Norman Brinker, 78, chairman emeritus of Brinker International Inc. who changed America's definition of casual dining out, died yesterday.

Mr. Brinker was with his wife, Toni, in Colorado Springs celebrating his birthday June 3 when he aspirated food. He succumbed to aspirated pneumonia.

Virtually every major food chain in the country has been led by a former employee of Mr. Brinker's, said Doug Brooks, chief executive of Brinker International. Outback Steakhouse and Houston's were founded by Brinker proteges.

Mr. Brinker, who started out as a busboy in Southern California, moved to Dallas in the early 1960s with his first wife, tennis great Maureen Connolly Brinker, who died in 1969.

His first restaurant was a Dallas coffee shop called Brink's. In 1966, he launched Steak & Ale, which grew into 109 restaurants and was sold to Pillsbury Co. 10 years later. While at Pillsbury's restaurant division, Mr. Brinker created the Bennigan's chain and became known as the originator of the "fern bar" restaurant concept intended to attract single people.

- Dallas Morning News