talk with the teen. The 45-minute pep talk instilled confidence in Calderon, who eventually became a regional manager for the chain during its heyday in the 1970s and 1980s.

“He was a man who took personal interest in everyone that he came in touch with. He had a way of getting the best out of anyone,” Calderon said.

In a Register interview this year, Cano said hiring the right employees was crucial to his success.

“I’m big on self-motivation and drive to get the job done,” he said.

In 1992, with Cano’s blessing, Calderon started his own innovative concept: Taco Mesa. Several years later he founded Taco Rosa in Irvine.

Calderon said Cano was always supportive of his entrepreneurial efforts. Just a few months ago, the two friends had talked about a new concept Calderon was developing.

“He would light up when you talked to him about a new food item,” said Calderon.

Former Starbucks financial executive Michael M. Casey worked with Cano in the late 1970s as ownership of El Torito moved to W.R. Grace. He said Cano had a lasting effect on the casual dining industry.

“He was one of the leaders who led the growth of casual restaurants that changed the way and the frequency with which Americans eat out,” he told the Register earlier this year. “I learned from Larry that an experiential brand like El Torito or Starbucks needs to be built from the inside out, not through consumer research or mass marketing.”

But even at the peak of El Torito’s success, Cano was always thinking about the next big idea.

That’s when he met Wilhelm, who was dabbling with an upscale Southwest menu at a Corona del Mar restaurant. The always-curious Cano dined at Wilhelm’s restaurant and took a liking to the chef’s technique and flavors.

He hired him to retool the menus at a few premium dining concepts he’d created or acquired over the years, including Chanteclair in Irvine and Las Brisas in Laguna Beach.

“He was very willing to let people try ideas whether they were successful or failures,” said Wilhelm, who would later develop the French 75 bistro chain.

Wilhelm, along with longtime El Torito chef Pepe Lopez, developed the original menu for El Torito Grill. The Newport Beach restaurant would cater to the “next generation” of food lovers – those who would embrace a gourmet flair to Mexican food.

The first El Torito Grill opened in 1986 in the site of the former Velvet Turtle at Fashion Island in Newport Beach.

“He was constantly thinking of new concepts. His mind was always racing,” Suzann Cano said.

Restaurant industry consultant Randy Hiatt said Cano was the rare innovator who stuck with his restaurant brand for years.

“Many other entrepreneurs with good ideas are gone soon after their idea takes hold, but Larry had the people skills and continued passion to stay with the company as it grew,” said Hiatt, president of Fessel International in Costa Mesa.

Eventually, Cano left the company in the late 1980s after it was acquired in a leveraged buyout by Restaurant Enterprises.

Over the years, he remained in touch with his protégés – including Calderon and Myers – who showed up to a 90th birthday bash held for Cano this year.

“He was motivator and wonderful restaurateur until the day he died,” Calderon said.

Cano is survived by his wife, Suzann and three daughters, Lisa Michelle, Allyn, Suzanne and eight grandchildren. No memorial or funeral services are planned, the family said.

Contact the writer: nluna@ocregister.com

http://www.ocregister.com/articles/cano ... deron.html

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